As is tradition for countless fathers in Southeast Michigan, Patrick Marody often took his son Cooper to hockey games when the boy was young.
The Marodys are a hockey family, and in the mid-2000s, there weren’t many better places for a hockey family than their hometown of Brighton, Mich. Forty-five minutes east, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg lit lamps and dazzled fans on a nightly basis with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings amid their most recent dynasty. Twenty minutes south, Red Berenson had built the Michigan hockey team into a collegiate powerhouse, then in the middle of a legendary streak of 22 straight NCAA Tournament berths.
So it’s no surprise that Cooper quickly fell in love with the sport. But when Patrick took him to games, he noticed something interesting.
“He would just stand,” Patrick said. “He wouldn’t want to sit down. He would stand, and he would watch all the players. He was mesmerized in watching them do every move.”
By nature, hockey is chaotic. Players slam into each other at speeds of 20 miles per hour or more. Pucks can fly five times that fast. It’s energetic, electrifying and exhilarating — and for a newcomer, especially a child, it can be nearly impossible to comprehend.
And yet, that was all young Cooper wanted to do. Instead of embracing the mayhem, he dug deeper. He was entranced by the sport’s skills, structures and subtleties. He would watch highlights, go to bed, wake up and watch more. He became, in his father’s words, a “student of the game.”
“He wasn’t just watching the excitement of the game, he was watching the strategy and how the players go and how they perform with the puck and things of that nature,” Patrick said. “… Some people go to an event where they just watch the chaos in the event. … He wasn’t watching the chaos, he was watching the individual players, what they do and how they do it.”
This is how a young student of the game became a Big Ten Player of the Year finalist, as the best player on the most surprising team in college hockey.
Cooper Marody was born on December 20, 1996. On its own, it’s not a terribly consequential date of birth.
In hockey, though, it’s a sentence of sorts. Youth hockey is split into different age groups based on birth year. At an early age, those with January or February birthdays are often stronger, faster and farther along in their physical development than those born in November or December.
Growing up, Marody knew he wasn’t going to outmuscle or outskate anybody, at least not just yet.
But maybe he could outskill them.
Instead of darting all over the ice in an attempt to make an impact, Marody let the game come to him, eyes scanning all over the rink, carefully anticipating his next move before incisively doing so. His intelligence and calm attitude allowed him to make up for his physical disadvantages and mentally stay ahead of his competition. Know when to pass, know when to shoot. Know when to lie back, know when to go for it.
“There are players that run all over the ice, and it looks like they’re doing a lot, and there are other players that strategize and they anticipate how the game is going to go,” Patrick Marody said. “… Cooper’s a wait-and-then-attack type player versus run to the front lines, attack and all hell breaks out.”
Marody’s voracious appetite for highlights also served him well. Thanks to his initial exposure to the Red Wings, he obsessed over Zetterberg’s puck handling and Datsyuk’s shiftiness, hoping to emulate elements of their playing style in his own game.
“(Zetterberg and Datsyuk) are extremely good leaders and lead by example,” Marody said. “Also just puck possession is phenomenal, the way they see each other on the ice was phenomenal to watch, their puck protection, the way they work to get open all over the ice. And just little things whether it’s manipulating a defender’s stick so a pass gets through, everything like that.”
When the age differences finally began to level out and Marody caught up physically, he remained a step ahead. His skills and intelligence were what first attracted Berenson to offer Marody a scholarship to play hockey at the University of Michigan.
“He’s got hockey smarts,” Berenson said. “He senses what’s going on. He doesn’t waste his effort. He’s not one of those players that’s skating all over the place for nothing. He’s an efficient player … As much as he’s a good passer and a good playmaker, when he gets around the net he can snipe goals as well as anybody.”
Added his current coach Mel Pearson: “There are some things that are God-given that I think you’re born with. … Just being able to see the ice and hockey IQ. You can get better, you can watch the game and learn the game, but some of that is innate. You just have that, you just understand it and he’s got it.”
Pearson compared Marody to a quarterback in football or a point guard in basketball with his feel for the game, a la Tom Brady or Chris Paul in skates.
“You understand the game so well, you’ve got a real good feel for what’s going on and what’s going to transpire,” Pearson said. “That feel or that sixth sense, that’s what makes the great players special.”
It didn’t take long for Cary Eades to notice what made Marody special.
In 2014, Eades, then the head coach and general manager of the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, had just acquired Marody in a trade with the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
Marody had requested the trade himself. Muskegon, he said, just wasn’t a good fit. The numbers bore that out — just 30 points in 58 games during the 2013-2014 season, and nine in 14 games a year later.
Sioux Falls offered not only a fresh start, but a glimpse of the player that Marody had the potential to become.
“He came down the right wall on the power play on a breakout, entered the zone and just a cross-ice pass, backdoor tap in for (current Portland Winterhawks forward) Kieffer Bellows,” Eades remembered. “I looked at that and said to my assistant, ‘We haven’t seen that kind of a play in a while.’ ”
From there, Marody blossomed. In 38 games with the Stampede, he scored 20 goals and assisted on 29 more — a per-game figure that ranked second in the USHL behind only future Michigan superstar Kyle Connor.
With talented linemates in Bellows (52 points) and current Denver forward Logan O’Connor (36), Marody and Sioux Falls tore through the USHL Playoffs on their way to a Clark Cup sweep over none other than Muskegon.
“We had instant chemistry, which is great,” Marody said. “Team really bought in, everybody played their role… and that’s an experience I’ll never forget and I learned so much from.”
Marody stepped on Michigan’s campus in the fall of 2015 after having proven what he could do at the highest level of junior hockey. But it didn’t take long for new challenges to arise in Ann Arbor.
“Guys were just bigger and stronger,” Marody said. “Guys like (JT) Compher, Boo Nieves, Justin Selman, they were huge, strong guys and it’s like, ‘Geez, these guys are like grown men.’ ”
Again, though, Marody grew up quickly, practicing daily against future professionals on the Wolverines’ talent-laden roster. While he didn’t explode onto the scene the way Connor — a Hobey Baker Award Finalist in 2016 — did, his 24 points in 32 contests ranked fourth among Big Ten freshmen in points per game.
It was easy to envision a bright future ahead.
“We had him on a line with Tony Calderone and Brendan Warren and there were nights where that was our best line, and Cooper was one of our best players,” Berenson said. “Now that didn’t happen every night, but it happened enough that you saw that this kid’s going to be a good player.”
Soon after Michigan’s 2015-2016 season ended with a loss to North Dakota in the NCAA Tournament, the attrition began. Nieves and Selman? Graduated. Connor? Gone. Compher? Gone. Michael Downing, Zach Werenski and Tyler Motte? All gone as well.
All of a sudden, Marody was the Wolverines’ second-leading returning scorer. There was no hesitation about his role this time — Michigan needed a new offensive engine, and Marody had the talent to fit the bill.
There was one slight problem. The aforementioned attrition involved Marody.
A January 2016 bout with mononucleosis forced him to miss six games. The consequences ran deeper than just hockey — the illness set him back academically, to the point where he was ruled ineligible for the first semester of his sophomore year.
“Obviously he wasn’t as happy as he usually is,” said junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi. “He’s a pretty happy guy, and when he can’t play for pretty much a whole year out of two years being here it’s really frustrating.”
But the time in which Marody was unable to play revealed something else about him.
“He wanted to play so bad, and he was our best player in practice every day,” Berenson said. “He was playing on our fifth line with a couple of lesser players, but he made that line really good, and he made our team better even though he wasn’t in our lineup.”
Marody seemingly has a gift for making the most out of any situation, for creating something from nothing. He developed a skilled, cerebral playing style out of his late birthday. And while being held in hockey purgatory, he made the weight room into a temporary home.
“He just worked really hard off ice, making himself stronger, and on the ice in practice too, as well as in the classroom,” said senior forward Dexter Dancs. “… It was a good time for him to get stronger physically, so he utilized it.”
Even Marody’s ice vision and feel for the game — already his best attributes — only got stronger. Watching his teammates from Yost Ice Arena’s press box, five levels above the rink, he could process the game in a different and valuable way.
But maybe most importantly, his desire to suit back up never wavered.
“I think you realize once you’re not playing that long, just for anybody how much you love it, or how much you miss it,” Calderone said. “He sat out there for a while (due to) unfortunate events, but I think he really built up the passion again.”
That was clear from the moment Marody returned to the ice in December 2016, as he instantly breathed life into the Wolverines’ stagnant offense. In his second game back, the third-place game of the Great Lakes Invitational, he dished out three assists in a 5-4 win over Michigan State. One month later, he recorded his first career hat-trick — in just the second period alone — to power Michigan to an upset at No. 11 Ohio State.
For the second half of the season, Marody’s 15 points were by far the most on the team. His return was everything the Wolverines hoped it would be.
Now he just had to prove himself over a full season.
Michigan finished third-to-last in the country in Corsi percentage and averaged just 2.6 goals per game in 2016-2017. The Wolverines’ leader in points — then-freshman forward Jake Slaker — registered just 21.
This year, however, Marody’s emergence has catapulted Michigan’s offense into the upper echelon. With 14 goals and a whopping 32 assists, he currently leads the Big Ten in points with 46, and ranks second in the country in assists.
“He’s always had the skill, even back when I recruited him back in the day, he’s always had the skill,” Pearson said. “It’s just the consistency, doing it game in and game out. Anybody can have a decent weekend here or there, but when you put it together and you’re averaging more than a point per game, I think that’s a measure of a pretty good hockey player.”
Even considering all the questions surrounding Michigan before the year, ask anybody in the program if they anticipated this kind of a season from Marody, and the answer is matter of fact.
“Yeah, pretty much,” junior forward Brendan Warren says. “I’ve always known he’s super skilled, and we did a lot of skating in the summer, and I saw how much work he put in. He was looking really good coming into this year, so I knew he was going to have a big year.”
Adds Dancs: “He’s one of the big talents in the Big Ten … if not the NCAA, so (I’m) not surprised at all.”
Marody, for his part, credits everyone around him for his breakout season. His teammates — especially his linemates Dancs and Calderone. Michigan’s coaching staff. Team culture. And so on and so forth.
“I really like the chemistry with my linemates,” Marody said. “Dexter and Tony, I’ve said many times all the great things they do on the ice. Our power play’s really starting to click now. And just the overall structure of our team, the coaching staff has been really great implementing the new system.”
You could simply chalk that up to traditional hockey humility. Until you watch Wolverines’ “DMC” top line at work.
On one wing, Dancs, the bruiser on the boards and in front of the net, scraps for pucks and wins battles of grit. On the other lies the senior captain Calderone, the lethal assassin with a laser shot who can fire from anywhere.
And in the middle there’s Marody, the heartbeat of the offense, coolly surveying the ice and threading the puck to Dancs and Calderone from any angle.
“He’s a passer, and I’m a shooter,” Calderone said. “He does all the skill stuff, and will slide it over to me, and I shoot. That’s my strength, and it plays to his strength too.”
For a player with Marody’s gifts, it’s a perfect set-up.
“You’ve got to be teamed with the right guy, right teammates, linemates,” Eades said. “He needs a finisher, he needs someone who’s going to do the dirty work in the corners and get in front of the net.”
That formula has worked wonders this season, taking Michigan from the nation’s 42nd-highest scoring offense to seventh, from 13 wins to an almost-guaranteed NCAA Tournament bid in a single year.
Fitting, perhaps, that the Wolverines’ biggest win of the season — and maybe their ticket to the dance — was sealed with a quintessential DMC goal.
On Feb. 18, with the second period winding down in a scoreless game against Notre Dame, Dancs closed in hard on Fighting Irish defenseman Dennis Gilbert, forcing an errant pass. Marody grabbed the loose puck and skated forward, and as two Notre Dame defenders closed in on him, he dropped it off for Calderone, wide open in the high slot. Michigan’s captain made no mistake, firing the puck just above Cale Morris’ glove for the game’s only goal, and a sweep over the nation’s No. 1 team.
“Usually, when we need someone to take over a game,” Warren said, “Him and maybe Tony or his line, or the power play even, will find a way to do it.”
That’s exactly what happened in Michigan’s Big Ten semifinal matchup against Ohio State. The Wolverines hadn’t beaten the sixth-ranked Buckeyes in four meetings, and had yet to even come close. Marody had registered only a single point against them.
But with the road to a Big Ten title threatening to end in Columbus, Marody did exactly what Warren said he would.
In the second period, Marody caught the puck in the Ohio State crease and dropped it down just in time to finesse a chip shot over Sean Romeo. A period later, he unleashed a tornado-esque spin from the top of the slot to tie the score at two, where it would stay until the end of regulation.
Marody’s performance, however, wasn’t enough to win the game for his team, as the Buckeyes scored the winning goal in overtime.
But it was enough to show, if it hadn’t been shown already, that Cooper Marody — college hockey superstar — had arrived.
On March 7, Marody, along with Morris and Ohio State forward Tanner Laczynski, was named one of three finalists for Big Ten Player of the Year.
“You don’t necessarily say I want to do this and that, or get this many points or get this honor,” he says. “You just play to be the best player you can be, and whatever happens at the end of the season is a result. But I think if you would have told me that this team would be seventh in the country… I think that would mean more to me.”
Still, it should give Marody some more things to think about once the season is over. While he’s focused solely on Michigan and the postseason right now — understandably, of course — almost everyone around him agrees that his professional future is bright. The Philadelphia Flyers selected him in the sixth round of the NHL Draft in 2015, and Marody’s play this season might convince them to take the leap on him.
“Coming out of his year with us … (he had) abilities to make it to the National Hockey League one day,” Eades said. “Those are not things that you say lightly.”
Those are strong words, indeed — strong enough to make you forget that Marody has still only played one full year of college hockey.
“I really hope he stays as a college player and graduates and is over-ready when he gets (to the NHL),” Berenson said two weeks ago. “… For me, it’s an easy decision. You stay at Michigan, you continue to grow.”
Added Pearson: “I always think if you can continue to improve here, there’s no rush. You want to make sure you’re ready physically, emotionally, spiritually, every way, to handle the grinds of pro sports.”
Pearson states that the decision on going pro after the season likely will ultimately come down to Marody and his family. But right now, they can afford to take their time.
“His dream was to go to Michigan his whole life since he was a little boy,” Patrick Marody said. “… We didn’t talk about Michigan hockey until we got offered, so then you start talking about it. Right now you got your job to do and just try to focus, and I believe that’s the best way. You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. Stay in the moment.”
And Cooper Marody has waited his whole life for this moment. No, not waited — studied for it. Meticulously prepared for it. Worked as hard as he can for it.
A winding road of starts and stops, of illness and ineligibility, has produced a confident ice general, who knows every inch of the rink and can make magic happen at any given time.
Finally, the student of the game can show off everything he has learned.