Red Berenson didn't even want to coach hockey.
He played for Michigan. He played with the Canadiens, Rangers, Red Wings and Blues over a span of 17 years in the NHL.
There are the usual Division I programs that get tossed around in the preseason prediction mill. Defending champion Minnesota. CCHA power Michigan. ECAC rivals Harvard and Cornell. But the one division that could produce the biggest pool of contenders is the Hockey East. Boston University, Boston College, Maine and New Hampshire are all ranked within the Top 10 of both the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine and USCHO national preseason polls, and all four have a legitimate shot at a national title. New Hampshire, which returns 12 forwards and seven defensemen, has the best shot. The program is also hungry -- entering last year's NCAA tourney as the East's top seed, they were ousted in the semifinals by Maine in an embarrassing 7-2 rout.
PLAYER TO WATCH
There is quite the goalie tradition in Denver, and we're not just talking about the Avalanche's Patrick Roy. After beating Minnesota to capture the WCHA crown last season and earning the West's top seed in the NCAA tourney, Denver didn't make it past the regionals, thanks to Michigan. The Golden Gophers went on to win the national championship, and the Pioneers were left to think what could have been. That long offseason made goalie Wade Dubielewicz's decision that much easier. Despite receiving serious offers from three NHL teams following a 20-4-0 season, the senior returns for one last shot at the crown. He also led the WCHA in goals-against average (1.80) and save percentage (.943). The Pioneers are ranked No. 2 behind the Gophers in both preseason national polls.
MINNESOTA STARTS DEFENSE
After winning its first national title since 1979, Minnesota begins its quest for another crown Saturday against Ohio State. The Gophers will do it with some big gaps in the lineup as Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, Johnny Pohl (75 points) and goaltender Adam Hauser have all graduated, and Jeff Taffe skipped his senior year after signing a three-year deal with the Phoenix Coyotes. With North Dakota, Denver, St. Cloud State and Colorado College all looming in the WCHA, it's going to be tough to repeat.
BACK IN THE DAY
For Maine, this would be a magic season. Freshman forward Paul Kariya burst into collegiate play, and went on to post 25 goals and 75 assists in 39 games during his only full season of college hockey. He led the Black Bears (42-1-2) to their first NCAA title, and he was a lock for the Hobey Baker Award. Kariya was then picked fourth overall by the Mighty Ducks in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft.
But when he was "asked" to retire as a winger and join St. Louis' coaching staff as an assistant, he figured a few years behind the bench would be the least disruptive things to his family -- plus his kids could finish high school.
Somewhere in those early years it stuck with Berenson, and 25 years later he is still coaching and now he wants to be behind the bench.
Entering his 19th year as Michigan's head coach, Berenson and the Wolverines start the 2002-03 campaign at this weekend's Xerox College Hockey Showcase (Canisius, Niagara, North Dakota) at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y. Michigan also hopes it will end its season in the same spot, which is the site of this season's Frozen Four.
Like other big ice hockey programs this year, Michigan will have to rely on younger faces to get the job done as a handful of top collegiate players made the NHL leap over the summer.
"That's the difficult part -- keeping your team," Berenson said. "You can't predict it. They say they aren't going to go, and then they take the money and run, and you feel a little betrayed.
"So that's one of our battles. I don't like it, but I am up for it."
For the Wolverines, it means adjusting without defenseman Mike Komisarek and forward Mike Cammalleri, who both chose to leave school early to play for the Montreal Canadiens and Los Angeles Kings, respectively. Last season Cammalleri was second in team scoring with 23 goals and 44 points in just 29 games, and Komisarek posted 11 goals and 30 points in 40 games.
It continued a trend in Ann Arbor, where five straight All-America selections have left before graduation. Berenson doesn't doubt the money or the talent of the NHL and its respective minor-league system. He does question the logic.
"In our glory years, guys like (Brendan) Morrison, (John) Madden, (Marty) Turco ... they all stayed four years and we won titles (1996, 1998)," Berenson said. "Why would you want to sign a kid to a million-dollar contract and then dump him in the minors?
"They are rushing themselves. No matter how they do, they'll never say they made the wrong decision. But if they would finish, they would get more training time and have more fun. The NHL is a business."
Now, the Wolverines will turn to a sophomore class -- headed by forwards Eric Nystrom, Milan Gajic, Dwight Helminen, David Moss and Jason Ryznar -- to bring the program back to its sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance. All five were also drafted by NHL teams during the 2002 Entry Draft.
The bigger question for Michigan will be in net with 17-year-old freshman Al Montoya, who will try to put a firmer grip on a starting spot in Buffalo this weekend. It will be Montoya's first game in an NHL arena, but Berenson thinks the 6-foot-2 lefty is ready.
"Like any other young goalie, he's going to make some mistakes," Berenson said. "But he's a good mix of a (Steve) Shields and Turco. A little combo between stand-up and butterfly."
The defense in front of Montoya is also young with sophomores Nick Martens, Eric Werner and Brandon Rogers, and junior Andy Burnes.
A roster that boasts only five seniors might not equal success in some hockey minds, but it does for Berenson, who says his team just keeps improving upon the experience they gained last season despite the early exit to eventual national champion Minnesota in last season's national semifinals.
"Watching the kids come back and seeing them improve," Berenson said, "that's what keeps me going. I still believe in what I am doing. We're a young team, but we're an exciting team."
And Berenson wants to see them succeed while watching from behind the bench.
Joy Russo is a staff editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.