How Ann Arbor’s Andrew Copp went from prep football star to Red Wings free-agent prize

Detroit News

It’s hard to get anywhere meaningful in life without a little luck.

Of course, it’s often said luck is simply when preparation meets opportunity — and if that’s the case, Andrew Copp has it in spades.

Copp, an Ann Arbor native and Michigan hockey alum, on Wednesday signed a five-year, $28.125 million million contract to play for his hometown team, the Detroit Red Wings. He faxed over his signed contract shortly after the noon opening of free agency to the man whose posters decorated the walls of his childhood bedroom, Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman.

Talk about a moment of gravity.

“Growing up in the Yzerman, (Brendan) Shanahan, (Nicklas) Lidstrom era, and then into the (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg era, I was a huge fan of Detroit growing up,” Copp said while speaking to the media Wednesday. “It’s cool to be coming back home and trying to recreate the magic a little bit.”

Copp, 28, had a career year last season. He put up 53 points in 72 games for the Winnipeg Jets and New York Rangers, where he was traded at the deadline. With New York, his offense exploded: 18 points in 16 games to close the season and 14 points in 20 playoff games. With every point added, he added a little more cash to his free-agent ticket.

But 11 years ago, Copp was better known locally as a football player. In 2011 for Ann Arbor Skyline, he set state records in single-game passing yards (557) and tied a record for touchdown passes (seven) in a losing effort against Ann Arbor Pioneer. He had a cannon for an arm.

His father, Andy, said at that point, it was “almost 50-50” as to whether Copp would try football or hockey at the next level.

But a moment of down luck would change his life forever. Copp suffered a broken collarbone that ended his season. He recovered, had a standout season playing for Compuware and the US National Team Development Program, and was offered the last scholarship Michigan hockey had to offer. Football was out of the picture.

“We really didn’t recruit Copp in the normal recruiting process, and I don’t know if he was playing another year of junior, or what he was going to do,” former Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson told The Detroit News.  “All of the information we got was just what you’re gonna get: He’s a hard-working kid; he trains hard.”

The first time he was eligible, before his freshman season, Copp was passed over completely in the NHL Entry Draft.  After a 38-game freshman campaign, in which he scored 21 points over 38 games, his life’s trajectory changed again.

He was taken by the Winnipeg Jets in the fourth round of the 2013 draft and given the ‘A’ in his second season with the Wolverines. His junior year, he was named captain, and his senior year never came. He’d shown enough to convince the Jets to sign him to an entry-level deal after his third season with Michigan.

“He can do a lot of things to help a team win. He knows what it takes to win, he knows what good leadership is, what teamwork is, what dedication is, he’ll be a good role model,” Berenson said. “I think, eventually, he’ll be part of the leadership group in Detroit.”

Going from an over-aged fourth-round pick to a top free-agent prize is a remarkably difficult task. A little bravado helps. Current Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson, who helped recruit Copp while serving as an assistant on Berenson’s staff, said the first thing that stuck out to him was that Copp was “he was really confident in himself.”

“I know he wasn’t overly recruited and wasn’t maybe highly recruited like some of the players are, but he had an unwavering confidence in his ability. And how he could stack up and perform against other players,” Pearson told The Detroit News.

To anybody who knows Copp — especially the ones who really know him — nothing about his journey is a surprise. His father, who coached him at Compuware, said that despite his potential as a football player and love for soccer and baseball, he always knew his son was a hockey player at heart.

“He played other sports and enjoyed other sports, but you know, if we’d sit down for dinner, he would dump out the little paper salt packets and sweetener and all that kind of stuff,” Andy Copp said.

“He’d dump them out, divide them up into teams, and they’d play hockey against each other. At home, he’d go out and get Beanie Babies and marbles, and they’d form teams and play hockey against each other. That was kind of how he was.”

This past spring, New York made a run to the Eastern Conference final, taking a 2-0 lead over Tampa Bay, who’d eventually win four straight to send Copp and Co. packing. He wanted to make it work with the Rangers; re-sign, take another run at it.

Copp is, after all, the type of piece — a middle-six center with versatility, good defense and scoring ability — that the Rangers would be looking for to get over the hump.

But he’s learned the hard way that life doesn’t always work out the way you want it to. And that sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. Fortunately for Copp, right now, he’s both.

“When things with the Rangers didn’t really work out, I think it was an easy pivot for me to want to come to Detroit,” Copp said.

“We were lucky enough to get something done and that I fit their needs, too.”

Twitter: @nolanbianchi

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