By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
This past Thursday, when the WCHA announced their 2018-19 All-League squads, it wasn't a surprise that Cooper Zech's name was tattooed all over them. The blueliner from South Lyon, Mich., was not only the first freshman to lead the Ferris State Bulldogs in scoring since the 1987-88 season but the human highlight reel also led all WCHA freshman in scoring, assists and points per game. As a matter of fact, Zech led all rookie skaters in points per game (.78) … meaning all … as in the entire nation. Those numbers made him obvious choices for both the All-WCHA First Team and the WCHA All-Rookie Team. It also wasn't surprising that Zech, while honored, glanced slightly at the selected names and then went right back to work, after all, he is busy working on his next chapter. Now a former Bulldog after recently signing a two-way professional contract with the Providence Bruins of the AHL, the 20 year-old is a rookie again but this time, the learning curve is more like a 90-degree angle - sharp, intense and with very little room for error. That's just the way he wants it.
"I enjoyed my time at Ferris but I thought I was ready to be a professional and I wanted to make my life revolve around hockey rather than school right now," remarked Zech. "I was just focused on finishing the season strong and trying to make a playoff push but when the dust settled and unfortunately we didn't make it, some teams started calling and I just thought it was time for me to become more of a professional; to move away from school and start focusing strictly on hockey."
He will be missed. Tabbed as the WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year by league coaches before the first puck was dropped, Zech wasted no time proving them right. Zech registered seven multi-point games including a league-leading 20 assists among freshmen. He was particularly dominating during a stretch of 17 games from November 30, 2018 through February 8, 2019 where he struck for 19 points (5G, 14A). During that time period he was held without a point just three times. By then many already knew Zech's talent was all-league but that two month period, more than any other point in the season, showcased his uncanny ability to move the puck up ice with ease and create opportunities on both sides of the rink. That reputation as an "offensive defenseman" is what made Ferris State recruit him, league officials recognize him and the Boston Bruins organization sign him.
Matt Curley saw it firsthand. The first-year head coach at Alaska Anchorage faced off with Zech four times this season and in those games, the Michigan product made an impact every time he touched the puck. But there is another reason the Seawolves bench boss paid special attention to the Bulldog rookie. In addition to his coaching experience Curley knows a thing or two about playing defense at a high level. After starring at Clarkson he moved onto play professional hockey, roaming the blueline for several teams including the Reading Royals of the AHL. He knows talent when he sees it and right from the start, Curley knew Zech was a special talent.
"This past summer I remember I was doing some recruiting on-line and I was watching a Wenatchee (BCHL) game and I remember saying to my assistant, who the heck is that kid. I remember making a comment how Ferris had themselves a good one because I knew he was going to Ferris State that fall," recalled Curley. "I saw it. I'm not surprised that a team jumped on him and gave him an opportunity to sign early. I think from an outside perspective and as a fan of the game, I saw it (Zech's talent) and I'm not surprised at all that he got the opportunity to make that jump."
"I thought it was a good year," Zech said, when asked about his 2018-19 season. "It goes back to the coaching staff letting me play my game within their system. They taught me a lot defensively and I think I definitely became more of a rounded player."
"I learned a lot playing there and I am grateful for the opportunity I had at Ferris State. Every team I played a game in the WCHA, everyone I faced, skated hard and they would hit you. There wasn't a game that you played where you could take off because every team in the league could beat anyone on any given night.
"Probably the biggest thing I learned from my time at Ferris was definitely being better defensively," continued Zech. "A lot of guys liked to drive wide and use their speed so it was good to play against that competition and take it into this next opportunity. I would also say my decision making. The bigger, faster and smarter guys are, the more those turnovers will cost you so I learned the importance of not turning the puck over because it can hurt you more than maybe it did in the past places I have played."
Now the fourth Bulldog to sign a pro contract since Ferris State's 2018-19 season came to end, the anticipated 2018-19 WCHA Rookie of the Year hopes those lessons will help his transition to the professional game and a permanent spot on the Providence roster. While it's still too early to tell, Zech is expected to be plugged into the Bruins line-up sooner than later (could be as early as this weekend), and with that, his audition will begin. Now the hard part is waiting.
"Driving out here and getting to see Providence and getting to see the East Coast, it's been great. Having my first couple skates and workouts with the guys; it's been an awesome experience so far. This has just been amazing and I want to enjoy it. The location of Providence was a big factor (in signing with the Bruins). I am a big fisherman so it's nice to be close to the water. They liked me a lot and compared me to some of their players and thought I would fit in well within their systems and that was appealing to me," remarked Zech. "I just want to keep working on some things; both offensively and defensively, so I can be a player in this league."
"I think he has the tools to be a player at the highest of levels in terms of his IQ and skating ability. He has a tremendous stick and definitely when we played against him; his ability to defend was good. In my opinion, in the way the game has grown the last few years, I think Cooper is a kid that will have no problem finding success at the next level," concluded Curley. "These elite, skating, puck-moving, IQ guys who can move it and defend and contribute offensively; I think he fits a lot of those boxes."
The Bruins couldn't agree more. In the midst of their own playoff race, Providence is currently fourth in their division but is 4-7 over their last 11 games. In need of offense from the blue-line, the Bruins don't have a defenseman on their current roster with more than four goals this season. Consistent play on the back-end and a flare for the net up front, Zech's resume brings both to the table.
"I just want to play my game and not get too nervous just because I am playing at the next level- to stick to what I know," stated Zech. "I want to improve on what I know but I don't want to change what got me here either."
If it's not broke don't fix it. Now it's time to add to it.