Friday Night Lights was a 2004 sports drama film about a west Texas town obsessed with its high school football team while it made a run toward the state championship.
And Odessa, Texas appears to be an unlikely outpost for two brothers from South Lyon, Zach and Cooper Zech, who are pursuing their long-term hockey dreams in the same city.
Perhaps a sequel to hockey’s version of the book, on which the football story was based – Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H. G. Bissinger – might be in the offing.
Zach Zech, a 19-year-old center, played his final 16 games with the Odessa Jackalopes of the 22-team North American Hockey League after being shipped just two days prior to the trade deadline by the Johnstown (Pa.) Tomahawks.
Zach also played two games last season during a weekend call-up for the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks before going back to Johnstown.
On the move
“Getting traded was kind of a shock,” said Zach, who played a total of 49 NAHL games last year scoring seven goals and 18 assists. “The (Johnstown) G.M. just pulled me into his office and said me and another kid on the team were going to Texas. We looked at each other and were going like, ‘Hum, go play junior hockey in Texas? Sounds like a plan.’ It wasn’t bad. I loved it.”
And now Cooper Zech, a 16-year-old defenseman who played last season for Major Midget AAA Victory Honda of the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League, will be joining his older brother this season in Odessa as well after going in the third round (58th overall) in the NAHL Draft.
Cooper, who scored two goals and added 13 assists in 31 regular season games, helped second-place Victory Honda to a 23-6-3 record and a second-place finish in Tier 1. (Victory Honda was ousted in both the league and Michigan Amateur Hockey Association playoffs.)
“It should be a lot of fun,” said Cooper, who just returned from five-day USA Hockey Under-18 evaluation camp in Amherst, N.Y. “I’ve never played with him (Zach) before. I’m excited. It’s tough. It’s a older league (NAHL) and there’s just a lot of big, strong, fast kids. He just told me to ‘play your game and keep your head up because there are some big kids down there.'”
Cooper, who measures 5 feet, 7 inches and weighs 140 pounds, knows the knock on him is his lack of size. And although he did not earn a spot on the USA’s 23-member Five Nations Cup team that will play later this summer in the Czech Republic, he tried to make an impression among the 180 players invited to the camp.
“I’d say it was just a good opportunity to play with guys my age that were bigger, faster and stronger than anyone else,” said Cooper, who played five games for Team Forest Green. “I felt had a very good camp. What I bring to the table is making smart plays with the puck and my slap shot.”
Zach, meanwhile, is one of Cooper’s biggest supporters.
“He’s one of the most skilled kids I’ve seen play the game,” Zach said. “He’s got the best hockey smarts I’ve ever seen. He knows where to go and what to do in every situation. You never see him not know what to do when he’s playing against bigger, stronger and older kids. He’ll fit in. I think he’ll be really good on our power play. He’s more of an offensive defenseman. He’s going to generate a lot of offense.”
Zach compares Cooper’s style of play and stature to a young Torey Krug, a Livonia native who went on to star at Michigan State and is now a defenseman for the NHL’s Boston Bruins.
“That is exactly what I say he is every single day,” Zach said. ‘It’s exactly who he plays like.”
The Zech brothers hope to elevate the Jackalopes from the bottom of the NAHL’s South Division where they finished with a 15-38-7 record.
The 5-9, 185-pound Zach has listed several goals entering the 2015-16 NAHL season.
“I want to get deep into the playoffs with the team,” he said. “More than anything, I want to the team to be successful. Odessa really hasn’t made the playoffs that many times. I want to go deep into the playoffs and hopefully win it of course. On an individual note, I want to get commitment to a (college) scholarship.”
And although the Zech brothers will be teammates, they’ll be living apart with different host families, which proved to be a mutual decision.
“My coach called me and asked me if I wanted to live with him and I told him, ‘No, not a chance,'” cracked Zach. “We lived together for 16 years and we both want our own junior experiences. I think he was shocked that I said that. You only get to do it once and me and Cooper want to have the same experiences, but we’ll have our own separate ones, too.”
Added Cooper: “It’s going to be different. The coach asked me if we wanted to live together, but we’ve lived together our whole lives. We thought we’d mix it up a little bit and get the whole experience.”
And although the City of Odessa is football crazy, the Jackalopes do have get their fair share of fan support drawing upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 a game.
But playing hockey in desert-like climate like Odessa may be like no other.
“Our closest road trip is seven hours,” Zach said. “We just get on a sleeper bus. We have a bunch of bunk beds and travel.”
Cooper said he will not attend the local Permian High School, which the Friday Night Lights book was based upon, but will take online courses instead to finish his high school requirements. (He played for South Lyon Unified during his freshman year and would have been a junior this fall at South Lyon East H.S.)
As an over-age NAHL player, Zach will concentrate strictly on hockey. Practices are held during the day, so the life of an NAHL player is unique when there’s no school.
“In Johnstown we’d hang out with some of the guys and play X-Box, and that kind of stuff,” Zach said. “In Odessa you go over to somebody’s house lay out at the pool, go swimming and get a tan.”
And playing along side his younger brother for the first time is something that could proved to be priceless.
“I think it’s going to be an experience,” Zach said. “I think it will be really cool.”