Two decades of excellence

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- For 22 years now, coach Red Berenson and the Michigan hockey team have been a staple in the NCAA tournament. Players have faced off against the block 'M' for more than two decades, but Berenson and his Wolverines have remained constant.

They will be there. They will hit you. They will be a team that opponents remember.

Michigan has been a perennial powerhouse for so long that this year's team has just four players who were alive the last time the Wolverines didn't make the tournament. Strangely enough, it was that season and its disappointment that has fueled the longest NCAA tournament streak ever in college hockey.

Berenson doesn't even remember how the Wolverines found out they didn't make the 1990 NCAA Tournament. He just knows they didn't.

In 1990, they had beaten Bowling Green in the consolation game of the CCHA tournament, believing that the winner of that game would make the NCAA tournament. BGSU coach Jerry York congratulated Berenson and told him his team would be dangerous in the tournament, and players did the same.

"When we went through and shook hands with the Bowling Green players, I remember them wishing us good luck in the NCAA tournament," said David Harlock, who was a freshman during the 1989-90 season. "They were talking about how they were finally going to get to go on spring break. And then come to find out the following day that we weren't going."

It was devastating for the team.

So when Harlock's sophomore season rolled around, he and his fellow teammates decided they would leave nothing to chance. They would make it clear to the NCAA selection committee that the Wolverines deserved a spot.

The players constantly thought about the NCAA tournament, but Berenson made sure to keep them focused on the present.

He understood how quickly a program could shift. Michigan had changed for the better under Berenson. In his seven years at the helm of the program he had turned the Wolverines from a 13-26-1 struggling team to a 34-10-3 contender. But he also knew how quickly the program could change if the players didn't focus.

So Berenson didn't even bring up the NCAAs until after December. He told the players, "If we do well in the CCHA, the rest will take care of itself."

But players noticed that once the postseason hit, they saw a different Berenson, one that was even more focused and intense.

Michigan finished well in that season, taking second in both the CCHA regular season and tournament. So when the call came telling Berenson his Wolverines had earned a spot in the NCAA tournament, he just smiled and calmly told the team.

Berenson knew it was special. Harlock felt excited. And freshman Brian Wiseman, now an assistant coach for Michigan, felt that Berenson looked a veteran on the scene, even though it was his first NCAA run with Michigan.

"We didn't realize where we were navigating to, because it was uncharted for Michigan hockey," Wiseman said. "But we knew the NCAAs were a possibility, CCHA titles were a possibility. But Red didn't have us focus on that part of it. It was about the process for him."

Michigan earned the home-ice advantage to open the 1991 NCAA tournament. Like this season, the Wolverines got Cornell in the opening round, though it was a best-of-3 series then.

Hockey had been overshadowed by football and basketball in Ann Arbor for years, and the 1990-91 squad knew it had an opportunity to change that. They had opened their season that year to about 2,000 mildly excited fans, and when Michigan made the tournament, the student paper ran a story, detailing how the parents were the few supporting the team, not the fans.

The Big Red took the first game in overtime. Michigan took the second in regulation. After that game, Berenson thought the team needed a change. He pulled season-long goaltender Steve Shields and put in reserve Chris Gordon. It's something he still does today, as he was still moving lines and shifting player combinations on Wednesday.

Michigan beat Cornell but would lose to Boston University in the quarterfinals in two games, being outscored 12-2. But everyone knew then that things felt different for some reason. And now, 21 NCAA Tournaments later, Berenson understands why. It was the catalyst the program needed to get where he knew it could go.

For the Wolverines, postseason play has becoming the determining factor for Michigan hockey. Berenson stresses to his players that the great individuals who come through the program always will be remembered, but the only teams that are remembered are those that do well in the postseason.

He doesn't believe in superstitions or gimmicks for his postseason run, not buying into anything other than focus and intensity. It has worked for him for the past 22 years, and he doesn't intend on changing that.

"The focus increases, and it's already intense during the regular season," senior captain Luke Glendening said. "But he just has another notch that most people don't have. He doesn't take losing well. He loves winning, but I think he hates losing more."

He does hate losing and if he acts like he has been here before, it's because he has.

But Berenson will be the first to say that he thinks Michigan's No. 2 overall seed might be higher than it deserved. Just as quickly, he'll say that none of it matters in the postseason. He has seen teams win when they shouldn't have and lose when they shouldn't have.

Over the years, he has learned there is no should in the postseason. The teams kick it to the next level, or they're out.

Berenson equates it to the analogy of a track coach telling his athlete to run as fast as he can. The coach can yell and scream and the runner might think they've hit their top speed, but if a pit bull comes out of a yard, that runner will find their next level.

That's where Berenson is -- he is the coach, and the postseason is the pit bull.

It's what has worked for him. It's what has moved Michigan into the upper echelon of elite hockey programs in the country. It's what has the Wolverines focused on a national title at this point in the season. It's what helped the 1990-91 team start the streak.

"We had no idea at the time what we had started [in 1991]. No idea," Berenson said. "But my vision when I took the job was for Michigan to be a college hockey dynasty. I just thought -- and it felt kind of bravado to say it at the time -- but ideally my goal was for Michigan to be like the old Montreal Canadiens."

Berenson is just two years from matching the 24-season playoff streak of the Canadiens. And with the Wolverines opening the 2012 NCAA Tournament at 9 p.m. ET Friday against Cornell, he's one step closer.