ON THE HORIZON – Casey Cizikas, F, Bridgeport (AHL)

With his hockey future in limbo, Casey Cizikas never sulked. Quite the contrary, the native of Toronto, Ontario, Canada decided to become an advocate for positive thinking. That change in attitude, along with an elevation to his gritty play on the ice, has given the 20-year old a new fondness for life – both on and off the ice. Furthermore, Cizikas’ self-confidence has some in the Islanders organization believing that their team’s future captain might be staring them straight in the face.

“The person that I am today – a positive person – I give a lot of credit to not only my family, but my junior hockey coach, (former Mississauga St. Michael’s head coach and current Ottawa Senator assistant coach) coach (Dave) Cameron,” said the six-foot, 185-pound Cizikas, who was selected with the first pick (92nd overall) of the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by the Islanders. “They stuck by me all the way.”

Back in 2007 in Mississauga, a then 16 year-old Cizikas participated in a friendly rugby game. Unfortunately, things turned ugly real fast.

During the match, Cizikas tackled 15-year old Manny Castillo on what was described by onlookers as “part of the play”, while others described the action as “a rough tackle” and “not part of the play.” Castillo lay motionless on the ground, after witnesses claimed that Cizikas pile drove his head into the ground.

Castillo died two days later.

Subsequently, much to the objection of the Castillo family, Cizikas was charged with manslaughter simply because it was his tackle that led to Castillo’s death. A Brampton judge deemed Cizikas’ actions as an “unnecessary force”, therefore denying the Castillo family’s request to spare punishment to Cizikas.

The facts of the case – or for many the innuendo – jumbled through the Brampton court system for the next two years, leaving Cizikas feeling helpless and dejected. Yet, he knew it was this time when an attitude adjustment needed to be made.

“I realized that I couldn’t go around being negative,” said Cizikas. “I began to smile and become more personable. I needed to be around a good atmosphere.”

In the summer of 2009, Cizikas would get that reprieve, as his manslaughter charge was dismissed. Instead, he was sentenced to one year probation and 100 hours of community service. His greatest ally to the dismissal would be the physicians, who treated Castillo prior to his death.

According to the physicians, who worked feverishly on saving the teenager, Castillo’s death came as a result of a head injury. Ironically, rampant speculation throughout the ordeal made many observers believe that Castillo’s death came as a result of a spinal cord injury, a charge which could’ve made Cizikas liable. Additionally, physicians were told that two weeks prior to the rugby game, Castillo had suffered a major concussion – a concussion so severe, that he should’ve been held out of physical contact for a year.

Cizikas was exonerated.

That ruling in Brampton came a mere 12 days after the Islanders took a calculated gamble by picking Cizikas in Montreal, a selection that Cizikas is proud to reflect on today.

“Going into the draft, I was coming off my worst year in juniors,” said a humbled Cizikas, whose 2008-09 season playing for the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors in the OHL resulted in a disappointing 36-point campaign – 16 goals and 20 assists – in 55 games. Coincidentally, those numbers were a slight drop-off from an 18-goal, 23-assist rookie season the year prior in Mississauga. “The Islanders believed in me, and I didn’t want to let them down.
“I wanted to pay them back.”

Cleared from a manslaughter charge, Cizikas returned to Mississauga for the 2009-10 campaign with a huge weight off his shoulders. Statistically, the center iceman shook off the expected jitters and took his game to a new level.

Cizikas nearly doubled his previous season’s numbers, as he posted career highs in goals (25) and assists (37) and co-led the Majors in points with 62. He also posted a team-high +32 rating, while leading the Majors into the Conference Finals before bowing out to Barrie in five games. He scored a team-high 14 points – seven goals and seven assists – in 16 playoff games.

Cizikas earned the team’s captaincy at the start of the 2010-11 season – his fourth and final in Mississauga – and made the most of that opportunity.

“When I got to Mississauga, I learned a lot from our older players,” said Cizikas. “They showed me how important it was to take care of my body and eat right.

“As a captain, I tried to show that same leadership to our younger players. Working hard is the key.”

Cizikas built off his prior season’s resurgence and set new career-highs in goals (29) and points (64), while posting a team-best +43 rating.

He led the Majors to the OHL Finals, where it would eventually fall to Owen Sound in the deciding seventh game. Still, Cizikas added a career-high 19 points – five goals and 14 assists – in 16 playoff games and had a +11 rating.
Cizikas’ 2010-11 year also included an honor bestowed on a select few, as he was named by his junior coach and Canadian World Junior head coach Cameron to the Canadian World Junior Championship team.

Instantly, Cizikas became a YouTube sensation.

During a 6-3 preliminary victory over the Russians, Cizikas singlehandedly killed a Russian power play, as he played keep-away with the puck in the Russian defensive zone, much to the delight of the Canadian faithful at HSBC Arena in Buffalo.

“I was hoping to just hold onto the puck, and eat it in their zone,” said Cizikas. “I needed an oxygen tank after the kill. It was an exciting moment, but it was also kind of strange having a big crowd of reporters surrounding me after the game.”

Cizikas would score two goals and add an assist in seven tournament games, but the Russians would exact their revenge in the Gold Medal game. They erased a 3-0 Canadian lead, by scoring five unanswered third period goals to secure the tournament title and sending the whole country of Canada into a depression.

“We weren’t able to calm ourselves down,” said a dejected Cizikas. “After they scored the first goal in the period, we weren’t able to stop their momentum.

“It was very frustrating.”

Cizikas’ rebirth gave the Islander brass all the proof they would need, as he would sign his three-year entry contract to play on Long Island this past May.

“I remember when I was being scouted, (Islander scout) Tim Maclean was the only person to see me play,” said Cizikas. “He talked to me briefly, but there was never any indication that they were going to draft me.

“And now I am an Islander.”

Cizikas quickly made his way to Uniondale and participated in his third summer scrimmage in front of the Islander fans.

“It is always great to get the support from the Islanders fans,” said Cizikas. “They deserve the best from us and they want a winning team here so bad.”

Cizikas impressed the Islanders coaches, but was summoned to AHL Bridgeport to get some valuable seasoning under first-year Sound Tiger coach Brent Thompson.

Thompson would soon become Cizikas’ ardent supporter.

“Casey Cizikas is a blue chipper,” said Thompson. “The X-factor to his game is that he wills himself to win battles.
“He will definitely be a long term player in the NHL.”

In his first 24 games at the “A”, Cizikas is tied for second on the team in points with 16, with five goals and 11 assists.

He also has provided a leadership that makes Thompson believe that his rookie will surely be donning a letter on his jersey, not only in Bridgeport, but on Long Island.

“Casey is a throwback,” said Thompson “For Islander fans, he reminds me of a young Brian Trottier. He’s a leader, a workhorse and a character kid.

“I was actually debating putting either an ‘A’ or a ‘C’ on his jersey this season, but as a rookie, I thought it might be putting too much pressure on him.”

Thompson’s assessment of Cizikas has surely not lessened his intensity to reach his ultimate goal – a one-way trip to the N.H.L.

“I believe it is necessary to give hard work on every single shift,” said Cizikas, who has always admired the play of Detroit Red Wing left winger Pavel Datsyuk for his tenacity on both ends of the ice. “I try not to be beaten on any single shift.

“I know that in order to get on the next level, I need to get stronger and work on my face-offs. Still, no one will have a better work ethic than me.”

Off the ice, Cizikas, who will turn 21 on February 27, enjoys playing basketball and just “chilling” with his buddies Mark Katic and Calvin De Haan on the balcony of their Connecticut home.

“There is great camaraderie on our team,” said Cizikas. “We have a very positive locker room, and we just enjoy spending time with each other.”

While there is no immediate timetable to when Cizikas will be a full-time Islander, Thompson believes the team’s patience will pay off huge in the long run.

“It depends on the needs of the Islanders, maybe Casey will get his chance to play later this year,” said Thompson. “But he will be an NHL third liner, who will provide that offensive flair.”

To some, Cizikas’ make-up sounds eerily similar to an NHL captain, who plays his home games on the Island of Manhattan.

Islander fans could mull that one over.