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

GPPPGG-A-P
581.211-58-69

“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 

No. 3 Minnesota State Onto Tough Stretch Starting With No. 12 Bowling Green

There’s a lot to like about Mike Hastings’ ascension with No. 3 Minnesota State, and the Mavericks are off to a torrid start in a season where they have their eyes set on NCAA Tournament success.

RinkRap: Atte Tolvanen's Shot Makes Headlines, Inspires Fellow Finns

With 1:10 remaining in a tense WCHA rivalry game between Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech, Wildcats goalie Atte Tolvanen did something that turned a competitive regular-season game into a historic event. Tolvanen calmly collected a loose puck and fired 180 feet into Tech’s vacated goal. It clinched a vital win for the ‘Cats, and set off a social media feeding frenzy. Finnish goalies throughout North America sounded off, loud and proud.

Northern Michigan's Atte Tolvanen: Goaltender & Goal Scorer

After being named the WCHA’s Goaltender of the Month for November, Northern Michigan’s Atte Tolvanen showed he could do even more.

Michigan Tech & Northern Michigan Battle In Generations-Old Rivalary

It’s a Yooper hockey early Christmas present, a double dose of the best rivalry in the WCHA. In a rematch of last season’s tourney championship, the Michigan Tech Huskies trek back into Marquette. This was the scene of the crime where many pundits thought they not only “stole” the inaugural Jeff Sauer Championship Trophy from the host Wildcats, but a berth in the 2018 NCAA tournament as well. The two squads play home-and-home this weekend, 100 miles apart, in a series that has been circled on the calendars of every self-respecting fan in the region. 

Big Ten Check-In: Penn State Falters, Cale Morris Dominates, & More

The Big Ten Conference witnessed great success in 2017-18, capped off with Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State earning bids into the 2018 NCAA tournament. And as we approach the midpoint of this campaign, we’re due for a check-in with one of the country’s most formidable conferences.

4 Early Favorites For WCHA Rookie Of The Year

With the first half of the 2018-19 WCHA regular season set to pause following four games on Saturday, Dec. 15, several freshmen have a few games remaining to finish the fall semester strong after impressive starts to their college careers.

WCHA RinkRap: Earthquake In Anchorage, Overtime Thriller, & Falcons Mishap

In this week’s edition of RinkRap, we get a riveting play-by-play from Friday’s 7.0 earthquake in Anchorage, learn how the most exciting play in college hockey can go for naught on the scoresheet, and get a history lesson from teams that have suffered “friendly fire” — by scoring into their own empty net with a man advantage. 

Michigan Tech's Devin Kero Comes Through In Copper Country

The skating Nanooks of Alaska were curious when they looked over at Michigan Tech during their warmups in WCHA action the Friday after Thanksgiving. The same name was stitched on the back of each Husky jersey: “Thatcher” — the name of Tech goalie Devin Kero’s late first cousin, Thatcher Markham.

Points Aplenty In WCHA As Huskies-Beavers, Mavericks-Lakers Matchups Loom

With conference play in full force, the WCHA is set for a pair of pivotal matchups this weekend as four of the top five teams clash with crucial points up for grabs.

WCHA RinkRap: Potulny Gambles, Beavers Shock, & Ruggiero Impresses

In this week's WCHA RinkRap, we'll learn of Northern Michigan's big gamble up in the Sault, how Bowling Green's bench became standing room only when visiting USA Hockey Arena, and what's up with the metamorphosis of Lake State's Steve Ruggiero.