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After a terrifying car crash put his father, Mike, on a long road to recovery, Austin Czarnik made a point of overcoming his own set of odds

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The phone call from big brother Micheal caught ninth-grader Austin Czarnik unawares.

"At first, I thought he was kidding," confesses the Flames' all-industry forward. "He was always joking around with me. So it seemed to be one of those: 'Are you sure?' moments. Didn't take more than a couple seconds, though, to realize you don't joke about something like that."

Their dad, Mike, had been involved in a car accident. A bad one.

"I was 14 or 15," recalls Czarnik. "He suffered a broken neck, broken back, ribs. It took him two to three years to get back to normal.

"A scary time in our lives.

"You hear something like that about someone in your family, you shut down. That's how you react. That helpless feeling, right? There's nothing you can do, as much as you'd give anything to be able to. It's all up to them.

"Life comes at you pretty quick. One minute they're fine, the next it could be life or death.

"He still has to take medication, still gets sore. There's still a rod in his back."

Once sufficiently recovered, Mike - who also works as a pastor - was left no alternative but to dissolve the painting company, RCM, he'd formed with his brother, due to the lifting involved. So he enrolled in school, studying to be a surgical technician.

"He was getting 97s, 98s. It was … crazy," marvels Austin. "I kept asking him: 'Dad, how do you do this?' I wish I'd had those kinds of marks.

"Now he works for GM, as an apprentice, putting together cars. He's lifting heavier stuff but if it's too much, he can back off a bit.

"I cherish every moment I get with him. It's a big thing for our family. We all love each other so much and are thankful for everything we have.

"We're very fortunate to still have him."

Czarnik's mom, Rhonda, remembers the support the two boys provided her during that difficult stretch in all their lives.

"They were," she says from the homestead, in Washington Township, Mich., "a lot of strength to me. They'd hold me when I'd break down, thinking 'How am I going to make it?'

"But we have a heavy faith in God. A heavy faith in family. And we leaned on each other."

The example of the family patriarch professionally re-inventing himself, willing to put in the work required to troop back into a classroom, has stuck with the youngest son.

"Very good people," says Austin's college coach at the University of Miami (Ohio), Enrico Blasi, of the Czarnik family. "Character people. Just salt-of-the-earth. You can see that in Austin. He has a big heart.

"What kind of guy is Austin? Well, we haven't had a great year here in Miami and one day a while back, he sends me a two-page text, kind of a pep talk for the old coach.

"Things I was doing for him, now he's doing for me.

"That's the kind of person he is and how he was brought up."

He was brought up to try. Brought up to stay whatever course.

Brought up, it seems in retrospect, to overcome his own set of odds.

"I remember," says his mom. "one time, sitting in the kitchen, my husband, Austin and I. Every year Austin had to change teams. He was always, apparently, too small. Well, another team was giving us clues that we needed to go somewhere else, to look again. And I remember his frustration. We're telling him: 'OK, we're this crossroads again. We're here to support you if you decide you never want to play again or if you decide you do want to keeping playing.'

"And he went out and made another team. The thing I look at, though, is that a lot of these kids for all those years stayed on only one team and only had one coach. I took it as a blessing that Austin had different coaches, because he learned all kinds of things from a lot of different people. For me, that grew him as a player."

Not that, as advantageous as it might seen now down the road, anything seemed easy at the time.

"Oh, yeah," laughs Czarnik, asked about the 'too-small' tag that has followed him around like a bloodhound on a scent. "There were two or three years where I was constantly being cut from teams. That's why I jumped around so much in Michigan. Compuware, Bell Tire …

"Back then, remember, the NHLer was much different. Bigger, for one thing. So, looking ahead, it felt more like overcoming long odds.

"Now I just feel like I know what I need to do. It's not overcoming the odds anymore, so much as just willing to do the work.

"I'm here now. I just need to stay."

Undrafted, after three seasons in the Boston Bruins organization, playing most in Providence, Czarnik decided to take his shot at free-agency last summer. When the Flames began serious courtship, GM Brad Treliving and head coach Bill Peters famously flew east to Detroit to make their pitch face-to-face.

"I think he's fit in really well," says Treliving, months later. "It's almost been a tale of two seasons for Austin. We him identified and pushed hard to bring him here.

"He came in, had a real good pre-season and then as things got moving found himself boxed out. That's the sign of a deep team, a lot of competition. A line-up gets set, you start having success as a group and it's hard for something to find a way back in.

"But then opportunity presents itself in the form of some injuries, he jumps back in and he's grabbed the chance and had made it real difficult to take him out.

"When he wasn't playing he wasn't pouting, wasn't moping, did the extra work, did his part to be ready."

Always in love with sports in general and hockey in particular, Czarnik has always continued to push foward. He's always fine role models - his dad, his brother and his family, along with cousin Robert Czarnik, who plays for Eispiraten Crimmitschau in Germany.

"I remember cleaning out the drawers in his room once, I think after he'd gone to USA Hockey," recalls mom, "and finding a journal, from Grade 2, where he'd been asked what he wanted to be when he grew up and he'd written: 'I want to be in the NHL.'

"So he knew that early on."

Czarnik's actual pro ambitions began to deepen during his spell at Miami, located in Oxford, Ohio. The foundation for the the university dates back to 1809, when President George Washington signed an Act of Congress. Poet Robert Frost once called it: "The most beautiful campus that ever there was."

Blasi has been head coach of the hockey RedHawks for 19 seasons.

"He came into our program and right away was a guy we trusted. What you see now is what he was in college. Worked hard. Skilled. Could make plays. Ended up being our captain for two years. When he was here we won two championships, he was a three-time All-American and he player-of-the-year one year."

One night remains fixed in the old mentor's mind.

"That last game of his (final) season sticks in my mind. We call it Senior Night, right? It's almost like we scripted it out for him. We played North Dakota and he scored three goals and it was just - we ended up winning the playoff championships that year. To me, it shows you what type of player Austin was for us for four years. He finished off his final season in our building with a hat trick.

"Puts a smile on my face to see him doing what he's doing now because I know he's more than capable, I believe in him, and that it's always been just a matter of opportunity."

Such an opportunity seems to have presented itself here in Calgary.

When Czarnik volunteered to help fiancée Rachael at the local Heroes Hockey initiative he realized how fleeting fame can actually be, though.

"She's never learned how to tie skates or put on equipment, because she'd never been around hockey until me, but she did great," he laughs. "They said if I ever wanted to come along, it'd be low-profile.

"So the first couple of times I went, no one - I shouldn't say no one, I think one kid kinda knew - recognized me. After a while he figured it out.

"I'm nobody special. Just a person whose job happens to be hockey. Rachael and I have had a great time with the kids. Once they did realize who I played for, it was pretty neat to see their reactions.

"Two weeks later, when I went back, after everyone knew who I was, a lot more kids were asking for my help."

The too-small guy that's spent a lifetime, it seems, bouncing from one team to another, proving the naysayers wrong, looking for a hockey home, hopes he's finally found one here.

"People always used to say: It's going to be a long road ahead for Austin," Rhonda is reminiscing. "I alway wondered what they meant by that. Long road in that it's going to be very hard for him or long road in that he's going to finally reach his dream?

"We live on a cul-de-sac. And everyone knew the kids would always be out playing hockey. Once, when Austin was 5 or 6, my next-door-neighbour came up and said: 'Of all the kids out there, you know who I see going to the NHL?' I said: 'Who?' And he said: 'Austin. I see it in him.'

A small, regretful laugh.

"He moved away, that neighbour. So I never got to tell them that he was right."

Oh, wherever life has taken that gentleman, he probably knows.

"Being on a new team," says mom, "is nothing new for Austin. But he always excels, he always rises above.

"It may take him a little while but he usually does. I know this is the NHL now, the best of the best.

"But I still believe he's going to rise to the top."

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