STRONGSVILLE, Ohio – Monsters head coach Jared Bednar joked that today’s practice was “just a normal skate.”
The sarcasm was noted, as Blue Jackets first-round pick Zach Werenski joined the club for the first time after signing an amateur tryout agreement (ATO) on Tuesday morning. Werenski is turning pro, now ready to start the next chapter of his career, and today was the first step in that direction.
He made it officially official by signing his three-year entry level contract later in the day.
For a kid growing up in Grosse Point Woods, Mich., not far outside Detroit, there was no bigger thrill than putting on the maize and blue jersey and playing for Red Berenson’s Wolverines. Werenski cherished the opportunity and loved every minute he spent in Ann Arbor, a place he was familiar with before, but didn’t truly appreciate until he attended school and played in historic Yost Ice Arena.
“It felt like home,” he said.
Under the tutelage of Berenson, a college hockey legend, and Mike Komisarek (a former NHL defenseman and current undergraduate assistant coach for Michigan), Werenski’s game took significant steps forward and he was the highest Michigan draft pick since Jack Johnson went third overall in 2005.
Whether it was fundamentals, X’s and O’s, physical strength or growing between the ears, he owes much of his success to the Wolverine program.
And that’s what made it difficult to leave.
In the hours that followed Michigan’s regional final loss to North Dakota on Saturday in Cincinnati, Werenski started to become confident that turning pro was the right path for him. He discussed it at length with his parents, Ken and Kristen, and agent Pat Brisson, before making the decision to open contract discussions with the Blue Jackets.
“Those were the best years of my life,” Werenski said of his time at Michigan. “When I came there, Red told me I wouldn’t regret it, and he was right. 100 percent right. But we decided this was the right move for me and it’s the route I wanted to go.”
After Brisson and the Blue Jackets finished all the paperwork, father and son loaded the hockey gear and some clothes into the car and headed for Cleveland early Tuesday morning.
The 6 a.m. departure after a long weekend that began in Cincinnati, then home to Michigan and on to Cleveland, was a little rough at the start but well worth it in the end.
“It was a long day, but an exciting one,” Werenski said after practice. “I’m really looking forward to being part of this group.”
Werenski was welcomed with a short introduction by Bednar to the team before practice started, and once the first whistle blew, he was one of the guys. He paired primarily with 32-year-old veteran defenseman Steve Eminger, who has played 488 NHL games over 11 seasons with six teams and is now a stabilizing presence on the blue line for Lake Erie.
And while entering a new locker room for the first time can be intimidating, Werenski was thrilled to see familiar faces in Paul Bittner and Sonny Milano, who, like him are Blue Jackets draft picks (all three players were picked in the top 38) and friends from time spent with the U.S. National Team Development Program and World Junior teams.
It’s one practice, one day and one step at a time for the 18-year-old Werenski, who is expected to make his professional hockey debut on Friday night in Chicago.
But he’s ready to get to work.
“I’m sure I’ll be nervous,” Werenski said. “But it’s exciting. I can’t wait to start here and take the next step in my career. Hopefully we have a long (playoff) run.”