By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
You could call it disgust. Maybe a little amazement…. There is definitely pain involved. Those are just some of the emotions that might describe Northern Michigan's opponents this season when they watch Robbie Payne handle the puck. He's a magician if you are a Wildcat fan. He's downright dangerous if you belong to the other 59 D-I hockey teams in the nation.
A Michigan native, one of the things that became crystal clear right from the beginning was Payne's knack for the puck; and what to do with it. Everywhere he has gone, the 5'11" winger has made a name for himself thanks to his ability to push the puck and score goals. Lots of goals.
He's seen his fair share of pucks. Payne remembers jumping from high school hockey to the next level when he was 15 years old, but it wasn't until he began skating for the Soo Eagles (Junior A) when Payne and scoring goals became synonymous with one another. That season Payne played in 49 games and scored 39 goals. From there, Payne moved to the NAHL, where he starred for Kalamazoo for two seasons, playing in 116 games during that time and tallying 119 points. During the 2013-14 season – Payne's only season in the USHL, the sniper tallied 24 points in 42 games for the Chicago Steel. By the time he skated into Marquette, Mich. for his freshman season (2014-15), his résumé was packed with the type of highlight reel goals that would make most hockey players blush. Still, despite the numbers, Payne wasn't looked at as a player who was expected to make an immediate impact. Truth be told, even with the offensive numbers in his past, Payne had always been over shadowed by players who were bigger…faster…better.
"Coming in (as a freshman), I don't think I was expected by the coaches to play very much. I wasn't expected to have much impact on the team," recalled Payne.
Let's just say that they were wrong. Everyone was.
Fast forward to the present. Not only has Robbie Payne become one of the most dangerous scorers in the WCHA, but the now-senior has also played in every single game in his Wildcat career. He hasn't missed a single one. Not bad for a guy who had always skated under the radar and didn't play his first college hockey game until he was 21 years-old.
"I wasn't ready for the college game," remarked Payne, when asked about his time honing his skills playing juniors. "My skill wasn't there; my speed wasn't there. A lot of my game wasn't developed enough. Having that extra time in juniors and when I was able to make it to the USHL, it helped me prepare myself for where I'm at now and that has helped me succeed. My game is more complete now then where I would have been as a 19 year-old freshman."
By his own admission he's not the fastest player on the ice, or the flashiest. Instead, what has made Robbie Payne successful throughout his playing career boils down to intangibles you can't measure with a stop watch or a scale. They are strengths that have propelled him to the top of the conference scoring charts ever since he cracked the Northern Michigan line-up as a freshman, when he netted 11 points in 38 games played; good enough for 17th in the conference in freshmen scoring. Most importantly for Wildcat fans – and easily the most painful part of being his opponents – is the fact that they are attributes that you can't defend or prepare for. For Payne, it all begins and ends with his heart and his mind.
"The number one thing that kind of pops for me with Robbie is he has a really good offensive brain," commented Grant Potulny, Northern Michigan's first-year head coach. "You think about offensive goal scorers, they say the puck finds them. The reality is that those guys think their way into good spots and into opportunities they can get the puck. Then his stick is very high-end, so he thinks himself into position and then, when he gets an opportunity, he does have the ability and talent to finish the play and score goals."
Continued Potulny: "He's a leader. Every day he comes to practice ready to work and he sets the pace and the seniors set the pace. I'm really happy to see him get rewarded."
"His hockey IQ; knowing where to be during the game," added Payne's line-mate Zach Diamantoni, when asked about Payne's scoring touch. "There are a lot of times where he's just always in the right place at the right time and it's not by accident. He knows where to be and can read a play and anticipate where the puck is going to end up. Also, he plays around the net; he loves getting to the net. He's a very skilled player and he likes going to the net, and that helps him score goals."
"I've never been the fastest player. I think if you watch me play, people might even say I'm a bad skater even. I don't think I'm a bad skater, it's just a different style of how I play. Being able to know where to be on the ice and finding open spaces. Personally, I think it's about having a good mind when it comes to knowing where to be on the ice, and I think that's the biggest thing I have been able to do. Being in the right spot at the right time and being able to work with my line-mates," replied Payne.
"Both (Zach) Diamantoni and (Darien) Craighead; we played together last year and we have a good understanding as to where we are on the ice. I think they are able to find me in good spots and they are always looking for me and I'm always looking to put the puck in the net – that's something I've always been able to accomplish."
After scoring 11 points his freshman season, Payne added 20 more during his sophomore campaign; including 12 goals, which tied him for 15th in the conference. Last season, it was more of the same for Payne, scoring 13 goals in 39 games, to go along with 16 assists. The 13 goals ranked him ninth in the WCHA and his 29 points tied him for 11th. Now skating in his final season with Northern Michigan, Payne has exploded out of the gates by scoring five goals in his first four games, to go along with a +5 plus/minus rating. Not coincidentally, the Wildcats have started the season 3-1-0 overall and 2-0-0 in the conference. Payne's five goals put him first in the nation in goals. He is also tied for 11th in the nation in points. Per usual, his march towards the top has been a quiet one. After being named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week after his weekend performance against Lake Superior State during the first week of October, it marked just the second time in his college career he had received such an honor. This is talking about the same player who late last year scored 14 points over a span of 12 games (January 7th through February 24th).
"I see him in practice every day doing things with the puck. He definitely deserves everything he's gotten. He's a really hard worker and also a really good leader. He's a guy who everyone on the team looks up to on and off the ice; he goes about it the right way," remarked Diamantoni. "He's a great teammate, he's really good in school. It's just a lot of little things that make the difference. On the ice every year he's gotten better as he's gotten older and has matured. He's got a knack for the net and scoring goals and he definitely doesn't shy away from those big moments."
"You might not see the best stride in the league or the best shot in the league, but I think I've shown the ability to be in the right spot when the moment is right," added Payne. "At the end of the night sometimes it might even surprise people that I got a point or two."
The one person it definitely doesn't surprise is Potulny. Even before he took over as Northern Michigan head coach he was aware of the talent he was inheriting. After watching game film, Potulny saw a player who was solid around the net; was quick with his stick and had a knack for scoring big goals. Sound familiar? It didn't take long for him to draw a comparison when summing up Payne's game and comparing it to a player he had seen before. Others around the program quickly began to make the same comparison. Robbie Payne reminded them of….Grant Potulny.
"I think he's got a way better stick then I did," laughed Potulny. "I think he does at a certain level when you talk about guys being able to score and be around the net. For me it was real easy – there were four guys on the rink that were wearing the same jersey and had more talent than I did, so I just went to the net. I figured the puck had to get there at some point. With Rob, he finds those areas; he can also score from 20 feet out. He just has a strong knack to get in the right areas to score goals."
"My first meeting with Grant, the first thing he said to me was you really remind me of myself in the way you play and the fact that you have never really been built up as the number one player, but you have always been able to be there during big moments," recalled Payne. "When you look back at the things he's accomplished, it's really an honor to be compared to him." If you ask Potulny, he'd probably tell you it's an honor for him to be compared to Robbie Payne. Now, both hope to lead a Northern Michigan resurgence in 2017-18.