In recent years, it’s become a hockey hotbed and a place that was a little off the radar itself: Oxford, Ohio – the home of the Miami University RedHawks.
Under charismatic head coach Enrico Blasi and crew, the program has taken off and is becoming a noteworthy producer of NHL-caliber talent. All-Star puck-mover Dan Boyle, recent Stanley Cup runner-up Andy Greene and 2011 Hobey Baker Award winner Andy Miele are among the RedHawks' prized former pupils.
There are a few drafted players in their ranks at the moment, but special note is being taken on one of Miami’s undrafted, but certainly not unskilled, forwards, Austin Czarnik.
Unlike his cousin Robbie Czarnik, property of the Los Angeles Kings, Austin wasn’t drafted. In fact, despite an impressive performance at the 2012 World Junior Championship for the United States, the Michigan native was passed over twice by all 30 NHL clubs.
In 2012, he was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team after potting 27 assists and 37 points in 40 games. His assist total led a talented team that needed lower classmen to step up after losing former college standouts Carter Camper and Miele. Czarnik's 37 points were a firm second behind current Dallas Stars' forward, Reilly Smith.
As Miami lost another key top-line member, Czarnik was depended upon heavily to help guide an offense that has been hemorrhaging top-line scorers. He has not at all disappointed. He and Washington Capitals draft pick Riley Barber have formed a dynamic duo that has sent the RedHawks soaring to the top of the CCHA pack.
At the collegiate level, it’s routine to have a freshman start on the lower lines and work his way up as he earns the respect of his teammates and coaches. However, due to a myriad of circumstances, Czarnik was thrown right into the fire in Miami and he didn’t take very long to figure it out, either.
“He came in pretty complete,” said Miami University assistant coach Brett Brekke. “He was basically the number one center and a top [special teams] guy from his first day as a freshman.”
It’s not surprising then that the former Green Bay Gamblers (USHL) star was a hit against the best of his peers at the World Juniors in 2012. He was regarded as one of the USA’s best players and showed a ton of emotion during the team’s otherwise disappointing tournament. The heart that he showed in Alberta was not a show for the cameras or a jolt from wearing the red, white and blue, it’s an everyday thing.
“He doesn’t take shifts or practices off,” coach Brekke explained. “Austin has such a high compete level.”
What is surprising, however, is the fact that Czarnik’s rights don’t belong to an NHL club. Coach Brekke shares in the bewilderment.
“[It’s] shocking that he wasn’t selected,” he says, sounding almost as exasperated as he was when he first learned that Czarnik had been categorically rejected the previous summer. “It’s a question of size…and I completely disagree [with the thought process], the smaller guys that have trouble are missing something. Austin is not, he’s got explosive skating, high compete level, terrific skill…he has these things.”
For small players, the NCAA is sometimes a more attractive option because student-athletes have the extra time to develop and the extra time to hit the weight room due to the difference in scheduling between college and Major Juniors. There’s no doubt that the creative stickhandler and patient playmaker could stand to thicken up a little more before he embarks on the long grind that is North American professional hockey, but few young players – much less undrafted ones – are going to come ready-made for the show.
Given the headlines and attention that Tampa Bay Lightning forward Cory Conacher is garnering (not to mention one of his oft-referenced, diminutive teammates), perhaps scouts and NHL general managers will be reminded, again, that they should take a longer look at the shorter kids. While the RedHawks are hopeful Czarnik returns for his junior and senior seasons, they realize that there is about to be a number of tempting offers out there, each and every one of them admitting to a previous oversight.
Follow Mike Farkas on Twitter via @MichaelFarkasHF