TORONTO — The University of Michigan was Zach Hyman‘s Plan B.
The Toronto Maple Leafs rookie expected to do his post-secondary education at Princeton only to see those plans go out the window at the last minute when the coach he committed to got another job at Penn State. In reconsidering his options, Hyman visited a number of U.S. schools on the East Coast, and Michigan piqued his interest.
A big fan of the Wolverines program growing up, Hyman liked that the Ann Arbor campus was only four hours from his home in Toronto. The school was also widely respected for its academics.
"And then they produce the most NHL players," said the 23-year-old forward. "That was my goal, to play in the NHL."
The Red Berenson-led program is indeed a breeding ground for NHL players.
Eighteen players who attended the school are currently in the league, including Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, Red Wings Calder Trophy contender Dylan Larkin, Winnipeg Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba and Hyman’s Leafs teammate Matt Hunwick, and dozens have come before them.
On the current roster, the Wolverines have six picks from last year’s NHL draft, including two from the first round.
Berenson, now 76, has run the Michigan hockey program since 1984.
"I think we’re doing what a lot of colleges are doing," Berenson said in a phone interview from his Michigan office. "We’re giving the kids a chance to grow up and learn the game and become better athletes and hopefully better citizens as well as work on their degrees."
Hyman calls Berenson "probably the biggest hockey fan" he’s ever met who has adapted well over the years with a changing style of play.
"It’s coach Berenson but it’s also the Michigan tradition," Hyman said. "That has everything to do how coach runs the team, the way he turned around the program when he got there 30 years ago or however long it is."
"It’s a great, great program and a great, great school," said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, a friend of Berenson’s from a decade coaching the Detroit Red Wings. "He’s had an impact on a lot of kids lives to say the least."
It didn’t start as planned for Hyman.
The Wolverines thought they were getting a blue-chip prospect who would make an instant difference offensively. But the reigning Canadian junior player of the year struggled to score and was lost in the defensive zone.
He suddenly had to learn to play without the puck and kill penalties to make a difference.
"It was probably the biggest adversity I faced in my career," Hyman said.
Berenson remembers a frustrated player who continued to work hard and eventually those efforts paid off. Hyman evolved into a well-rounded player for the Wolverines, and by his senior season, playing alongside Larkin, he had become one of the top players in the country.
"I really admire the kid’s perseverance," Berenson said. "It was such a good story because he did it the right way and he had to do it the hard way."
Hyman credits Berenson with helping him diversify his game, something he believes the coach has done for scores of players over the years.
The former Florida Panthers draft pick has become a source of optimism for the last-place Leafs, scoring twice in his first six NHL games, including one each in each of the past two games.
Berenson has been watching closely.
"We’re all really proud of him," he said, "and we’re not surprised."