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March 7, 2013Michigan is hoping to extend its streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances to 23 this March, but in the eyes of coach Red Berenson and his players from the early 1990s, it should already be there. If not for a snub in 1990, it would be.
When Berenson was hired for the 1984-85 season to coach his alma mater, he knew the road back to respectability, and eventually to championships, would be long. The Wolverines were a combined 28-44-1 in the two seasons preceding Berenson's return, and they would win just 13 games in the coach's first campaign.
Little by little, the Maize and Blue improved, crossing the .500 threshold in 1988 (22-19-0), finishing fifth, fourth and fourth in the CCHA from 1988-90.
In 1990, Michigan went 21-11-6 during the regular season, including a 16-11-5 mark in league play. U-M bested Western Michigan in a quarterfinal playoff series and fell 4-3 in overtime to rival Michigan State, which won the CCHA regular-season and tournament titles that year, in a postseason semifinal.
In the third-place game, Michigan would meet Bowling Green for what was viewed as a play-in game to the NCAA Tournament. The Wolverines licked their chops with the thought of besting a CCHA power - during the 1980s, the Falcons won four league titles and went to the NCAA Tournament five times while U-M finished no higher than fourth and never went.
"Before the game we had a soul-searching meeting with the team," Berenson said. "The locker rooms at Joe Louis are within earshot and Bowling Green was playing loud music and having a good time, like they've been here a million times before. It seemed like they didn't care and we really cared, and we smoked them.
"And then after the game, [then BGSU coach] Jerry York wished me luck in the Tournament. But guess what, Bowling Green went."
At that time, only 12 teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament (it is currently 16) and the Maize and Blue were confident they would be one of them.
"I remember listening in on the conference call, and everyone was so excited, and then there was disbelief," said Don Stone, a junior forward at the time. "We were frustrated; we felt we got screwed."
Berenson typically isn't one to hold a grudge, but it's clear the process still irks him more than two decades later.
"Ironically, the Bowling Green athletics director was on the selection committee at the time," Berenson recalled. "The committee promised he was not in the room when the decision was made, but he's still a part of the committee. He's been meeting with those guys all year, and they have to look him in the face and work with him, and I think they did what was ? they came out with their own logic about why Bowling Green was selected and not us."
Berenson doesn't care about the streak and at the time, it hadn't even started, but he wanted that opportunity for his players, and for himself.
"Our kids and our staff were so crushed," he admitted.
If there is something good that came out of the snub, the Wolverines played with a chip on their shoulder throughout the 1991 campaign.
"The next year, our team from day one said it wasn't going to be close - there was no way they could keep us out," Berenson said.
"We were mad," Stone noted. "We used that as a great motivator my senior year and not only for returning guys but we had nine freshmen coming in, and the moment they stepped into the rink we made it crystal clear to them what was on the line."
Under the leadership of Stone and sophomore defenseman David Harlock, who served as captains, Michigan went 29-6-3 during the 1991 regular season, going 3-1 against Bowling Green, and advanced to the CCHA finals against regular-season champ Lake Superior State. U-M would fall 6-5 in overtime but there was no doubt the program was headed to the NCAA postseason.
"To a degree there was relief, and there was satisfaction that we had gotten over the jump, but mostly there was a sense of redemption," Harlock said. "We felt great, and then you realize that you have this opportunity that we wanted to take advantage of.
"Since Red had taken over, the program had been making incremental steps each year. It started with winning 20 games, then getting home ice in the playoffs, then advancing to the semifinals and the finals, and the next goal was to make the NCAA Tournament, and we enjoyed crossing that off our list, but we also thought, 'Let's do something.'"
Michigan knocked off Cornell in a best-of-three series 2-1, including a 9-3 deciding game that kicked off a crazy celebration at Yost Ice Arena. A week later, the Wolverines were swept by Boston University, but there was no way they'd come down off the high of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
"It seemed like every team Red coached was taking one step forward each season and then we took two steps, won a first-round matchup, and really cemented this incredible legacy," Stone said. "We set the bar, and we put it on those guys returning to set it higher the next year, and the year after that and after that."
And that's what the Maize and Blue would do. In Harlock's junior year, 1992, Michigan won the CCHA title and advanced to the Frozen Four. U-M would qualify for the national semifinals again in 1993 and 1995, and in 1996, the Wolverines won the NCAA Championship.
"It was extremely gratifying to see Michigan win," Harlock said. "Especially because those seniors in 1996 were freshmen when I was a senior. Steven Halko was my defense partner and then he was the captain of the 1996 team, and even though that wasn't my year, I felt like I was a part of it because we helped lay the foundation, as the guys before me did for my class and for every team that came after them.
"That's the thing that gets overlooked a little bit but there is no 1996 national title without the 1995 team or the 1993 team or the 1991 team or the guys that really had the hardest job in the very beginning of Red's career. There are a lot of great players that never received a championship ring but were every bit a part of that success because they paved the way."
Halko couldn't agree more.
"We were standing on their shoulders when we won," he said. "Both Brendan Morrison and Kevin Hilton at different times that Frozen Four weekend made a comment like, 'This is for all the players in the past that never had a chance to win a title. We couldn't have done this without you,' and that was the absolute truth.
"When you talk about legacy, you can't pinpoint one season or one team, or even the two national championship teams - it's more than two decades worth of teams that are responsible for this streak. It's 30 years of guys that bought into Red's philosophy and helped make this program what it is."
If the streak does die this year, it will be unfortunate, though not unexpected. As Harlock noted, "streaks end" and the former players will hold no ill will towards the current crop to wear the winged helmet. But if the Wolverines somehow find a way, and extend the record to a 23rd campaign, let us applaud the 24 players on the 1991 team and those that came before them.
"This time of the year rolls around and there is talk about the streak, and I get asked about it, and I admit, I'm very proud that I was at the start of it," Stone said. "It's an amazing streak that so many players have contributed to. No one else in college hockey has ever come close (see chart). If it does end, then it ends, but it will have been a great 22-year ride."