Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Zach Werenski (Team USA) will be skating in Cincinnati this weekend, chasing a NCAA championship in his sophomore season. The defenseman was selected in the 2015 NHL Draft in the 1st round, 8th overall and has enjoyed a point-per-game season from the blueline this year.
Werenski has already had experience skating under the local spotlight of Ohio hockey during Michigan’s season, but is excited to do it under the pretense of playoff hockey.
“I think the first time I played Ohio State this year it was a little nerve-wrecking just because it was the first time back since being drafted there,” Werenski said. “Second time we played there we played at Nationwide which was pretty cool. Just to be here in Cincinnati and being in Ohio is always fun when you’re playing in the state you’re drafted by.”
The Grosse Pointe, MI native played on an accelerated track after his first season with Team USA and was able to develop even further his freshman season prior to the NHL Draft.
Werenski credits the American development model of USHL to college hockey as giving him the opportunity to develop to the best of his hockey abilities.
“I think it’s helped me a ton off the ice and on the ice,” Werenski said. “On the ice I’ve gotten better in the d-zone and I’m harder to play against then when I first came in. Off the ice I’ve put on quite a few pounds in the weight room. My strength coach does a great job for us. For me I’ve matured as a player and a person which is huge.”
The University of Michigan hockey club leads all teams in the NCAA Tournament with 20 USHL alumni on their current roster. College Hockey Inc. recently completed a survey of Michigan-born players in the NHL and found that 87% of players played college hockey, a growing trend in recent years.
Momentum from the USHL and college hockey have helped push the growth of USA Hockey into more local communities, and has created a long list of high-end NHL prospects.
“The USHL is such a great league and it produces so many good players and having 20 of them on our roster is huge for us, and is the reason we’ve had so much success now,” Werenski said. “I think a lot of guys are familiar with the league and when they get to Michigan they play a similar style and that’s huge.
“I think it’s awesome for the U.S. For example Auston Matthews from Arizona should be first overall pick this year. That speaks volumes to what USA Hockey is doing right now.”
Werenski took a step back to remember his youth hockey upbringing with Belle Tire (T1EHL) and Little Caesars (HPHL) that got him to this point. There is only one thing that has kept him going, and has inspired him to achieve his dreams of playing in the NHL: having fun.
“You can’t take it too seriously,” Werenski said. “For me personally I’m playing my best hockey when I’m having fun. If there’s ever a second you’re not having fun I feel like it’s kind of a lost cause. You just have to go out there and have fun with it.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.