By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – They came from different backgrounds and are completely different types of players, but Max Cook and Bryon Paulazzo’s college careers have taken similar paths at Miami.
And the duo could not be closer friends.
The only two seniors on the RedHawks’ roster have been solid components in the team’s lineup on a nightly basis this season and have both gone from missing large chunks of games their first couple of years to wearing the ‘A’ on their sweaters.
Junior center Austin Czarnik was named captain prior to this season, so like his senior teammates he too has moved into a leadership role.
“The past three years all three of us haven’t really talked that much, let our voice be known,” Czarnik said. “But I think they’ve really stepped up and done a lot of positive (things) for the team and are always willing to talk to me if there’s any type of problems. They’re getting better every day.”
On the ice, Paulazzo is a hard-nosed bruiser who likes to crash the net and bang bodies in the corners.
“Bryon is just a very crafty, below the tops of the circles type of player,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “Cycling the puck and making plays from behind the goal line he’s as good as anybody. He’s always been able to find his way, and with limited ice (time) – he hasn’t really been on one of the top lines, so he’s another one of those guys who’s had to find his way in the lineup each week. Great attitude, great teammate and a pretty good leader.”
Cook is more of a playmaker who has developed into a formidable defensive forward.
“He’s learned to play the game at both ends of the ice, which has made him quite a valuable asset to our team,” Blasi said. “He was a huge part of our team last year, winning a (regular season) championship, obviously this year as well. Sometimes when you’re not playing you have to figure out how to get in the lineup. He knew he had to work on his defensive game and his strength, and a credit to him, he’s been able to do that, and he still has some offensive flare to his game.”
Though both are in their final seasons in Oxford, this is actually their fifth consecutive campaign playing together. They were teammates with the USHL’s Indiana Ice in 2009-10.
Paulazzo grew up in the San Francisco area, and although the San Jose Sharks began play near his home in 1991, he got into hockey because of the Mighty Ducks series of movies that were released between 1992 and 1997.
Of course the NHL’s Anaheim franchise that began play in 1993 was named the Mighty Ducks by its Disney owners following the success of the first film.
Paulazzo was a standout pitcher and catcher in high school, but during his junior year he decided to focus on hockey.
After graduating high school in his hometown of Redwood City, Calif., he joined Topeka of the NAHL. There Paulazzo recorded eight goals and 28 assists in 36 games in 2007-08, and his stats ballooned to 19 markers and 30 helpers in 57 games with the Roadrunners the following season.
Paulazzo was drafted by Indiana of the USHL for his overage season, and he scored 21 goals and led the Ice in assists (33) and points (54) in 2009-10.
“We had a great team and I was older than most of the guys – I was 20 years old,” Paulazzo said. “I had a good linemate in Cook in Indy, so everything just clicked my last year and I committed (to Miami) when I was 20.”
Former Miami assistant Jeff Blashill was the head coach in Indiana that season, which helped push Paulazzo to Oxford.
Cook, from Frankfort, Ill., about 30 miles southwest of Chicago, fell in love with game before even starting elementary school, and while he played baseball, soccer and basketball, his interest in hockey trumped all other sports.
Cook started his juniors career with Green Bay, where scored five goals and set up 11 more as a 17 year old. He came to Indiana in 2008-09 and went 18-23-41 in 60 games as the Ice won a Clark Cup Championship.
With Paulazzo on the team in 2009-10, Cook finished second to his Miami teammate to be in points with 49, scoring 23 goals and assisting on 26.
Cook’s midget major coach, Joe Saban, who played in Oxford from 1989-94 with Blasi, was integral in the senior’s choice of Miami. Cook also knew former RedHawks Matt Tomassoni.
“Once I started talking to schools I really picked (Saban’s) brain about it,” Cook said. “Came here, met all the coaches – that’s when Coach Bergeron and Coach Blashill were still here – so I got to know them really well, and even Coach (Blasi), I was in contact with often. I just fell in love with the school, and the atmosphere and how important hockey was to this school.”
The former teammates in Indianapolis both said that being able to lean on each other at Miami made the transition to college smoother.
“It helped a lot, because there were already 23 guys on the team, so it was only me and Cook coming in,” Paulazzo said. “It was kind of scary but the team was welcoming, all the older guys were nice to me. It all worked
Paulazzo netted just one goal in the 2010-11 regular season, but he scored a goal in each of Miami’s games in the CCHA Championship, helping the RedHawks capture their only conference tournament championship.
Paulazzo also recorded Miami’s only goal in the team’s NCAA loss to New Hampshire.
“We had a lot of good players on that team my first year,” Paulazzo said. “That was fun – it was a good learning experience for me, and I had a great freshman year,” Paulazzo said.
In 32 games as a sophomore, Paulazzo scored six times and added six assists.
However, as a junior he saw his ice time curtailed his junior season, as he went 3-2-5 in just 17 games.
“It’s tough to sit back, but everyone out there deserves to play so you just kind of have to deal with it and hope for the best, hope we keep winning games,” Paulazzo said. “At the time we were winning games, so there’s no complaints.”
Cook was limited to 22 games as a freshman, recording just a goal and two assists, and a concussion cost him most of the second half of his sophomore season.
He finished that campaign 1-2-3 as well in 17 games.
“That was the big moment when I decided whether it was time to just get through these next two years or put in the work and really make these last two years memorable,” Cook said. “I felt like I put in a lot of work and kind of changed my path for these last two years.”
As Paulazzo’s game total shrank their junior year, Cook’s more than doubled, as he played 35 games in 2012-13 and notched four goals and four assists.
“We both played about the same amount, so it’s nice to have someone to talk to about it,” Paulazzo said. “We were both in the same boat.”
There were tough times at Miami the first three seasons for both Paulazzo and Cook, who were used to starring roles on their former teams.
“The good part about it was one of would be scratched then the other one would play our first two years,” Cook said. “There was no jealousy – it was more like, hey, do your best, hopefully you play again. It was kind of nice to have somebody to lean on just in case you had trouble going through that.”
This season, Cook has missed just one game and Paulazzo has dressed for 16 of the last 18. Cook has a goal and seven assists.
Paulazzo three goals and two helpers in 19 games.
“(Paulazzo’s) good in the corners, you look for him to be a guy who works down low hard and wins his battles, gets the pucks to the net,” Czarnik said. “So that’s pretty much what we focus on with him and obviously when he’s on the power play he’s a presence because he has a good stick and can always find the puck.”
Plus both have been assistant captains this season, an honor the team reassesses weekly.
“They’ve grown throughout the year, stepping up with me, and that’s one of the biggest parts that they’ve done this year,” Czarnik said. “They’ve been through it all – the tournament and everything – so they have the experience that some guys don’t, so I think that helps out with the team as well.”
And while Miami’s injury situation was at its worst, Cook even shifted to defense for a weekend after just two weeks of practice, a position he had never played at any level.
“I realized that our defense was hurting so I figured if that was the best way I could help out the team, I was willing to do that,” Cook said. “After you get in the game you stop thinking about the extra stuff and start playing simple hockey, and I didn’t think I played that bad.”
Cook logged two games on the blue line, and Blasi said that Cook may get the call to log more ice time on defense this season.
“He had two weeks of practice and I think our coach (Brent Brekke) helped teach him how to do everything back there and he did a really good job,” Czarnik said. “He was poised back there and he did what he was supposed to do, so that was a great job by him and I was proud of him but now I’m happy to have him back up front.”
Both are scheduled to graduate this spring, and Paulazzo and Cook said their Miami experiences will last a lifetime.
“It’s been a big part of my life,” Cook said. “Being here for four years you get to know people inside the hockey system and outside. It was a great experience, and the coolest part about it is from my freshman year to now I still keep in contact with all the guys who were seniors my freshman year and on, so I really want to do that with the guys here, and I just want to finish off the season the best possible.”
Said Paulazzo: “It means the world to me – I wouldn’t give back anything. I’ve absolutely loved every single day here, and after looking back at it all, every time I go to class I’m just so happy to be here, and kind of taking it all in these last four months before I graduate.”