WCHA Prospect Check-In: Zech Embracing Jump To NCAA Level After Caps Camp

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.

“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

Class: Freshman

Position: Defense

Height: 5-9

Weight: 155

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 

Edwin Hookenson: Minnesota State's Hungry Shot-Blocker

Several times a game, coach Mike Hastings and others on the Minnesota State bench find themselves commenting on Edwin Hookenson’s appetite. 

Gustav Nyquist Headlines Juicy List Of Hockey East Alums In Trade Rumors

Hockey East’s history of NHL development has been impressive and as the NHL trade deadline of Feb. 25 nears, a handful of conference alumni are in the rumor mill.

WCHA RinkRap: Bowling Green & Lake Superior State Compose A Tale Of 2 Teams

Of all the pennant races in Division I college hockey, the battle for second place in the WCHA is arguably the most compelling. Lake Superior and Bowling Green each have 47 points with two weekends to play, but they are on entirely different tracks since New Year’s. The Lakers are 11-2-1 in that stretch, winning the Great Lakes Invitational, climbing up both the standings and the PairWise rankings within smelling distance of an NCAA bid. They may be on the outside looking in, but their knocks on the door are getting louder.

UMass Launches PR Campaign For Hobey Hopeful Cale Makar

In recent years the Hobey Baker Award has taken voting to the masses, engaging college hockey fans by allowing them to vote in the first of three voting tiers, the one that whittles approximately 80 candidates down to 10 finalists. The reality is that the fan input is merely a tiny fraction of the weight of the college coaches, whose votes are the primary driver in the Hobey Award’s list of 10. But it’s fun, it keeps the debate lively and the process has prompted the energetic UMass marketing department to come up with a pin reminiscent of the “I Like Ike” political pin of yesteryear.

Providence's Jacob Bryson Among 2019's Elite Defensemen

This college hockey season has emerged as the “Year of the Defenseman.” Prompted by sports information directors in the crowded Northeast Corridor, puck scribes are plugging three high-scoring defensemen for the Hobey Baker Award—Adam Fox (Harvard), Cale Makar (UMass) and Chase Priskie (Quinnipiac), who could all conceivably be wedged into the three Hobey Hat Trick finalist slots. This is without even taking a peek west of the Appalachians, where Bobby Nardella (Notre Dame) and K’Andre Miller (Wisconsin) lead their respective teams in scoring. 

Boston University's Dante Fabbro Eyeing The NHL, But Where?

Dante Fabbro continues to grow his game for Boston University but as the Terriers’ season slips away, so too may Fabbro.

Hockey East's Top 3 Hobey Baker Candidates: Makar, Davies, & Bryson

Last April, Northeastern forward Adam Gaudette became Hockey East's 10th Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner and fourth in the past 10 seasons.

Northern Michigan Aims For A Second-Half Push In WCHA

The Northern Michigan Wildcats have had a turbulent season spent battling through roster turnover, and they’ll look to gain momentum as the WCHA Tournament nears.

Minnesota State Mavs Go Trophy Hunting

Hockey is a primal game, played by clans carrying clubs and wearing blades. Championship teams live to conquer, preferably on foreign ice, celebrating with spoils provided by their vanquished hosts. That is exactly what the pride of the WCHA—Minnesota State—did this past weekend, when it crashed Michigan Tech’s annual Winter Carnival, exiting with the hallowed MacInnes Cup after claiming five of six points in the standings. Like the ancient Roman juggernaut, they came, they saw, they conquered.  

Goalie Matchup A Highlight Of Beanpot Title Game

BOSTON — It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the goaltender matchup from Monday night’s all-Hockey East title game at the 67th annual Beanpot Tournament at TD Garden might be the same one you’ll see a few years down the road in the National Hockey League.