Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mailbag question: In regards to Michigan Hockey

Posted at 8:00am -- 4/14/2010

Mailbag question: In regards to Michigan Hockey

Hello GBMW,

After watching Boston College win another national title in our own state, where I bought tickets last year thinking Michigan would be there.

I know so close, but not close enough.

Seems like this team really turned it up the last three weeks of the season, but the same mistakes that kept happening early in the year crept up in the NCAA tournament.

What I am wondering is if/when Coach Berenson retires (I am not saying he needs too), if the Michigan Hockey program should be handled like the Michigan football program was handled when Coach Carr retired.

We saw a football program that was always good (at least by the records) a lot like the Hockey program. They would always compete for the Big Ten Title in most years a lot like the Hockey program. The football program would always make a bowl game a lot like the hockey program making the NCAA tournament, but hasn't really challenged to be the best in quite a few years and have had many disappointing seasons end while other teams seem to make the next step, or programs that seem like less talented teams pull it off.

We have seen in our own hockey league a program like Miami the last five or more years really step up their game and have been a force in the NCAA. Wondering if Michigan would make a run at the coach at Miami or would they stay in house and just promote within.

Seems like this program has become stale and needs something to pick it up a notch.

Don't get me wrong I love the fact that we have been to the NCAA 20 straight years, but it seems like we have more talent than a lot of teams, but aren't getting the job done when needed.

Thanks for letting me rant!

Tony S.


Hi Tony:

Thanks for dropping by. Let me address each question you posed individually.

Michigan did have a great three-week run during the playoffs. They finally committed to the type of consistent effort needed to win at a high level and showed that even the best talent needs cohesion to win. As coach Berenson stated, this team had the ability to compete with any team in the country and proved it during the playoffs. It was unfortunate to lose in the matter in which they did, especially after enduring a blown call that should have had Michigan advancing, but that is the bad medicine that has to be swallowed sometimes.

I actually thought that they were outstanding during their run- with a few of the issues they had during the regular season creeping back. The goaltending was terrific. The defense not only tightened their play, but made fewer mistakes in their own zone. The defense also contributed to the offense, especially in the last few games. The offense saw contributions from all four lines, but especially by the top guys. They stayed out of the penalty box except for the Bemidji game, where I thought the officiating was excessive, inconsistent and extreme. Their special teams were solid.

Overall, they lost to Miami (outside of the blown call) mostly on account of their failure to capitalize on their offensive chances and because Miami's goaltending and depth was a little better than our goaltending and depth. I definitely feel that Michigan would have represented the CCHA at the Frozen Four much better after witnessing Miami's meltdown. But in the end, Boston College proved to be the team that played the best hockey in the playoffs, and did it by beating some really good teams (Alaska, Yale, Miami and Wisconsin) along the way. I wish we had our crack at them, but it wasn't to be. They deserved to win the championship this season with a team similar in speed, talent and style to Michigan's program.

Now your next question regarding coaching is a little bit more complex. First of all, Red Berenson is one of the most respected coaches in the game. When he feels it is time to step down he will call the shot. He will also have a strong voice in who assumes the program and he should. You don't go to 20 straight CCHA appearances at JLA, or compete in 20 straight NCAA appearances (with 2 national championships) without doing something right. I doubt that radical changes will be made similar to the football program (I really don't want to get into that). Michigan still will continue to compete for CCHA Championships and NCAA Championships even after Berenson retires. My best guess is that he will do what Bo Schembechler did and hand the program to one of his assistants, either Billy Powers or Mel Pearson. Michigan still will attract top recruits and will play the same up-tempo style that is attractive to the speed and skill these athletes have. Michigan is still very much a top recruiting program that moves its athletes on to the professional ranks. It would be a very risky proposition for Michigan hockey to move away from that model.

Just the same, I know that there are many Michigan fans that believe that Berenson's program hasn't been able to get over the top, even with top talent, in the last decade. Call it stale, call it a criticism on coaching, call it what you want- but I steadfastly disagree with that sentiment. There are 58 division I schools that compete each season for the top prize- a little over half as many as in division I football (119 at last count, I think.) Of the 58 schools, there are 10-12 programs that legitimately have the talent and coaching to consistently do what Red Berenson has done with the hockey program in the past decade (Maine, BC, BU, UNH, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Denver, MSU, Miami, Notre Dame, Cornell). That means 12 schools out of 58 dominate college hockey as of late, Michigan included, with the championships going to a total of 7 of those schools during that time period. Those top schools not only compete for top talent amongst each other, but with the occasional athlete that goes to one of the other 46 schools- or worst yet- may opt out and go to the Canadian Major Juniors. My point is, the competition for top collegiate hockey athletes is much more extreme than the competition for Division I football talent. Yet, Berenson consistently fields teams with NHL draftees, wins CCHA titles and has multiple Frozen Four appearances. That is equivalent to being in the BCS year after year. That isn't stale and it is certainly not easy to win a championship. The degree of difficulty and separation between good and great teams is razor thin, especially with the rash of early departures and other factors that impact hockey far greater than football. That is not an excuse for Michigan alone, though, as other great programs have lost talent in the same manner.

When it comes down to it, hockey is much harder to predict than football- that typically has a couple of clear-cut superior programs in any one season. Hockey can produce several great teams and other good teams in a championship tournament where anything can and will happen, unlike the bowl system college football has, which pretty much uses the regular season and maybe a conference champion to install (with much controversy and angst) the two teams that play in the national championship game. To tab Michigan's hockey program as stale in the same measurement as the Bo/Mo/Carr football program is unfair given the parity and nature of the sport. There has not been a "less talented" team win the NCAA hockey championship in the past decade, BTW. BU, Wisconsin, Denver, UND and Minnesota were all favored to win their championships. BC has now been to something like 9 of the past 12 Frozen Fours, winning three championships. MSU was the only team in the past decade that came out with a surprise NC banner, and they did it the same way our 1998 team did it- by playing the best even though their talent may not have measured up "better" against the rest of the field. It doesn't mean they were less talented, it meant that they got breaks, stayed injury free, performed well- especially in goal-all factors that came together to win four games in a row in the national tournament. They earned their place in the tourney with the body of their regular season work- and, although it wasn't as good as some other teams- it didn't mean MSU couldn't compete with them.

Now, as far as Miami's hockey program is concerned-certainly it has had a revival under Enrico Blasi, but they have failed to win a national championship in the five or six seasons he has guided them. But, they are getting closer mostly on account of drawing talent, keeping it all four seasons, and providing a better system that matches the talent. It is eerily similar to the years prior to 1996 when Berenson finally won his first NC. It's good for the CCHA that they have become better, and provides Michigan with a tougher road to compete against. It doesn't necessarily make Blasi a good fit for Michigan, though, and, unlike other sports, coaches do not move around to other teams as readily. He is a Miami Redhawk alum, and is going to be coaching them for a long time.

So, I hope I answered your questions. It's not easy being a fan sometimes, especially when you have teams that you think should accomplish more than they do. I can't say that there is a good answer for everything- such as why Michigan hasn't gotten over the top more often- but I will say that Michigan hockey fans can be confident that their hockey teams under Red Berenson will always have a chance- which is more than most hockey programs can say. Enjoy the journey as much as the anticipated destination and you won't be as disappointed.

Thanks for the question and stay tuned for my end of season column coming soon. You can also hear my thoughts on the end of the season on the Michigan Man Podcast episode 15 hosted by Mike Fitzpatrick.

Catch it here: The Michigan Man Podcast

Written by Yostmeister -- GBMW Staff

Go Blue -- Wear Maize!

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