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Michigan Athletics | June 10, 2016

Mr. Hockey and Red: Two Saskatchewan boys who made good

  Michigan coach Red Berenson was a teammate of Howe on the Detroit Red Wings in 1970-71.

Gordie Howe, the legendary "Mr. Hockey," died Friday at age 88. looks back at Steve Kornacki's story from 2014 about the connection between Howe and Michigan's head coach.

ANN ARBOR, Mich -- Gordie Howe visited head coach Red Berenson and his University of Michigan ice hockey team six years ago, and a photo was taken of the two Saskatchewan boys who made good while they conversed in the locker room at Yost Ice Arena.

Howe signed it: "OK, Red. My very Best to the Best -- Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey."

The photo is framed and rests on a shelf in Berenson's office. Leaning in and looking at it one night after a recent practice, Berenson's eyes lit up and he chuckled.

What could be better than that, having the gold standard in your sport salute you in such a manner?

It's one of three photos of Howe and Berenson, teammates on Howe's last Detroit Red Wings team in 1970-71, in the coach's office, which doubles as something of a hockey museum with all of the photos, plaques and artifacts. They also were NHL opponents in the decade prior to their year together in Detroit, and Berenson can recall the wrath of Howe's elbows in the corners as well as his warmth as a friend.

Howe is recovering from a severe stroke suffered Oct. 26 and has not been in good health for several years. And so the thoughts and prayers of those whom he has touched are with him on a more regular basis now. Friends and fans alike cherish his grace and personal touch as well as the immense skills he displayed on ice.

"People talk about his toughness," said Berenson, "and how Gordie was feared and revered in the league. He was a special player. And I think every young player in the league got a taste of Gordie Howe's elbows if they tried to check him too close."

Howe's elbows could've been registered as legal weapons.

Berenson said, "One night we were in Montreal, during Gordie's last year with Detroit, and we got into a skirmish. Montreal had some tough guys, and one of them, a guy who I won't mention by name, was kind of squared off with me and we were holding onto each other.

"Everyone was picking out partners (to fight), but nobody wanted to pick Gordie Howe. And so there was some bad language and some bad blood out on the ice. And this guy is hanging onto me, we'd already dropped our gloves, and I thought we were breaking up. And all of a sudden Howe sort of skates by and he elbows the guy in the face. And his head looked like it just about came off. And so this guy comes back and grabs onto me even harder -- like he doesn't want anything to do with Gordie Howe. And Gordie was about 40 at that time. That's the kind of reverence he got from so-called tough guys in the league, and Gordie was an old man at that time."

Berenson recalled what allowed Howe to score a then-record 801 goals while playing an outstanding all-around game.

"He was smooth," Berenson said. "People used to say he was lazy and slow, but he wasn't lazy or slow. He as smooth; he just had that gift of coordination. He skated effortlessly. He could handle the puck as well as anyone, and he could shoot left-handed as well as right-handed. The game was easy for him. The rest of us are really working just to make it happen.

"He was so athletic, and then he had the mindset to go with it. He had the patience and the competitiveness, that mean spirit -- he had a real meanness about him that kept players from bothering him. And he just had it all. He had the size. He didn't look big on the ice with those sloped shoulders, but if you stood beside him, this guy was a man. And I doubt if he ever lifted a weight in his life; he was just a natural specimen. And he had all the intangibles."

Howe is 12 years older than Berenson, 74, and was a premier player while Berenson was growing up in Regina, which is 137 miles from Howe's hometown, Floral.

'"When I got recruited to Michigan, I was 17 or 18, and one of the big draws for Michigan was that we were only an hour away from where Gordie Howe played," said Berenson, who arrived at Michigan for the 1958-59 season.

Howe had already won four Stanley Cups and four Hart Trophies as the NHL's MVP at that point.

"Gordie Howe was a huge name," Berenson said, "and people still ask me if I was named after him because my real name is Gordon. I wasn't, but there were a lot of Gordons who were.

"When I got here and the Ice Capades were in town and the Wings couldn't practice at Olympia, they would practice here, and we would have a game against them. So, our coach (the late Al Renfrew) asked (Detroit general manager) Jack Adams if one individual, a good prospect, could practice with the Red Wings. So, they let me practice.

"They had me center the fourth line, and Red Kelly was on my wing. I looked up to all those guys like they were gods -- Howe, (Ted) Lindsay and Kelly. We went down on a line rush, and I made sure I gave Kelly a good pass. And Marcel Pronovost hit me with one of those great, old-time hip checks. And I could see the roof and I spun over. And all these guys laughed at this college kid. But I kept my head up after that."

Berenson paused before smiling.

"So," he said, "that was my first introduction to Gordie Howe, the first time I met him. And in my second game in the NHL (for Montreal), I scored my first goal in Detroit. That was 1962, and Gordie was on the ice that night."

Berenson wore No. 9 for the Wolverines. Did he choose it because of Howe?

"No," he said, "but they gave me No. 9 for Gordie. When I came to Michigan, I'd always worn No. 7. And Al Renfrew, who was a friend of Howe's, asked if I had a favorite number. I said, 'No. 7.' And he said, 'Oh, no, around here you wear No. 9, that's Gordie Howe. You better wear No. 9.' So, I wore No. 9."

And not long after becoming the coach at his alma mater in 1984, Howe factored into Berenson landing a big recruit.

"The first year I was coaching here I was recruiting a kid named Myles O'Connor, who played in the NHL a bit," said Berenson. "O'Connor had visited Harvard and had a couple hours' layover in Toronto at the airport. He went to Notre Dame High School in Saskatchewan, and I was from Saskatchewan, so was Gordie Howe.

"And who do the two of us run into there, mid-airport, but Gordie Howe. Gordie said he had a pass to an airlines lounge and invited us to go there with him. Myles, Gordie and I sat in there and talked for an hour and a half. And Myles, long story short, came to Michigan. Gordie told him, 'The one thing I wished I could've done was go to school more.'

"And Gordie was familiar with Michigan because his son, Murray, went to school here. So, it worked out good for us. And we got Gordie to come over here and spend time with our players. We had a great visit that day he came over here six years ago, and he didn't want to leave. He spoke with our players, me, and people at the rink."

Berenson said Howe's love of the game and its people always stood out.

"Gordie loved being in a rink, and he loved talking about hockey -- especially to kids," Berenson said. "He was a great ambassador for hockey."

He was "Mr. Hockey," as the signed photo in Berenson's office attests.

"And well named," said Berenson. "The last time I talked to Gordie was a few years ago, after a Wings game, the year (Howe's wife) Colleen died. He was starting to slip a little bit, but he always smiled and had that Gordie Howe smile -- and that huge handshake."

Howe has always been larger than life.

"I only played one year with him," Berenson said. "But everywhere we went, it was great. He was revered by everyone



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