ST. PAUL, Minn. – Red Berenson's ability to recall details after 27 seasons as Michigan's coach is as sharp as ever.
Whether goal totals of his current players or final scores of games past, Berenson sat calmly at a podium the day before the Wolverines play for a national championship and recited statistics and anecdotes like he was reading from a book.
There are many interesting chapters in his story, starting as a player for Michigan in the early 1960s, spanning two decades in the NHL and continuing into his 70s as the stone-faced, raspy-voiced, tough-minded bench boss for his alma mater.
The Wolverines meet Minnesota Duluth on Saturday night for the NCAA title.
"I can't say it's nothing new, but it's inspiring for me to see our team put out," said Berenson, who guided Michigan to championships in 1996 and 1998. "I still feel like I'm in sync with the players and college hockey. I'm a big hockey fan and an NHL fan. But I'm not surprised that we're here. I've seen it go all ways."
He later quipped, cracking a slight smile for the only time during his news conference Friday: "So what's it like? It's great. There's hope for senior citizens."
After Michigan stopped star-studded North Dakota, the top-ranked team in the country, in the semifinals on Thursday night, Berenson spoke of the Fighting Sioux's advantage in depth, talent and experience while espousing the old best-team-doesn't-always-win theory.
Told of Berenson's description of the Wolverines as overmatched winners, UMD coach Scott Sandelin smiled.
"Red's been around a long time. He knows what to say," Sandelin said.
Meaning this: Michigan, owners of the most championships (nine), Frozen Four trips (24) and consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament (21), can't realistically be construed as an underdog.
The Bulldogs, who have never won a national title, ought to be in that role.
"We've kind of gone under the radar a little bit," Sandelin said. He was referring to UMD's season but could've been speaking to the program's history in the shadow cast over the state for decades by the University of Minnesota.
The Bulldogs (25-10-6) started strong but dropped off some as North Dakota and Denver took off in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association race. They were national afterthoughts in the regional with Yale and Union, and they'll never have the national prestige of Notre Dame, even though the Fighting Irish are famous for football and not hockey.
UMD beat Notre Dame in the semifinals, though, with a relentless power play and good goaltending and has arrived in the title game for just the second time in school history. The Bulldogs lost to Bowling Green for the championship in 1984.
"I've always felt that this program could win," said Sandelin, a native of the northern Minnesota mining town of Hibbing who played at and coached for North Dakota before taking over at UMD. "That's why I accepted that challenge to take the job. It's been some good years and some not-so-good years, but we've got a great group of kids."
Opening a new arena along Lake Superior has helped improve the program's pitch to future players. Landing a sought-after recruit like Travis Oleksuk, a junior center with 31 points in 41 games who is the first son of a former Bulldogs player to join the program, can only help.
Advancing to the national championship game just 2½ hours by car from campus? Can't beat that.
"This is what we've played all year for," Oleksuk said. "This is the game where we wanted to be. This is what we talked about at the start of the year."
Though the two teams played regularly in the WCHA from 1965 to 1981 until the Wolverines left for the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Berenson has only faced the Bulldogs once since taking over as Michigan's coach. That was in 2001.
Asked how his team will try to stop UMD's thriving power play, which scored on three of six opportunities in the semifinals, Berenson said the Wolverines will have to "do their homework."
Michigan has been playing stingy defense, with goalie Shawn Hunwick making huge save after huge save and the blue-liners running interference in front of him.
"We all have that mindset that we want to block every shot. We want to get the puck out, and that's been the strength of our team lately," captain Carl Hagelin said.
Berenson was surely pleased to hear that.
"At Michigan you have to coach it. A lot of those guys never blocked a shot before they got to Michigan," the coach said, adding: "Our team has bought into playing better team defense. We realized halfway through the season we weren't going to win on offense. We had to play better without the puck and give our goalies a chance."