March 18, 2017

Once Champions, Michigan and Michigan State now face unchartered territory

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In college hockey, the University of Michigan and Michigan State are two programs with an equally storied legacy of championships and dominance.

In college hockey, the University of Michigan and Michigan State are two programs with an equally storied legacy of championships and dominance. The two programs share the real estate of a hockey-crazed state, and have produced a multitude of stars at the professional level.

This season has spelled a reversal of the usual trend for both programs, the two share losing records, and both could be shopping for new head coaches soon.

It could spell an embarrassing end to the coaching career of Red Berenson, who just completed his 33rd season behind the Michigan bench. In his career, Berenson has coached the Wolverines to 848 victories, fourth-most in the history of the NCAA. Among these accolades, Berenson could be most remembered for fostering the growth of college hockey and making it a commercial success.

After losing to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament on Thursday in Detroit, the Wolverines capped off their season with a record of 13-19-3, good enough for a fifth-place finish in conference play — ahead of only Michigan State.

Red Berenson, Michigan’s coach, has won 848 games but has a losing record this season. Credit: John Minchillo/Associated Press

Berenson himself a former National Hockey League star and Michigan alum, expected to retire from his current post a year ago. He’d just been named the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the Wolverines punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time in his tenure. But the school was in the midst of larger changes, having just hired a new athletic director, Warde Manuel.

“I wanted to retire last year, but the new athletic director really wanted me to stay,” the 77-year-old Berenson told The New York Times this season.

He told Manuel he was willing to stay for another season if that’s what the university needed from him.

“We’ll revisit all this at the end of the year, but I’m trying not to worry about it right now,” Berenson said. “It’s just a matter of when — whether it’s this year or next year.”

After Thursday’s loss, Berenson said his future with the program wouldn’t be decided until the conclusion of April’s collegiate hockey championship tournament.

Just an hour across the state in East Lansing, Michigan State fans and alumni are calling for the sacking of head coach Tom Anastos. A Spartans alum who played right wing, Anastos was an unexpected choice when he was hired in 2011. He had very little experience coaching a top-flight program, previously serving as the head coach of the club team at the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1987 to 1990. Before his ultimate arrival at Michigan State, Anastos had also served as the commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Tom Anastos has had only two winning seasons in six years as Michigan State’s coach. Credit: Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

Since his arrival six years ago, Anastos has had just two winning seasons and only one NCAA tournament appearance. Last season, the Spartans managed just 10 victories, and this season, Michigan State skated to their worst record in 39 seasons at 7-24-4, ending on a 6-3 loss to Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday. The Spartans played horribly down the stretch, collecting just a single win over their last 14 games of the season, including losses in their last six home games.

Anastos’s fate remains unclear. While the calls for his hiring were steaming last year, the school opted to extend his contract through 2018.

Michigan and Michigan State have very proud histories. The Wolverines have won nine national titles, its most recent coming in 1998, one of the two championships Berenson has won with the school. The Spartans won their third national championship in 2007.

The struggles of the two programs mirror some of the trends that are being felt around the world of collegiate hockey. The growth of youth hockey in the United States and the increasing number of European players looking to play in the N.C.A.A. have created an abundance of talent for the 60 Division I programs.

Smaller schools that used to find difficulty in measuring up to larger programs like Boston University or Minnesota have had much more recent success in recruiting ample talent to compete for national championships. Twice in the last four seasons, Quinnipiac University, with an enrollment of 5,600, reached the NCAA final, losing both times. Union College, which plays in a 2,054-seat rink, was the 2014 champion.

Another hotly contested topic is the age of incoming freshman. Because many hockey players opt to spend two years playing junior hockey before moving to college teams, some programs fill out their rosters with freshmen as old as 20 or 21. Traditional powers like Michigan tend to attract highly acclaimed younger players.

Because of this, it’s not uncommon for an 18-year-old on one team to face off against a 24-year-old on the other. Quinnipiac has one senior — K. J. Tiefenwerth — who turned 25 in January.

Last year, the Big Ten proposed a rule change to lower the age limit of incoming freshman to 20, a proposal that was ultimately withdrawn.

Speculation of Berenson’s possible replacement has run rampant, but two names have found their way to the surface as concrete possibilities. One is Michigan Tech Coach Mel Pearson, who was a Berenson assistant for 23 years. The other is Mike Cavanaugh, head coach at the University of Connecticut. Cavanaugh and Manuel were close friends during Manuel’s four years at UConn.

For the Spartans, the focus is on Danton Cole, another alum of the program who spent seven seasons playing in the NHL. He was a favored candidate six years ago when Anastos first got the job, and is currently coaching in the United States National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Mich.

Whether or not one or both programs hire new coaches won’t change the fact both have struggled recently with recruiting. The Spartans roster has only two players who have been drafted by NHL teams. Michigan has eight, and Minnesota, the first-place team in the Big Ten, has 13.

Berenson said the uncertainty of his position was hurting efforts to lure players to Michigan.

“I think it is really affecting our recruiting,” he said. “We are recruiting kids two or three years before they get here and I have to tell them, ‘I’m not going to be coaching when you get here.’ So that’s a question mark.”

Information from The New York Times contributed to this report.

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