Last year Cooper Zech and Roni Salmenkangas lived nine time zones apart, a couple of teenagers playing junior hockey on other sides of the world. Zech was in the Pacific Northwest bagging a BCHL title as the circuit’s best defenseman, while Salmenkangas was putting up world-class statistics in Finland’s top U-20 league. Today they are dorm neighbors in Big Rapids, Michigan, freshmen at Ferris State who have given Bulldogs hockey nation justifiable cause for optimism. On Friday night, the 19-year-old tandem contributed greatly to Ferris’ business-like 4-0 shutout against Alaska-Anchorage, with Salmenkangas notching his first NCAA shutout on 27 saves, and Zech collecting a pair of helpers.
Veteran coach Bob Daniels knows his program is in good shape thanks to his “Gold-Dust” twins.
“It’s hard not to smile with those two guys out there,” said Daniels, who spent a lot of his post-game presser chiding his troops about their carelessness with the puck, but not young Zech. “He looks like a savvy veteran out there, very comfortable, confident with the puck. He logs a lot of minutes for us out there.”
Daniels knew what he was getting in Zech, and the kid is delivering. The willowy Salmenkangas, on the other hand, was a bit of a mystery, never scouted by the Ferris staff. Daniels exercised caution before throwing the Finn into the Division I hockey wars.
“It’s a big change for a kid that young,” Daniels said. “He came straight from Finland; he didn’t have that intermediate step of the North American League or the USHL.”
But an injury to junior kicker Justin Kapelmaster thrust Salmenkangas into the starting role for both games this weekend against the Seawolves, and the freshman earned a pair of wins.
“Roni played very well,” his head coach said. “He’s a very calm demeanor.”
A critical part of the Finn’s transition to North American culture was his relationship with his classmate Cooper.
“We live basically next to each other,” Salmenkangas said. “We do stuff almost every night, get along extremely well.”
“I kinda helped take him under my wing,” Zech said. “We definitely are very close, it helps out on the ice.”
Although they are both brimming with talent, this goalie-defenseman tandem still have plenty to learn, which Daniels does not hide. Zech aches to get into the fun in the offensive zone, sometimes jumping into another player’s role.
“When he chips it in, he likes to lead the forecheck,” Daniels said with a smile. “We pay guys to do that, you chip it in, just report for duty back at the point.”
Salmenkangas also likes an expanded role, never shy outside his crease.
“I like to play with my stick, help the D-men,” the young goalie said. “It obviously helps if your goalie can make passes.”
The veteran Daniels is the ideal teacher to keep his tandem on a steep learning curve, reigning them in without stifling their raw creativity. He knows his Gold Dust Twins are critical to the Bulldogs’ NCAA dreams.
Tim Rappleye is the author of "Jack Parker's Wiseguys" and the forthcoming book: "Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review," set for release in November. He can be reached @TeeRaps.