When Mel Pearson left the Huskies to take over for Red Berenson at the University of Michigan, he was repeating a trip that has helped to define the post-World War II history of hockey both for Michigan Tech and for the Wolverines.
Al Renfrew started the saga. Renfrew grew up in Toronto and one of his best friends in high school was a guy named John MacInnes. Renfrew was one of the Canadian boys who opted for US college hockey after World War II, and joined Vic Heyliger’s Michigan program in 1945. In the spring of 1948, Renfrew was a Wolverine leader and helped them win the inaugural NCAA championship in Colorado Springs at the Broadmoor Ice Palace.
In 1951, Renfrew was hired to coach the Huskies, succeeding Amo Bessone (who moved on to Michigan State). Bessone didn’t have much success in Houghton, posting a 20-31-2 record in two years. Renfrew also took it on the chin in his first four seasons, and didn’t achieve a winning season until 1955-56. In that final year, his team rang up a 21-7 record and took Tech to the NCAA tournament, where they lost to Michigan and his old coach Heyliger in the finals, 7-5.
Renfrew then spent a year at North Dakota before succeeding Heyliger at U-M in the fall of 1957. Red Berenson was one of his recruits in 1959, and Renfrew won an NCAA championship in 1964 after Berenson moved on to the NHL.
While all this was going on, his buddy John MacInnes played with Renfrew for the Wolverines in 45-46, and then played in the old International Hockey League—at that time, an amateur league—for the next three years. In 1950, he was again playing at the University of Michigan and was a key cog in their third place finish in the NCAA tournament. He graduated from U-M with a degree in Business Administration, and then took on the role of leading the Ann Arbor Hockey Association.
When Renfrew left after the Huskies’ first trip to the NCAA tourney, Tech hired John MacInnes and he built his legacy as one of the all-time greats in college hockey. Over 26 seasons, he won three NCAA championships, 7 WCHA titles, and six times was voted WCHA Coach of the Year. In addition, he was named NCAA Coach of the Year twice. Like Renfrew, he’s a member of Michigan’s Dekers’ Blue Line Hall of Fame, as well as the Michigan Tech Hall of Fame. Finally, he’s the only one in this story who is also a member of the US Hockey Hall of Fame, at least so far.
I had the good fortune to meet John when I was a student, and he was one of the finest men I’ve ever met. 94% of MacInnes’ players graduated, an amazing record given Tech’s academic challenges. His three year duel with Herb Brooks in the NCAA championship from 1974 to 1976 is one of the greatest stories in college hockey.
During Renfrew’s last year in Houghton, a kid from Barrie, Ont. was sending out letters looking for a college that might want a determined player. Kyril Spiroff, the fabled MTU geology prof and the unofficial head of Husky recruiting, sent a response to young Dan Farrell. One thing led to another, and Farrell headed to Houghton in the fall of 1956, but Renfrew was off to Grand Forks and John MacInnes was there to greet Dan.
Farrell was one of the smallest guys to suit up for the Huskies, but over the next four years he would show everyone how it was done, killing penalties and playing whatever role MacInnes needed to build his program. In 1960, Dan was a key piece of MacInnes’ first trip to the NCAA title game, where the Huskies lost to Denver 5-3. Dan gathered up his degree in geology, and starting teaching in Thunder Bay. He then headed off to Africa to work for the Canadian International Development Agency.
By 1967, MacInnes was looking for a first-rate assistant, and he offered the job to Farrell. But Farrell had another year to serve on his contract, and John kept the job open until the fall of 1968, when Dan returned to Houghton.
Farrell soaked up more of the MacInnes magic over the next five years, and in the spring of 1973, Don Canham—the man who invented the modern concept of a major university athletic program—hired Farrell to succeed Renfrew. Renfrew moved on to run the Wolverine ticket office for many years, and Farrell started the process of recruiting and building the U-M program back to prominence.
Farrell compiled a 135–133–6 record at Michigan, and took the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament in 1977. Dan now spends his summers in Houghton, and is still quite active in supporting the Huskies, making yet another roundabout journey from Houghton to Ann Arbor and back to Houghton.
While Farrell was having success in the NCAA tournament with the Wolverines, MacInnes recruited a young man from Minnesota named Mel Pearson. Pearson had a great career in MacInnes’ final years at Tech, and led the Huskies during his senior year in their run to semi-finals of the NCAA tournament.
After MacInnes retired—soon to pass away—Jim Nahrgang and Herb Boxer asked Pearson to join them as an assistant. He was instrumental in recruiting Damian Rhodes and Randy McKay, but by 1988 he had caught Berenson’s eye. Michigan offered him a role as an assistant, and for the next 21 years, first as an assistant and then as associate head coach, Pearson was the Wolverine’s chief recruiter and an indispensable factor in an unbroken succession of NCAA tournament appearances, as well as two NCAA championships.
In the fall of 2011, Pearson returned to Houghton, and most of us know the story from that point. The Huskies reached the NCAA tournament twice, won the Broadmoor Trophy once and shared the McNaughton Cup. And now, in the fall of 2017, he is again back in Ann Arbor.
As an additional note, Bill Muckalt, who Pearson recruited for Michigan, was a central figure in the two NCAA crowns the Wolverines won while Pearson was an assistant. He joined Pearson and the Huskies in 2011 as an assistant, and left after the 2015 season. He’s now rejoining Pearson in Ann Arbor—yet one more Ann Arbor-to-Houghton-to Ann Arbor coaching journey.
Finally, it’s worth noting that only two coaches since WWII have had winning career records for the Huskies—John MacInnes and Mel Pearson. And the only other NCAA tournament team was coached by Al Renfrew.
It’s now up to Joe Shawhan to start a new narrative, one that doesn’t go up and down the state of Michigan.
For those interested in more about this history, John U. Bacon’s wonderful book Blue Ice: The Story of Michigan Hockey is a great read. Bacon’s stories, told from a Wolverine perspective, served as a reference for parts of this column.