- James Coller/Daily
By Jeremy Summitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 29, 2014
It’s not too difficult to find Zach Werenski and Dylan Larkin together. Whether they’re riding bikes around Ann Arbor, sitting together in class or playing Ping-Pong in South Quad, the two roommates aren’t easily separated.
As two of the top hockey talents in the NCAA, Larkin and Werenski are being heavily relied on to bring the Michigan hockey team back to its former prominence. The pair of talented freshmen bring innate chemistry and a passionate work-ethic to a team looking to find its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
The duo shares a long-standing friendship that’s rooted within the hockey community of Southeast Michigan. Werenski and Larkin played together during their tenures with the Belle Tire Hockey Club from their U-12 to U-16 season.
Werenski was already a member of the Belle Tire organization before Larkin made the team. Ever since Larkin accepted his offer and found his niche within the organization, the two have shared a lasting bond.
“In the locker room before the games, he would give some pretty funny speeches,” Werenski said. “It carried on through the years, and he still is the funny one today.”
Larkin recalls Werenski being a jokester himself, though, and that wasn’t the only way he stood out. Larkin recalls that Werenski was always one of the biggest kid on the team, despite his age. Throughout his career, Werenski — currently a 17-year old who graduated high school a year early to enroll at Michigan this season — has always competed against players older than himself.
While spending their youth hockey days together, the duo helped guide Belle Tire to three consecutive state titles. They reached the finals again in their final year together, but fell just short of a fourth straight championship after losing to Detroit Honeybaked in the finals.
Heartbreak in the finals preceded a disappointing offseason in which Werenski and Larkin were forced to part ways. Larkin was ready to take the next step in his progression as a college prospect. He made the short trip — albeit a permanent one — to Ann Arbor to join the U-17 United States National Team Development Program (U.S. NTDP) in 2012.
Meanwhile, Werenski accepted a challenge to play with kids that were three years older, including his brother who was a senior at the time. The same year Larkin joined the U.S. NTDP, 15-year old Werenski earned a spot on the Little Caesars U-18 Midget Major team, one of the premier programs in the Midwest.
He was still missing one of his best friends, though. After growing so close in their years with Belle Tire, the two tried to stay in contact by texting each other from time to time.
“I remember him coming to games, and I knew he was being recruited by (the NTDP),” Larkin said. “We would talk about how his year’s going, what was going on with him and how I was doing.”
Werenski’s opportunity to play for the NTDP opened the door to Ann Arbor, the town that would ultimately reignite a bond that came to fruition many seasons ago.
“It was like we never missed a beat,” Werenski said. “We picked right back up where we left off and it was cool to go in there with such good friends.”
Werenski would eventually join the U-17 NTDP in 2013, playing with kids his age for the first time in his career. In games against Major Junior and NCAA teams across the country, Werenski recorded the second-most points on his team among defensemen despite missing a month due to injury. He finished the season with seven goals and 20 assists in 47 games.
Larkin had a spectacle of a season, too, with the U-18 NTDP as he finished fourth on the team in scoring with 56 points (31g, 25a) in 60 games. And Werenski was fortunate enough to get promoted to the U-18 team for four games, netting one goal in his first chance in more than a year to play with his best friend.
Last season, with both in the NTDP, Werenski and Larkin were able to learn from each other and spend time at each other’s sides in school and away from the rink.
“I think it kind of took it to the next level,” Larkin said about their friendship. “We had a couple classes together, and we talked more and we saw each other every day. I was a (U-18) and he was a (U-17) so I kind of gave him advice about how to go about the (U-17) year.”
The story that follows is likely the most familiar among Michigan hockey fans. Larkin, a Waterford, Michigan native, committed to the Wolverines as a member of the 2013-14 recruiting class.
In the early summer months, Werenski, a Grosse Pointe, Michigan native was working to find a way to forgo his senior year of high school and his final season with the NTDP in order to enroll a year early at Michigan.
In order to sign, he took five summer-school classes, proving to Michigan coach Red Berenson that his mind was completely immersed in school and hockey. And upon completing all the necessary requirements, Werenski found his way into the 2014-15 freshman class at Michigan after signing his letter of intent on July 21. He was back to playing against the old guys again.
Between two prestigious programs in the NTDP and Michigan, Larkin and Werenski are back to being best buds. They attended Drake’s and Lil’ Wayne’s concert over the summer, and still jam to similar musical selections in their dorm room.
Outside that door, the longtime duo takes its hockey sticks and a tennis ball into the hall. Walking up and down the corridor, Larkin and Werenski pass the furry, yellow ball back and forth, off the wall and shoot it into their room when they’re finished.
They snack on their favorite foods while catching NHL action on their TV. Larkin jokes that Werenski loves his chocolate chip cookies, but only if they’re the soft ones.
Werenski claims Larkin is typically more competitive than he is. They play Ping-Pong two to three times a week, and Werenski used to get the best of Larkin.
“At the beginning it was me, but he’s coming back for sure,” Werenski said. “He’s quite the Ping-Pong player now.”
Within just months of being at the University, Larkin and Werenski have worked through the transition side by side, just as they always have. In the rink, they’re focused on rekindling some playoff magic from their hardware-hoarding days in youth hockey.
The Michigan hockey program has been stuck in mediocrity lately, now searching for just enough pizzazz to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. And together, the only way they know how, the two longtime friends are embodying every essence of that challenge.