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Home is Where the Heart Is

Austin Czarnik has finally found his way back to where he has always belonged.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Growing up in the Detroit area, Austin Czarnik dreamed about someday playing for the Red Wings.

It was a big dream for a little kid, especially given that he was constantly considered too small. In his efforts to stand out from the score of similarly ambitious youngsters enthralled by the exploits of a team that had won three Stanley Cups in six years, Czarnik had continuously come up short.

Before Czarnik reached his 16th birthday, the Red Wings would add a fourth championship, but at that point he seemed no closer to his dream than when he first put on skates at the age of five when Detroit had won its first Stanley Cup in 42 years. He had even contemplated giving up his dream altogether.

“I was always being cut from teams when I was growing up because I was always so small,” said Czarnik, who now measures 5-foot-8. “When I was growing up, hockey was a bigger man’s game, so that’s what everybody wanted and I kept bouncing from team to team here in Detroit. I even thought about quitting at one point.

“My mom and dad said, ‘You can’t quit. You love the sport, so keep on going.’ I eventually went to Belle Tire (PeeWee Major AAA) and the team’s coach, Jabar Askerov, believed in me because he was a smaller guy, too, and he got me going and helped me develop. It was probably my best year as a minor hockey player.”

Czarnik has never forgotten the faith that his former coach placed in him. To this day, Czarnik has continued to hone his skills with Askerov, a hockey player of Russian heritage but modest talent who had once trained under Ivan Pravilov, a Ukrainian coach who was considered one of Europe’s top skills instructors.

His success with the Belle Tire team led him to spend the next two years playing for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program’s under-17 and under-18 squads. Finally given a chance, he was scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace. “I felt like I was making a lot of strides,” he said.

He decided he was going to play hockey at Michigan State but eventually changed his mind. “After my 17th year I de-committed, which I feel bad about,” he said. “In the end, it was the right decision.”

Free to reconsider his commitment, he thought about changing his allegiance. “I talked to Michigan, but I didn’t want to go there,” said Czarnik, who was doing his homework.

He was intrigued by the prospect of playing for Miami (Ohio) University, a smaller school where players of similar stature – Andy Miele and Carter Camper (coincidentally, both one-time Griffins) – had thrived under the tutelage of head coach Rico Blasi, who happened to be shorter than all of them.

“I knew what kind of players they were and they were able to take off at school, so I think that knowledge played a big part in my decision honestly,” he said. “I saw myself as a player in the same mold – a guy on the shorter side – and I think their success motivated me to go there. I saw that they had been given a chance and I felt like being the same size, I would be given the same chance if I did what I needed to do.”

To prepare for college, Czarnik spent one year with the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. When word got out about his visit to Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University, Czarnik received a phone call from Derek Lalonde, the current Red Wings head coach who then was an assistant coach at the University of Denver.

Hold your horses, suggested Lalonde, who was on his way to becoming the head coach of the Gamblers the following year. “He said, ‘‘Don’t commit to Miami until you visit here.’ He was trying to recruit me, but I had already decided,” Czarnik recalled. “It’s crazy how everything works out.”

He excelled at Miami, where he started skating on a line with Reilly Smith, a third-round pick of Dallas who has spent the past six seasons with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.

“I was lucky enough to play my freshman year with Reilly and I was able to learn a lot from him,” Czarnik said. “I was able to pick his mind a bit, as well as Chris Wiseman (a defenseman currently with the Montreal Canadiens). Just to hear them talk and be able to learn from them was awesome. They helped me understand the game more and to know what I needed to do.”

Czarnik was named captain of the RedHawks before his junior season, which was the only losing campaign in his four years at Miami and Blasi’s first losing season in nine years.

“I had never been a captain anywhere and it was a challenge because the team didn’t do as well as had been projected,” he said. “For some reason, we just never clicked. We had a tough year. We had a rough start and things just kept spiraling down. That year helped me understand how to become a leader.”

Blasi had nothing but high praise for his former captain in a Czarnik feature for The Athletic.

“His work ethic, his care level for his teammates, his passion to play the game and to get better every day, was evident, so it was a no-brainer,” said Blasi, who believes the “C” on a player’s jersey is more than a letter. “You’ve got the well-being of the entire program and the team. It’s quite extensive in terms of the pressure and sheer responsibility. It’s not just talking to refs… you’re the spokesman, you’ve got to do all the interviews, you’ve got to do all the talking between periods, you’ve got to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

For his part, Czarnik thrived in that environment.

“Everything fell into place for me in college,” said Czarnik, who earned his degree in kinesiology at Miami. “I was very happy there. I took the biggest strides in college, which set me up for success. I was able to produce and do what I needed to do. Rico (Blasi) and the whole coaching staff made me into the player that I am and they helped me get my first contract to start my pro career.”

As an undrafted free agent – he was bit by the old bugaboo about size once again – Czarnik was able to choose from potential suitors for his potential introduction to the NHL after college. His agent talked to several teams before he decided to sign with the Boston Bruins.

“I felt like it was a good fit,” he said. “Looking at their lineup and with the Bruins being an Original Six team, it looked like things could work out for me, which they did. As a pro, I spent my whole first season [2015-16] in the minors, but in my second year, I was given an opportunity. I enjoyed my time in Boston because it’s a first-class organization. They helped me get my feet wet in the NHL.”

Over three years, Czarnik produced 17 points (5-12—17) in 59 NHL games and 155 points (51-104—155) in 157 AHL games. Roughly half of his games were spent playing for Bruce Cassidy, the former Griffins head coach (2000-02) who was behind the bench in both Providence, where Czarnik began his pro career, and, later, Boston, where Cassidy coached for six-and-a-half years before going to Vegas this season.

“I liked playing for Cassidy,” he said. “He let me know when I was doing something wrong. When I needed to be held accountable, he made sure that I was held accountable but it wasn’t like he was yelling at me. He kept reminding me that I needed to get my motor going and keep my legs moving.

“I always enjoyed him as a coach. He believed in me and gave me a lot of opportunities when I was in Providence. I don’t have anything bad to say about him at all.”

Czarnik’s stay in the Bruins organization ended in Providence. He played 10 games in Boston during the 2017-18 season but ended up spending most of the year in the AHL. “It was frustrating because I felt like I was ready to make the jump,” said Czarnik, who ended up talking with Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “He told me that I would have to go through waivers and they didn’t want to lose me. It’s an answer you don’t want to hear, but it’s honest. I respect him for telling me.”

Even so, Czarnik was ready for a fresh start.

“I wanted to see what else was out there,” said Czarnik, who decided to test the open waters and become a free agent again. “I felt like I owed myself the opportunity to go into free agency and see which teams were interested.”

He signed a two-year deal with Calgary, where he played a career-high 54 games during the 2018-19 season. Over the last 26 games, he tallied four goals and eight assists.

“There was some initial adversity, with not playing every game,” he said. “But over the last three months, I got into a groove a little bit. I started playing with the same guys where you can build that chemistry. I think the year ended up well.”

The following season, 2019-20, he was scoreless in the Flames’ first five games, then scored a goal in back-to-back games after breaking the streak with an assist. But his good fortune was stopped by a high ankle sprain that kept him off the ice for several weeks. By the time he was ready to return, his replacement, Calgary second-round pick Dillon Dube, was playing well enough that Czarnik ended up spending the rest of the COVID-shortened season in the AHL with the Flames’ minor league affiliate.

“Injuries happen and things happen that you can’t control,” he said. “We had a good team and I ended up having a good time in Stockton.”

Still, Czarnik was ready for another change of scenery. This time, he headed to New York, where he spent the entire abbreviated 2020-21 campaign on the Islanders’ NHL taxi squad.

“I ended up practicing almost the whole year,” he said. “I played only four games, so it was one of the hardest years of my career. I felt like I was just ‘there.’ You’re not doing anything, but they are keeping you there just in case. It was weird and crazy at the same time.”

Thankfully, Czarnik and his wife Rachael found comfort in the birth of their daughter Colette in December of that season.

“Lou Lamoriello, one of the best general managers in hockey, is very family-oriented, so I was allowed to stay until the baby was born,” he recalled. “I missed a week of camp, but I had to leave my daughter when she was two days old, which was hard. It was definitely a long year, but having our daughter made everything better.”

Last season was another whirlwind for Czarnik, who split the year between the NHL and the Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. He appeared in only 11 games with New York, recording two goals and three assists in limited NHL action. “I was just sitting and I wanted to play, so they put me on waivers,” said Czarnik, who was claimed by the Seattle Kraken.

Czarnik appeared in six games with Seattle before he found himself on waivers again, this time being reclaimed by the Islanders and finishing the season in Bridgeport.

If he felt like a yo-yo, it was nothing new, and a feeling he has learned to endure.

“It never gets easier. You just get used to it,” he said. “You don’t even know where you’re going to be half of the time. I don’t know how my wife and daughter do it. I thank God every day they stay with me. It’s a hard life for them. It’s not easy, but they’re hanging in there. They’re still supporting me and that’s all I can ask.”

Needless to say, Czarnik and his wife were beyond thrilled when he signed a two-year deal with Detroit this past offseason. Both of their families still reside in the Detroit area, where they bought a house shortly before COVID.

“It was awesome – I’ve always wanted to come here,” he said, beaming like a cat that just caught a mouse. “We tried before I signed contracts with Calgary and New York, and it just didn’t work out, but it’s something that I always wanted to do. Being able to come home on off days and being close to family is great. To be a part of the organization – and to already have played some games in Detroit – is a dream come true.”

After scoring a hat trick in his second game with Grand Rapids on Oct. 15 against San Diego and recording five goals and five assists in his first eight games with the Griffins, Czarnik made his Red Wings debut on Nov. 8 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. In his second game, he scored his first goal for Detroit in a 3-2 shootout loss against the Montreal Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena.

“It was my daughter’s first game since I came to the Red Wings,” he said. “She only stayed for the first period because it was her bedtime, but she was able to see my first goal which she might not remember because she is still very young – she’s almost two now. But it’s a moment that my wife and I will always remember.”

Czarnik made the most of his 9:29 in ice time. He capitalized on a nifty pass from Dominik Kubalik as he was driving the net after coming off the bench at the 16:29 mark of the first period. “My wife told my daughter that Daddy just scored and one of her favorite words is ‘goal,’ so she raised her arms and said ‘Goal!’ So that was really cool.”

He looks forward to keeping the momentum going. As far as he’s concerned, the path is simple.

“When I’m moving my feet, everything opens up,” he said. “I feel confident with the puck and when I’m confident, I’m able to create better plays, take better shots, and force more turnovers. When my feet are moving, I can disrupt a lot of stuff and that leads to generating more offense.”

He knows his hot start won’t likely last, but that shouldn’t change the way he plays.

“Unless you’re Connor McDavid, it’s hard to get points every single game,” he said. “You’re going to have games where you feel better and you’re not going to get a point and you’ll have games where you feel terrible and you get two or three points. I don’t think the points matter. It’s how you play night in and night out.”

Size, of course, is always a factor, but the only difference it makes is in how he approaches every game. Some people might think “small,” but he likes to think “big.” It’s a tall order for any player to contribute consistently, but he contends that he is up to the challenge. He intends to keep pouring his heart into every game.

“When you’re smaller, you just have to work harder and smarter than everyone else,” he said.

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