By @StefanKubus –
Zach Werenski stayed at home with his parents Monday and had dinner with his grandparents.
It’s not long ago that was routine for him.
The 19-year-old defenseman is a native of Grosse Pointe Woods. He played his youth hockey right in Metro Detroit, his time with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program was spent in Ann Arbor and his collegiate days were also spent in Ann Arbor. Now, he and his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates will take to the ice one final time Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena before the Detroit Red Wings move to Little Caesars Arena next season.
For Werenski, who said he was certainly too young to recall his very first visit to The Joe considering he went to roughly 10-15 games per year as a kid, the game holds greater significance than most. He had taken to the hallowed ice there numerous times growing up, whether it was in youth hockey or eventually in the collegiate ranks with the Wolverines.
“I played a quite a few hockey games here, from Michigan-Michigan State games to my first NHL game to games as a kid,” Werenski said. “I think every one has its own identity. You take something away from each one, but my first NHL game here was pretty special.”
In that first game, Werenski came out on the winning side as his Blue Jackets won 4-1 amidst their surreal 16-game win streak. He recorded two shots on goal in 17:12 and was in the penalty box for a Red Wings goal scored by none other than his lifelong friend and Waterford native, Dylan Larkin.
“It was kind of overwhelming, I looked forward to it so much, I had that date circled on my calendar, and I had so many people here,” Werenski said of his debut. “I was kind of overwhelmed when I took the ice. Obviously it was a really cool moment, but I was kind of happy when it was over when the game ended. I was just overwhelmed with emotions, so I think tonight’s gonna be a little better, just taking it all in.”
This season, Werenski is undoubtedly in the Calder Trophy conversation with his 31 points in 51 games from the blue line. Though his career is blossoming with the Blue Jackets, it’s the hometown Red Wings who sparked a dream in him to one day be in their skates.
“It’s the reason I started playing hockey, it’s the reason I wanted to play in the NHL,” Werenski said of the Red Wings. “The reason I wore 13 is (Pavel) Datsyuk, why I wanted to be a defenseman was (Nicklas) Lidstrom. There’s just so much about it and coming to a game here, seeing all the history and the Stanley Cups and the banners, it just means a lot to kids growing up playing hockey here.
“Obviously, you want two points, but you still kind of find yourself checking where they are in the standings, checking where they are night after night. I always see how Dylan does after game and just shoot him a text, so it’s definitely hard to hate them, a team you grew up wanting to be on.”
Though Werenski said it was hard to pick a particular game from his childhood that stood out, he did single out one game in more recent memory, and it actually involved Larkin.
Werenski was on-hand to see his friend’s NHL debut in the 2015-16 season that saw him score his first NHL goal in a win over Toronto. The duo virtually developed side-by-side, winning youth state championships together before becoming Wolverines together – the pair combined for 24 goals and 48 assists in 2014-15, the lone season they played together in Ann Arbor.
“It would have to be last year, opening night when my buddy Dylan Larkin scored his first NHL goal,” Werenski said. “It’s the rink I grew up watching games in and to see one of my best friends out there scoring his first goal had to be one of the best memories I have here.”
Though Werenski will leave The Joe at the end of the game one last time, he said he’s looking forward to Little Caesars Arena.
“It’s gonna be weird when we land here next year, and we’re not going to The Joe. I think it’s good, though. I think what they’re doing is really good and I think the new building is gonna be awesome, so I’m excited to see it.”
Somehow it only seems fitting that Werenski has finally reached the climax of his hockey journey just before the very same building he grew up in closes its doors.