OXFORD, Ohio – The night is always darkest before the dawn and three prominent Miami University hockey players will return to bring the light back for the 2014-15 season.
Amid questions of foregoing eligibility and moving into pro hockey, junior forwards Blake Coleman and Austin Czarnik along with sophomore forward Riley Barber are remaining in Oxford to move the RedHawks forward next year. That trio scored 51 of MU’s 111 goals and posted 119 combined points last season, helping move Miami to the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference Title Game.
“It is safe to say that everyone associated with our program is excited to have everybody on board for next season,” Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said. “Nobody is satisfied with the results of this past year. I think we showed what we were capable of at the end and that has created some momentum and excitement as we prepare for 2014-15.”
Despite the impressive individual seasons of all three, Miami lost to Denver, 4-3, in the championship game. That loss capped a 15-20-3 campaign that saw the RedHawks miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2004-05 season, snapping the nation’s second-longest active streak of eight-straight postseason appearances. At the end of the day, that was not a note Barber, Coleman or Czarnik wanted to close their collegiate careers on.
Czarnik led Miami with 47 points (13 goals, 34 assists) a year ago, earning First-Team All-NCHC honors in the process. The MU captain was also a finalist for the NCHC Forward of the Year award, posting 22 points in conference play. The Washington, Mich., native enters his senior year tied for 21st in school history with 124 career points. His 47 points are tied for the ninth most nationally entering the Frozen Four while his 34 assists sit sixth among all NCAA players.
“The biggest part in my decision to return was standing at the blue line watching Denver celebrate after we lost,” Czarnik said. “That loss hit me hard. This was a hard decision, but that was not a feeling I wanted to end with here. I want to come back and win a championship. I committed here for four years and feel like I need to live that commitment out and graduate with my senior class.”
Barber, a sixth-round pick (167th overall) of the Washington Capitals in 2012, tied for the team lead with 19 goals while his 44 points ranked second on the RedHawks. The Pittsburgh, Pa., native was a Second-Team All-NCHC selection. In 78 games, Barber has 83 career points (34 goals, 49 assists). He tied for the national lead with four shorthanded goals and his four game-winning goals led the RedHawks.
“Knowing how close we were to winning the tournament played the biggest role in my decision,” Barber said. “I want to create a legacy here and win a lot of championships with this team. The main thing that brought me back was winning and knowing we have a team that can win next year.”
Coleman also tied for the team lead with 19 goals, despite missing 11 games due to injury. A third-round pick (75th overall) of the New Jersey Devils in 2011, Coleman also posted a career-high 28 points in the 27 games he suited up in. He recorded nine multi-point games, including six multi-goal performances. After returning to the lineup on Feb. 21, Coleman caught fire to help fuel the RedHawks’ surge to the NCHC Title Game. The Plano, Texas native tallied nine goals and 12 points in Miami’s final 10 games, notching five multi-point games in that span.
“This is a great group of guys to play with,” Coleman said. “I believe that we have a lot in this locker room and some unfinished business going into next year. We’re going to develop that much more coming back this year with the culture in Oxford and the support of the coaching staff.”
All three players were vital components to Miami’s 2012-13 Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship and their return is aimed at maintaining the high standards the program has created over the past decade. While there are immediate benefits that Miami hopes to reap with their return, history has shown that the extra college seasoning has made a big difference to the RedHawks who have risen in the professional ranks.
"Everyone's timeline and path is different,” Blasi said. “Unfortunately, more and more players are leaving college early these days. Some are ready and some are not. These guys deserve a lot of credit for sticking to their path. They chose college hockey and Miami for a reason. They value their educations and are committed to their development both on and off of the ice. The loyalty to their teammates and our program means a lot.
"We have been fortunate here at Miami to have had guys that have played all four years. Guys like Andy Greene, Ryan Jones, Andy Miele and Carter Camper. In every one of those cases, their senior year was the one that was the most special. They were all rewarded for the decisions. Even the guys that left early stayed until they were ready. They didn't rush out of here. Alec Martinez, Jeff Zatkoff, Tommy Wingels and Reilly Smith all played three years. When the time came, they were ready. Now they are all full-time NHL players."
The return of Barber, Coleman and Czarnik gives the RedHawks an impressive nucleus to build around next year. That said, Blasi knows that what the team has on paper is one thing, but the results will come from the work the roster as a whole puts in over the coming months.
"We all have a lot of work to do to get better and that work has already started," Blasi said. "For me, the most exciting thing to see right now is the buy in from the guys. Not just the players that could have left early, but everyone. This is bigger than any one person. Nobody knows what next year has in store for us, but there is a lot that we want to accomplish. No matter what happens, we are going to give it everything we have and we are going to do it together."