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'I'M BETTER PREPARED'

Austin Czarnik turned the adversity of last year into fuel for the upcoming season

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Coast to coast, he carried the puck, down the wing and across the line, lowered his head and blasted away.

Bar down.

Like it was nothing.

"Oh, that?" a furrow-browed Austin Czarnik said Sunday. "That's a little something I've been working on.

"What did you think?"

Impressive, no doubt.

The Oscar-worthy performance, that is.

Czarnik, slowly cackling before breaking into an all-out howl, couldn't contain his laughter any longer, chalking his Gartner-esque romp up the side wall, snipe and 'celly' to the goalie - Jon Gillies - choosing to avoid head trauma, more than anything.

But that doesn't account for the smile. The swagger. The confidence that is quite clearly back after a season with more bumps than a Costco parking lot.

"Last year, for sure it was tough, at times," the 26-year-old said. "There was a lot of learning.

"I learned how to carry myself, whether I was in or out of lineup. I learned about me and who I am, with all the ups and downs.

"I didn't change much about my summer routine - my approach coming into camp is still the same about wanting to lock down a roster spot - but I have a healthier mindset now after going through the different experiences last year.  

"Just being aware of the different situations and what could happen has put me in a better headspace this year."

 

 

Czarnik appeared 55 games with the Flames last year, but admits the 28 regular-season and four playoff tilts he watched from the press box made it feel like he was less a part of the Flames' division-winning campaign than the stats actually show.

"It was a challenge," he said. "I had really high expectations for myself, but you have to get into a rhythm and really understand what's going on.

"Last year, man, the team was rolling and you don't do anything about it, nor would you ever wish for that to happen. Obviously, you want to be out there playing, too - you want to be part of it, especially when things are going so well. Who doesn't want to be part of a winning team?

"So, sure, it was hard to deal with at first, but I had a great support system - a lot of people to talk to understand more about the situation, and I think I took a good approach with it.

"Going into this year, my mind's in a lot better situation and I'm better prepared for the challenges that come my way."

Czarnik was, quite simply, a victim of the numbers game.

The emergence of players like Dillon Dube - who cracked the opening-night roster and was recalled twice - Garnet Hathaway, or the second-half heroics of Andrew Mangiapane after being summoned from AHL Stockton, made things more difficult.

Through it all, Czarnik achieved a career high in goals (6), points (18), game-winning goals (3) and was a fixture on the right flank on the second powerplay unit.

He also enjoyed a stretch from Feb. 16 to 26 when he had points in five of six games, including goals in three straight.

That, after being the odd-man out for one of the longest periods of his career.

 

 

For 30 consecutive days, he did nothing but practice.

That left plenty of time for self-reflection, too, as leaned on those around him and re-connected with old peers to get their perspective on managing this pivotal time in his career.

"I talked to my family a lot," Czarnik said. "Family is always there for you and is willing to help you out, no matter what. I also reached out to some of my old coaches, just to ask for their advice, and if they'd seen anything in my games that stood out to them as an area of improvement.

"Obviously, the coaching staff here was great, too. Bill, Husk (Ryan Huska), Gelly (Martin Gelinas)... they're there for you at all hours of the day.

"That's huge. When you're not playing, you never want to be left in the dark and be wondering why. They were always giving good, positive feedback and trying to help me get better.

"That's what it's all about.

"But, without question, the biggest help was my wife, Rachael. Just hearing her talk, the little things that you need to hear - 'Remember how you got here!' - that makes all the difference."

Rachael, his "rock," has been a pillar of strength in Czarnik's life since 2015 when he returned home to Michigan for Christmas and the pair first met.

They wedded this past summer in Rochester - a small city on the north side of the Detroit Metro area.

Now, along with their furry Goldendoodle, Bo, they're back in their Calgary home - a humble abode in the southwest community of Marda Loop - ready to take it all on, all over again, together.

"When you have a support system like that, it helps tremendously and it all helped put my mind in the right place moving forward," said Czarnik, who's been on a line with Derek Ryan and Milan Lucic the past two days at practice. "Next thing you know, I get back in when Nealer (James Neal) got hurt, I got on a little streak and was really feeling confident again. And any player will you tell you about the value of confidence. When you get one goal, you start feeling good, you start rolling.

"For me, it kept rolling until the end of the year. That set me up for a great off-season and the good feeling I have now, here in camp."

Czarnik is entering the season feeling good about his chances, but isn't taking anything for granted. He knows that with a lot of good, young players pushing for ice time, and a swath of quality PTOs looking to make to make a name for themselves or - in some cases - extend their NHL careers, the competition over the next two weeks will be high.  

"I don't look at our roster any different now than I did a year ago," he said. "We've got so much talent here.

"Tons.

"So, no choice. I've got to go out there and earn it."

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