FloHockey continues its series spotlighting six WCHA players who participated in NHL Development Camps this summer:
It was a frigid January up in Wenatchee, Washington, and junior star Cooper Zech had recently celebrated his 19th birthday, 2,000 miles from his Detroit home. Zech had bolted the USHL for the Pacific Northwest because his Muskegon club was stifling Zech’s world-class creativity.
Here in the British Columbia junior league, he had found his way, scoring over a point a game from the blue line. And then his hockey life took another dramatic swing when the phone rang at his temporary home.
“My family advisor told me the Washington Capitals were interested,” Zech recalled during a break from his freshman orientation at Ferris State. “I walked into my billets' house and got a call from the assistant coach [now Capitals head coach Todd Reirden] saying that if I weren’t to get drafted, they would love to have me at their development camp, so it was a win-win.”
The wins kept rolling for Zech as he wrapped up a banner year, leading his junior squad to a historic championship and being named the top defenseman of the circuit. And although no NHL squad expended a draft pick on Zech, the Stanley Cup champion Capitals honored their promise to bring in the 5-foot-9 teenager to their development camp in late June. The Cap fans’ Cup euphoria was still running high when "the Kid" rolled into the Kettler Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia.
“There were a bunch of fans in the stands,” said Cooper, still stoked three weeks later. “You were signing autographs and stuff, fans were excited that we were there, we were excited that they were there, it was an awesome week.”
On the ice, the smallest kid in camp had a big impact, thriving in the small games that emphasize all of Cooper’s elite puck moving skills.
“We had a 3-on-3 tournament that was pretty fun,” Zech said. “I did pretty well, we ended up third out of five teams.”
When pressed, Zech admitted that his squad was only a couple of freak bounces from winning it all. And this was no collection of beer-leaguers who were falling for his feints and dekes.
Would be an excellent choice for an @NHL Team to pick up @cooperzech tomorrow.— Harrison Watt (@WattHarrison) June 23, 2018
What you need to know: BCHL Defenseman of the Year-
11-58-69 in 58 games. 4-19-23 in 20 postseason games.
Great vision. PP QB in Wenatchee. Electrifying ability.@FerrisHockey https://t.co/looSerMtVE
“They had three defensemen that played at Hershey (AHL) the previous year, and one or two forwards as well," he said. "One kid played in the KHL [Russia’s top league]. It was good hockey, fun to be part of.”
Four months before his first NCAA game with Ferris State, young Cooper Zech was dancing around and through seasoned professionals, sporting the colors of the Stanley Cup champs.
“It was cool knowing that the guys who won the Cup were putting on the same gear a couple of years before," he said. "Having a chance at that was awesome.”
On day two after practice, the kid who couldn’t find a role in the USHL found himself in front of the Caps’ team photographer and donned the jersey of the best team in the world, ready for his closeup. From there he headed down to the mess hall to feast at one of the finest kitchens in professional sports.
#7 Cooper Zech
Ferris State Bulldogs
Hometown: South Lyon, Michigan
Last Team: Wenatchee Wild (BCHL)
2017-18 Point Scoring
“They had the same chefs they used during the year for their guys," Zech said. "The food was awesome.”
Ferris State coach Bob Daniels now has an elite puck-moving defenseman to run the Bulldogs' power play for years to come. It’s the most valuable chess piece in the modern game of hockey, and young Cooper Zech has watched the game evolve to fit his skill set.
“Growing up, everyone wanted a big 6-2 guy, didn’t matter if he could move the puck or not," Zech said. "As you go up in level, they care less and less about size. The higher I’ve gone up, the better it’s worked out for me.”
When asked about reaching The Show, The Kid didn’t blink: “I’m hoping I can take it all the way.”
But for now, Zech is in Big Rapids, bracing for the extreme jump from teenage junior hockey to the NCAA men. Having a successful camp against fellow NHL prospects has clearly bolstered his outlook.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster, getting to play against those guys,” Zech said. “The level here [at Ferris] is going to be better than I’ve ever played. But playing against those guys for a week will definitely help, because I know if I can do it against them, I should be able to do it here.”
Upcoming WCHA Prospect Check-Ins:
Steve Ruggiero, Lake Superior State — Anaheim Ducks
Jake Jaremko, Minnesota State — Nashville Predators
Jake Jackson, Michigan Tech — San Jose Sharks