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2013-10-25

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

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Andrew Copp: Off the gridiron, onto the ice

By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 24, 2013

Andrew Copp sat at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube three years ago, facing one of the defining moments of his young athletic career.

He had waited so long for this occasion — essentially his entire life.

At the end of August, before his junior year at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor even began, Andrew sat with his father, Andy, listening to coaches from the U.S. U-18 National Team Development Program. They presented Andrew with an opportunity, one that had fallen into place in just a short time: the chance to play hockey while representing his country.

The privilege is afforded to less than 25 young men each year. The group travels the country to play against the best college talent and garners the attention of college coaches and most importantly, National Hockey League scouts.

Andrew had tried out for the team in March, but didn’t make it. Now, he sat staring down his second chance at fulfilling “a dream,” as his father would later say.

But there was one caveat.

“You’ll have to quit football,” they would tell the starting quarterback.

Quit? Surely, there must be a way to do both. They wouldn’t leave him with that ultimatum, would they?

“I can’t. I can’t quit on my team. I can’t let those people down. I can’t walk out on these people now,” Andrew would recall.

So he didn’t. Now there’s no hesitation in his voice when he speaks. He glances back up and continues his story. Andrew’s gotten used to repeating it, now.

“I guess looking back on it, it was kind of dumb,” Andrew said with a laugh.

“I wasn’t 100-percent excited about the decision,” his father added.

Yet behind the disappointment and the frustration, Andrew’s life fell into place five months later, putting him on his path to Michigan.

Three years after that fateful day, Andrew is an alternate captain for the Michigan hockey team as a sophomore forward, waiting for his time to join the Winnipeg Jets organization. Once again in his life, Andrew finds himself at the center of an organization. And at the center of Andrew is his character.

“I think that’s what really defines his character level,” his father said. “That he was willing to turn down his dream, because of his responsibility to his football team.”

Andrew’s character level has come to define his work ethic. His work ethic has come to define how he performs in a game. And his performance could be what defines the Wolverines this year.

***

Andrew Copp grew up in a hockey family. Like so many of his teammates, he has played since he was young and hasn’t stopped.

“Since he could walk,” Andy said.

His father has been a hockey coach for nearly all of Andrew’s life for the Compuware teams a short drive away in Plymouth, Mich.

Andrew’s mother was a figure skating coach for the Wolverines, making her living on the ice. His brother, meanwhile, is also a hockey player.

Andrew’s father wasn’t a standout NHL player or a college star, but he loved the game — something his son has picked up as well.

When he wasn’t on the ice, Andrew spent his time watching more hockey, idolizing players like Michigan’s first Hobey Baker winner and Vancouver Canuck, Brendan Morrison. And when he wasn’t watching it on the TV or playing on the ice, Andrew travelled the 15 minutes to campus to watch Michigan play at Yost.

“Hockey was always his first, and his second, commitment,” Andy said.

Andrew’s family owned season tickets for much of his childhood, where he witnessed the great players like Morrison and goaltender Marty Turco on the ice.

Andrew, though, had his chance to follow his childhood dream by accepting the position on the U.S. NTDP — which regularly fed players into Michigan. He turned down that future.

***

Andrew Copp was a natural, even though organized tackle football was never a reality until he was 14 years old and a freshman in high school.

At Emerson School, a K-8 school 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor, Andrew didn’t have the opportunities to compete in anything outside of basketball or track, so he competed in flag football on weekends in the fall and baseball in the summer. Hockey was always his No. 1 priority, though. After eighth grade, Andrew sat down with his parents at home and discussed his future.

Andrew wasn’t keen on going to a private school in Ann Arbor. And with a new public school opening nearby to relieve the overcrowded Ann Arbor Pioneer and Huron High Schools, there was one likely choice. Plus, Skyline offered football, something his parents supported in the summer and hoped would act as an important social aspect.

“I encouraged him to play football, because I thought it was a really good experience for him,” Andy said. “I thought the physicality would definitely help him in hockey. That was one of the things that Michigan and other schools had said, they wanted to see him be a little bit more physical.”

Andrew wasn’t quite ready for the next stage in hockey, but football helped prepare him. With football, he could improve his physicality for hockey. Everything was done for hockey.

***

From the start, Andrew was destined to be a quarterback: not strong enough to be a lineman, not quite tall enough to be a wide receiver, but a powerful arm, shiftiness and decisiveness.

“I personally think he’s the best quarterback I’ve ever seen,” said Skyline head coach Lee Arthur, an 18-year veteran coach with time in Saginaw and Ann Arbor Huron. “I’ve seen some great quarterbacks, and I don’t care what name you pull up.”

Andrew rarely lined up under center, almost always in shotgun, where he was as much of a threat to run as he is to pass. His throwing motion is a bit unorthodox, though, resembling current Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez’s baseball motion. Andrew would wind his arm back like a pitcher would a fastball, shifting momentum back and then thrusting himself forward.

But if anything, Andrew was effective. He escaped pressure, with a quick lateral juke when his line fell apart or moved the play to the right to force a receiver open when the play had broken apart.

“He’s one of the smartest guys on the football field,” Arthur said. “He knew where he was going with the ball — he could read defenses.”

Arthur knew in a late September night when Andrew ran right as a pocket collapsed, three defenders giving chase, then four, then six. Five yards back, Andrew stuttered as the tackler made his move too soon, grabbing Andrew’s shoulders in a last effort to bring him down.

At the moment when he appeared to fall, Andrew ducked the tackle and sprinted forward with his eyes looking downfield. In that moment there were four defenders closing in from every direction. Before he was hit, Andrew slid with his left leg forward and heaved the ball to an open receiver eight yards down the field from the line of scrimmage.

A 10-yard loss turned into a 25-yard gain, and a drive down the field that looked threatened was given new life.

The lineman placed his hands up and walked with his head staring down at the field. He looked confused. He knew there were so few quarterbacks that would have opted to make that play, because there are so few athletes like Andrew Copp.

***

Second chances are hard to come by. But Andrew Copp’s came just five months after he turned down his dream.

An ankle injury had cut his junior season of football short by a couple of weeks, and took him out of any sort of physical activity for November. Andrew’s love of hockey never stopped, but now there were fewer options to continue playing.

There was the United States Hockey League, but that would mean a full-fledged commitment. Andrew still wasn’t going to leave his team, not when they needed him in his senior year.

But in December, just before his holiday break, Andrew received a visit from Ryan Rezmierski, the head of hockey personnel of the U.S. NTDP.

“What have you got going this weekend?” Rezmierski said.

“I’ve got a couple of Michigan Major games,” Andrew replied.

“Well, not anymore,” Rezmierski responded. “We need a guy and you’re our guy.”

There was a spot for him, if only just for one weekend, when injuries and camps left the U.S. NTDP with only eight forwards before a weekend trip to North Dakota.

Here Andrew sat again, with the same opportunity to live out his dream. This time there was little hesitation.

Andrew travelled to Fargo to play for his first game of the weekend against the Fargo Force of the USHL. His team lost, 7-1. Andrew had the only goal.

He was moved to the top line in the next game, where he played well enough against skaters more than six years his age. His performance on short notice was enough to keep him on the team for good, even with football, for the next year and a half.

Back at Yost, Andrew’s eyes begin to close a bit and a smile lights up his suddenly red face. After sitting on the edge of his seat for 15 minutes, Andrew finally relaxes, talking about a dream fulfilled.

“I was ecstatic,” he said.

***

Andrew Copp never had a leader to look up to in high school — there was no class in front of him at the newly formed school.

He was the captain since his freshman year in the program. But when he played hockey actively for the U.S. NTDP, he was pushed.

“He probably wasn’t playing his best hockey during some of those years because of splitting the sports and splitting the seasons,” Andy said.

Added Andrew: “But I don’t think stressful is the word, because I loved to do both.”

Monday through Thursday, Andrew left school early to make it to the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, where the U.S. NTDP practices, for early lifts. He hopped onto the ice before any of his teammates to get in as much work as possible.

He left hockey early, speeding back to school to be on time for football practice. Arthur and the rest of the coaching staff knew about their quarterback’s situation, but Andrew had determined he wouldn’t be late. He owed it to his team.

“Going from hockey to football, there’s just a complete difference,” Andrew said. “But I’d say it made me more focused.”

Not many people would take on the responsibility. Not many people could handle the responsibility.

Andrew chose to take Thursdays off from hockey after a couple weeks, when the strength and energy was gone. When it was all said and done on a given night, Andrew arrived home around eight in the evening, weary and tired.

“Homework took a backseat for awhile,” Andrew said with a smile.

***

Andrew isn’t the first Michigan hockey player to come from a football background. Former Michigan captain Luke Glendening played fullback at Grand Rapids. One of last year’s alternate captains, Lee Moffie, played quarterback in school before he arrived to Michigan.

But Andrew might be the only one to hold a state record in football.

Midway through Andrew’s senior year, against newly formed rival, Pioneer, Andrew threw for 557 yards, a state record that still stands, and tied the record with seven touchdowns. Skyline still lost, 49-52.

“He would never talk about the state record,” Arthur said. “Not as much as he would talk about losing that game.”

Andrew wants to win. He’d later be a part of putting a board in the locker room at Yost that reads, “Win the next game.”

With three games left in his senior season and a 3-3 record, his hopes of making the state playoffs were still within reach, and they began on senior night against Bedford.

Midway through the second quarter, Andrew broke free to the right on a designed quarterback run. The weak side defensive end caught Andrew on the play from behind, driving his shoulder into the ground.

“That broke my collarbone pretty good,” he said slowly.

Andrew’s family arrived from Boston and all over to see him play. They watched the last half with him on the sidelines. That was Andrew’s last play of football. It’s painful for him just to think about it.

“He wasn’t really concerned about if he would ever play again, or his season-ending injury,” Arthur said. “He was more concerned about winning the game. He was hurt, because he couldn’t finish it with his teammates."

Skyline would lose its last three games.

***

The dream of playing college hockey never died, though. There were opportunities for Andrew, but by April, he hadn’t been offered much from Michigan. There was a spot for him to walk on, but no scholarship.

The Wolverines not only lost in April to Cornell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but also lost one of their strongest offensive weapons, Chris Brown, to the NHL weeks later.

Michigan coach Red Berenson and the rest of the coaching staff had briefly talked with Andrew, but still no scholarship sat on the table. Offers from Nebraska-Omaha, Western Michigan and Miami Ohio came in, but many schools hadn’t seen enough of him since they recruit during the football season.

“You go through a lot of doubts, wondering if you’re going to be able to play college hockey,” Andy said about his son.

But after Brown’s departure, Andrew went from an afterthought to an important recruit for the coaching staff. Michigan coach Red Berenson and assistant coaches Billy Powers and Brian Wiseman invited Andrew in for a visit that same month.

This was it, the opportunity to play for the team he’d grown up watching. He made one more visit, but by then, Andrew was being spoiled. At the end, Andrew and his father walked with Berenson out to the car while Andrew smiled the entire time. He committed that night.

“I’m sure he wanted us to want him, too,” Berenson said. “He wanted this to be a good fit. And I think it’s worked out better than anyone could have ever imagined.”

***

With 1:07 remaining in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship, Notre Dame’s Jeff Costello flung the puck near center ice into an empty net past a diving Steve Racine, and with it, Andrew Copp watched his team make history. After 22 consecutive NCCA Tournament berths, he would have his name associated with breaking “The Streak.”

This wasn’t what Andrew had in mind when he set foot in Yost. The Streak started before he was born and would end on his rookie campaign, no matter how hard he worked.

This memory haunts him. It haunts everyone on that team.

But months later, Andrew is with his family at the Prudential Center in New Jersey. He’s waited three rounds of the NHL Draft to hear his name called until the fourth round by the Winnipeg Jets.

A smile filled his face at that moment and four months later, it’s still there when he describes the story.

“It was indescribable, really,” Andy said.

For now, Andrew is beginning his sophomore year at Michigan, where the jersey he pulls over his head is emblazoned with the ‘A.’ It’s Oct. 9, the Wolverines’ season opener against Boston College, and Andrew skates out onto the ice with the same drive that he did under his father’s tutelage and the same passion he had from the beginning.

“The Victors” echoes throughout the cavernous roof of Yost as Andrew skates out to the circle to take the first faceoff of the year. He yells out to his teammates, piles on the net just before the faceoff with everyone.

He’s back in his element now as a leader.

“He is me and (senior forward) Derek’s (DeBlois) gateway into the lower classes,” said senior defenseman Mac Bennett. “He is the guy who is close to the freshmen, he is close to the guys in his class, and he’s done a tremendous job.

“Andrew is a very easy kid to be around. There’s a reason he’s a captain.”

And yet just month ago, Andrew was visiting his alma mater for a football game. Watching from the stands this time, Andrew had his phone out, sending texts to Arthur on the offense’s miscue or where the defense is exposed. He talks with former teammates after the game or calls up his coach from time to time.

It’s been three years and he’s wearing skates instead of cleats, but Andrew Copp still won’t give up on his team.