How football, baseball — and not playing soccer made Red Wings’ Andrew Copp a hockey star

Detroit Free Press

For Andrew Copp, his first potential roadblock in his sporting life came in soccer.

“I had a soccer coach tell me I should quit hockey and concentrate on soccer,” Copp recalled. “Not that I should, but I had to if I wanted to play on his team.”

At the time, Copp was all of 9 years old.

What is wrong with some of these coaches? That is a rhetorical question because we know that there are oh-so-many youth coaches and trainers who believe the world revolves around their sport and every other activity is a complete waste of time.

Thankfully, Copp has two rational parents — Andy and Anne. They wanted him to experience as many sports as possible and the same for his younger brother, Tyler, who is now a professional golfer.

So the thought of giving up hockey was unimaginable to Copp.

“Yeah, that’s not going to work for me,” Copp said when faced with the ultimatum. “That was the end of my soccer days.”

Copp, 28, couldn’t help but laugh at that moment in time, especially now that he recently signed a five-year, $28.125 million free agent contract with the Detroit Red Wings.

This is a timely and important lesson for high school athletes about to begin their 2022-23 school year.

Specialization in hopes of a scholarship

Specialization is the mortal enemy of every high school coach at every high school in Michigan. The same is true for the athlete, who becomes more at risk for repetitive motion injuries because of  repeatedly using the same muscle groups.

But parents see athletic scholarships as the answer to their prayers for paying for college. Forget that less than 2% of high school athletes receive any kind of athletic scholarship, many of which are only partial scholarships, parents are positive their kid will be one of the chosen few.

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Feeding that nonsensical train of thought are personal trainers who convince naïve parents having their kid train with them is the only way to reach the next level.

These trainers — few of whom are actually capable of helping — don’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. We’re talking straight cash, homie.

And, by the way, the only way to reach the next level, some of them claim, is for your kid to specialize as early as possible, giving them even more time with the trainer, who can charge parents even more money.

Hockey had always been Copp’s favorite sport, and he had a lot of success playing his way through the Compuware system.

As a 10-year-old, the team played in Russia and two years later they played in Sweden and won the national title.

“That’s when I was like: ‘OK, we’re pretty good,’” Copp said. “There were a lot of good players and there’s good players that don’t play on the best teams just due to where they live and that stuff, but we had a very deep team. But I definitely knew at that point I was in the upper echelon of players my age.”

That is when a lot of kids, egged on by their delusional parents, would decide to specialize in that one sport and drop everything else. But that was never a consideration for him.

“Still, at that point, I was more concentrating on having fun,” he said. “You dreamed about playing college and in the NHL, but you’re really just thinking about the next year and having fun with your friends. I loved playing baseball.

“A bunch of my friends on my Compuware team played baseball together. We would do tennis tournaments. We just kind of did everything together and it wasn’t just hockey, which was awesome.

‘I couldn’t quit’

Copp entered Ann Arbor Skyline as a freshman after attending a private elementary and middle school and immediately went out for football — a sport he hadn’t played since flag football in sixth grade.

“Part of it was it was a great way for me to meet some of the kids in my class that I was going to go to school with before walking in as a freshman,” he said. “My dad wanted me to have it help with my physicality on the ice, to understand leverage or just get used to a little bit more of the contact.”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Copp was the aspect of the football team that appealed to him most of all.

“Honestly, the other part of playing other sports, especially football, really helped me be around people that aren’t like me necessarily,” he said. “Playing a high school sport, especially in Ann Arbor, the team is going to be very diverse and being a captain you have to be able to connect with a lot of types of people and that really helped me kind of round out that side of who I am now.”

He had few expectations when he went out for football. He was working out at cornerback when he picked up an incomplete pass and rifled it back to the coach.

That was enough for coach Randy Hutchinson to give Copp an opportunity to play quarterback, and it was a perfect fit in more ways than just one.

Skyline was a first-year school and had only freshmen in the building at the time.

“Really, he was the guy that helped us recruit a lot of the kids that were considering Skyline,” Hutchinson said. “They knew Andrew and his personality and his leadership stuff came through as a 14-year-old. He’s just a special kid.”

Copp also played baseball through his sophomore year and as he gained experience in football, he became a definite college prospect.

One thing Copp never developed was the  attitude that, because of his success in hockey, he was more special than any of his football teammates.

“Andrew, from the time that I met him, was an executive brain; super, super good student of both games,” Hutchinson said. “But the unique thing was a lot of times you get kids and they’re prima donnas, but he was tough. He wanted to play goal line defense.”

One of Copp’s goals was to play for USA Hockey, which trained in Ann Arbor but would have required him to give up all other sports.

As a junior, a week before USA Hockey’s season began, officials went to Copp and offered him a roster spot.

“I was the captain, the quarterback of the football team and I just did not want to bail on the team after one week and, I guess, just quit,” he said. “I told them no. I wanted to do it badly, but I couldn’t quit football.”

Late in that hockey season an injury opened up a spot on the USA team and Copp took it and played so well, the organization wanted him back the next season even though he would still be a football player.

“I was so lucky and so thankful to the people who let me do that at the USA program,” he said. “That was one of the best experiences of life, being able to do both my senior year of high school.”

Football shapes a hockey star

Since it was its first season of varsity football, Skyline didn’t win a game in Copp’s junior season. But you never would have guessed it speaking with Copp, who had a blast.

His senior season was much better and Copp was terrific. In a 52-49 loss to Ann Arbor Pioneer, Copp threw for a then-state record 557 yards and added seven touchdown passes.

Pioneer’s Drake Johnson, who later played at Michigan, ran for 394 yards and six touchdowns in that game.

“It was a little bit like a video game, just going back and forth,” Copp said. “I think we were both kind of feeding off one another. Those competitive juices were definitely flowing both from a team standpoint and trying to best the other great athlete in Ann Arbor.”

Playing for USA Hockey was quite demanding and then there was being the quarterback of a high school football team.

It took some sacrifice and finagling to make all the pieces fit.

“I had the greatest teacher in the world — Tom Pachera — who let me miss some class time to let me to go USA to workout, skate and practice, and then I would come back and practice football,” Copp said. “I did that four days a week for eight or nine weeks.”

With Skyline at 3-3 and a chance at a state playoff spot, his football career ended in Week 7 when he was tackled from behind and broke his collarbone.

The next year he was playing hockey at Michigan and now has played in the NHL for seven full seasons.

Copp is adamant that playing football has made him a better hockey player.

“Being able to take a hit to make a play, understanding how to accept contact and be able to concentrate on the throw when someone is bearing down on you has some similarity to hockey,” he said. “How to accept contact and knowing where people are coming from so you are able to protect yourself a little bit because hockey is a very violent game just like football.”

There are guys who years ago specialized in hockey and Copp thought were better than him back then. But they have been out of the sport for years now while his career continues to flourish.

“You see a lot of kids that are the best at their age when they’re 12, 13, 14 and they get burnt out by the time they’re 18, 19, 20,” he said. “I was very lucky not to feel that way about hockey. I think that’s a big part of why I still feel like I have parts of my hockey game that I can get better and continue to improve and I feel like I’m still trending upward instead of plateauing or being on the decline at 28, 29.

“I think a lot of it is not specializing in one sport.”

Hope this sinks in.

Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at mick.mccabe11@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Save $10 on his new book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” by ordering right now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com

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