Blue Jackets season preview: Face of the franchise: Zach Werenski

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Zach Werenski was the top-scoring rookie defenseman in the National Hockey League last season. The Columbus Blue Jackets blueliner was one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the league's top rookie. The NHL Network recently listed him as the 13th-best defenseman in the league headed into the 2017-2018 season.

But it seems likely that, no matter what accolades come his way (“I'm predicting Hall of Fame,” said Brad Shaw, Werenski's position coach on the Blue Jackets, when asked what kind of career the 20-year-old could have), Werenski will always be the kid who tweeted out a picture of his busted-up face that ended up being made into a T-shirt.

In the second period of Game 3 of Columbus' first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in April, Werenski was attempting to make a play on the Penguins' Phil Kessel. Kessel's shot deflected off Werenski's stick and up into his face.

“It hurt right away. I didn't know what happened. I just felt a ton of pain going through my face,” Werenski said in an interview at Nationwide Arena. “I couldn't see anything. My ears were ringing. I couldn't hear anything. I kept blinking but couldn't see anything, and once I kind of regained my vision, all I saw was blood in my hands, and I knew I was in trouble.”

Ken and Kristen Werenski were in the stands for their son's first-ever home playoff game — a game in which Zach had already scored his first NHL playoff goal. Talk about a range of emotions for a mom and dad watching their then-teenage son live out his dream.

“Those first 20 seconds felt like 20 minutes,” Ken Werenski said of the moments right after Zach went down. “Then I saw the blood… . My wife was chirping in my ear, pulling on my arm. I was like, ‘If they can stitch him up, he'll be back out there.' Just like a dad, to tell him to suck it up.”

“Your heart just sinks whenever any of the players goes down. When it's your son… I can't describe it,” Kristen Werenski said. “We got up to go down to the family lounge. We didn't want to embarrass him. We just wanted to make sure he was OK. The rest is history.”

It might make for a better story to have Werenski return to the ice and score the game-winner. The reality is that Werenski did return to the ice and skated a couple shifts, but he still couldn't see out of his right eye.

“I'm a hockey player. I wanted to go back out there. That's the nature of the game,” Werenski said. “They have great trainers and doctors here. They stopped the bleeding, stitched me up, took some X-rays to make sure I didn't have a concussion. Then I went back out there and did the best I could, but [my eye] closed on me and that was it. I couldn't play.”

His season was over. Werenski voiced disappointment over not being out there to help his team try to come from behind in the series, which lasted only two more games before the Jackets were eliminated.

But the “history” Kristen Werenski referenced was the image of her son that has become iconic — a badge of honor of sorts that adds to the reputation of hockey players as particularly tough.

“When he broke his face, he asked me, ‘Should I post it?'” Kristen said. “I tell him now that your face is healed you'll need something else to make you famous.”

“I helped him move in [to his Columbus apartment], and we went out to get something to eat. The busboy turns and says, ‘Holy shit, it's Zach Werenski.' Then we stop to get gas and these girls are yelling, ‘You're Zach Werenski!'” Ken Werenski said. “I told him, ‘Only you could get hurt like that and have it work out so well.'”

Zach Werenski has been doing things that it seems only he could do for as long as anyone can remember. His immediate success in the NHL as a 19-year-old continues a trend throughout his hockey life that has seen Werenski consistently competing against older players – and thriving.

“I started skating when I was 3,” Werenski said. “I loved it. My brother, who was 5 at the time, his team needed a defenseman, so they just threw me on the team as a defenseman and it just kinda took off from there.”

The arrangement stuck – not only playing defense, but playing up from his age group.

“My parents never pushed me to go to the rink, and they didn't make me go if I didn't want to. But that wasn't very often,” Werenski said.

“Skating and hockey was all we heard about after that,” Ken Werenski said. “It became our family story, having two boys playing hockey. I think the best thing for us [as parents] is that we didn't have that background in hockey. It was only once the kids got involved that we saw how big it was and that you could play hockey 12 months out of the year.”

Zach dabbled in soccer and baseball as a youth, and he played lacrosse for five years until dropping the sport after his freshman year at Grosse Pointe North High School in suburban Detroit to concentrate on hockey. He was soon playing AAA junior hockey against players a year or more his senior.

“He got involved in AAA, and we didn't want to do it. We'd heard horror stories. At the last minute we thought he should probably try it,” Ken Werenski said. “Early on it's a dream, of course, to play in the NHL, and as a parent, you nurse it. But at 14, 15, the conversation gets a little more serious.”

“Once my freshman year hit and I was still playing with guys trying out for the national team, and I was a year younger, I was like, ‘I can do this,'” Zach said. “When the [USA Hockey National Team Developmental Program] approached later that year and offered me a spot, I looked at … the defensemen they'd put into the NHL and thought, ‘Wow, I can make this a reality.'”

“He was always coordinated and big for his age, and he's always been pretty mature. He always pushed himself to that next level,” Kristen Werenski said.

When the University of Michigan told Zach there was a spot for him starting in the fall of 2014 if he wanted to enroll early, Werenski took summer classes and graduated high school a year before the rest of his class.

“As a parent, you worry about your kid going to college no matter how old they are, so at 17…,” his mother said, trailing off. “But we always had confidence in him.”

“The plan was always to be a college player. We told him, ‘You're going to go to college,'” Ken Werenski said. “The NHL still sounded so far out there. We figured, ‘Become a good person, find balance in your life and the sport will work itself out.' It was a great theory, but we look back now and wonder at how fast things moved.”

A strong freshman season at Michigan proved that Zach hadn't yet reached a point where he wouldn't excel despite his younger age. Tyler Motte, acquired by the Blue Jackets in the same offseason trade that brought Artemi Panarin to Columbus from Chicago, was a sophomore on that Michigan team. Motte had known Werenski from playing youth hockey in the Detroit area and from the national youth hockey program.

“We've known each other a long time and been involved in each other's lives. He was a really young freshman, but we knew he could be an impact player,” Motte said. “I knew from our days in the U.S. National Team that he's an honest guy and expects good things from himself and from his teammates. He's got a leadership quality and a maturity.”

As the 2015 NHL Draft approached, it became clear that Werenski was going to be an early first-round pick. The Blue Jackets selected him with the eighth overall pick, and Werenski returned to Michigan for his sophomore season. After the Wolverines' season ended, Werenski joined the Jackets' American Hockey League affiliate in Cleveland and helped that team win a championship. The following season, he came into his first NHL training camp in Columbus.

“The day I got here I said to myself, ‘I'm staying here,'” Werenski said. “I came to camp fully expecting to make the team, [which is] what every hockey player should do.”

Early on, he was paired with Seth Jones on the team's top defense tandem and was allowed to run the team's power play.

“Everything they threw at me I wanted. I wanted the challenge,” Werenski said.

“He makes a lot of hard things look easy,” assistant coach Brad Shaw said. “He came in and right away established how important he was to our team. What we're asking of him now is to stay on a professional course, to have a fantastic sophomore season and build toward a career that I'm betting gets him to the Hall of Fame. But all of the accolades haven't changed him. … He's a real pro.”

Werenski seems dedicated to this approach. He said he's in no hurry to establish a legacy or to look forward to what kind of career he might have.

“I'm only 20. I've only played 78 regular season games and three playoff games. I'm not even established yet. It's just too soon for me,” he said. “Just having a good year this year and the year after, hopefully I'll be established and stay here as long as I can. At that point maybe you can start thinking about how your career is going to be, but right now it's just going out and trying to win every night.”

All of which is not to say Werenski isn't cognizant of the accolades, of his growing reputation and of his value to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Indeed, he embraces those things.

“When … you think of an NHL team, the first thing you think of [with] Pittsburgh is [Sidney] Crosby. You think of Detroit, it's [Pavel] Datsyuk or [Henrik] Zetterberg. Or you think of the [Chicago Blackhawks], it's [Patrick] Kane or [Jonathan] Toews. It's kind of cool to know when people think of the Blue Jackets, you think of me.

“And at the same time, it's not just me. There are so many guys on our team that people think of. It's nice to be in that group. … I like that.”