Prior to NHL's expansion in 1967, there were many great hockey players toiling in the minors of hockey because there just wasn't enough room in the NHL. So when the NHL doubled in size from 6 to 12 teams, many of these players were given the chance to finally prove themselves at the NHL level. The first superstar to emerge from this group was a red-haired kid from Regina Saskatchewan named Gordon Berenson.
Berenson first turned professional late in the 1961-62 season when he appeared in 4 late season games with the Montreal Canadiens. Nicknamed "The Red Baron" because of his hair and name, Berenson took a very unusual route to the NHL in those days by attending the University of Michigan rather than progressing through the Canadian junior ranks. He was the first Canadian born player to go directly from American college to the NHL.
Berenson played a minor role with the Canadiens. He received very limited ice time in 136 games with the Habs over 5 years. Berenson spent most of his time in the Eastern Professional Hockey League and the American Hockey League where he tore up the score sheets.
In the summer of 1966, Montreal gave up on Berenson and traded him to the New York Rangers for Ted Taylor and Garry Peters. However Berenson had an injury riddle first season with New York and as a result never gained the ice time he needed to thrive. He scored only 5 assists in 30 games in 1966-67.
The following season was the first season of NHL expansion. Berenson actually started the season with Rangers, quietly scoring just 2 goals and 1 assist in 19 games, before he was moved to the expansion St. Louis Blues. That trade turned out to be one of the greatest in St. Louis Blues history. They acquired Berenson and soon to be cult legend Barclay Plager in exchange for Ron Stewart and Ron Attwell.
Berenson almost instantly became a scoring threat once he arrived in the mid-west city. He finished the season with 51 points in 55 games with St. Louis. He was also instrumental in helping the Blues reach the Stanley Cup Finals in their very first year in the league!
By this time Berenson was the talk of St. Louis, and the League. His style of play and scoring success had put St. Louis on the hockey map and fans in the arena. Few St. Louis players were ever as popular as Red.
The next season saw Red score a career high 82 points, but is best remembered for one magical night on November 7, 1968. Red Berenson scored 6 goals against the Philadelphia Flyers to become the first "modern" player to score 6 goals in a single game. Seven players have scored 6 goals in one game. Darryl Sittler is the only other modern player to accomplish this. Names like Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, Richard, and Hull never were able to to accomplish this incredible feat. But Berenson is quick to point out that he also hit the post and missed on what he described as two excellent chances in that game as well. That would have tied Joe Malone's 1920 record of 7 goals in one game. Amazingly this feat occurred on the road, making Berenson the record holder for most goals in a game by a visiting player.
For another year and a half Berenson would exploit NHL goalies for the St. Louis Blues, but found himself traded to the Detroit Red Wings in 1971 for political reasons. Berenson at the time was the president of the NHL Players Association, and the move was considered in media circles to be a union busting move.
Berenson would enjoy three and a half seasons with the Red Wings before being traded back to St. Louis in late 1974. He remained a top player with the Wings, as demonstrated by his inclusion on Team Canada for the Soviet showdown in the 1972 Summit Series.
After returning to St. Louis, Berenson would play 3 final seasons with the Blues before retiring at the end of the 1978 season. Berenson, who played in 5 NHL All Star games, retired with 261 goals, 397 assists and 658 points in 987 games.
Berenson turned to coaching after his playing days. Red coached the Blues from 1979 to 1982, winning the Jack Adams Trophy in 1981 after a 45-18-17 season. Berenson also served as an assistant coach under Scotty Bowman in Buffalo from 1982 through 1984. His head coaching all time record is a very impressive 100-72-32 for a .569 winning percentage.
After leaving the NHL in 1984 Berenson went back to the University of Michigan where he served as a long time head coach. His record there is unbelievable. He is the winningest coach in the college scene throughout the 1990s, including two national championships (1996, and 1998).
Red was a very smart player who had the terrible misfortune to play for Detroit at the beginning of the Dead Things era. Pity. The fans in Detroit wanted a physical, aggressive team. Berenson was more in the Igor Larionov mold. Graceful, intelligent, athletic, restrained. The fans practically booed him out of Detroit. The man deserved far, far better.
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