theScore NHL Draft Series: Werenski living Michigan hockey dream in fast-forward
From Grosse Pointe to Ann Arbor, Zach Werenski's journey through hockey has only taken him a few miles down the I-94. But the standout freshman from the University of Michigan is far too talented not to cross state lines eventually.
When he met the media at the NHL Draft Combine, Zach Werenski had a little bounce in his step.
That extra spring was assigned, in part, to the final strain in his journey to the NHL having been completed, but also helped on by the maize and blue adidas that stayed neatly laced through the rigorous evaluation.
The thick-chested defenseman's footwear, not unlike much of the physical testing performed, was inconsequential, but the shoes triggered a reminder of his accomplishments, and the breeze to which he's checked off the boxes in pursuit of his dream.
Werenski has lived hockey in Michigan, through and through. From making the Little Caesers U-18 team at 15, to tearing through the U.S. National Program, and, most recently, donning the famous Winged Helmet of the Michigan Wolverines just a few months after turning 17.
"It was fun," Werenski said at the combine. "I tried not to think about age - just went out there to be a hockey player. Being at Michigan was easy. I was the only one in my draft year, and I didn't have to talk about it too much. I just felt like a player."
In order to arrive on campus early, Werenski had to conquer the state curriculum, too. He spent last summer hitting the books, collecting the credits required to sacrifice his senior year, and play his draft season against Division I competition.
It was a daring move, and not one without risk. He was bolting a program designed to manufacture NHL players to skate with men three, four, and five years older, all while welcoming a college student's workload in the most important hockey season of his life.
"A lot of thought goes into the decision I made. I think I was confident enough to go out there and play college hockey and felt like I was mature enough to go to college and handle everything that came with it," Werenski said.
"As for the draft, I definitely thought it could help, going to Michigan, so it did play a factor in my decision to go early."
And that it did.
Werenski emerged as legendary coach Red Berenson's most-reliable option on the Michigan back end. He scored nine goals, totaled 25 points, added mass to his developing frame, and continued to supplement his offensive skills with a developing physical element. He's considered a top-three player at his position, and will be one of the youngest players chosen in the lottery on draft night.
The investment he placed in himself has proven shrewd, but it's a decision that might have worked out just a little too well for a lifelong fan of the Detroit Red Wings, who select 19th overall.
"Yeah, it would be," Werenski said with a sigh when asked if it would be a dream to be drafted by his hometown club. "I mean, Dylan Larkin - he was my roommate last year and we have been best friends forever. He tells me great things about the Red Wings.
"It would be fun to play there, but I don't care where I end up. I just want to go play."
Though he's raced through his development and left countless teammates and classmates behind, Werenski hasn't made it that far, in a geographical sense.
His home in Grosse Pointe is just 30 minutes from Ann Arbor, the same small town that housed the U.S. National Program, and the campus he expects to return to in the fall.
Barring an unforeseen, out-of-character impulse from the Red Wings organization, Werenski will place his roots elsewhere. This is simply a matter of time.
But for a kid who grew up idolizing a generational defenseman in Nicklas Lidstrom, received in-state polish from the greatest minds in the country, and is now under the tutelage of arguably the most-celebrated coach in the region, don't expect Michigan to escape Werenski when he does cross state lines.