Deep in the heart of Texas
Former NMU skater Payne embarking on pro career
MARQUETTE — In a matter of a couple of days in March, Northern Michigan University forward Robbie Payne experienced the highs and lows of being a hockey player as he went from a heartbreaking defeat to an exciting new opportunity.
Once the Wildcats lost at home to rival Michigan Tech in the WCHA Championship game, Payne’s college hockey career was over.
But immediately after that, he signed a deal with the Texas Stars, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
It was a whirlwind experience — he said he wasn’t even aware that pro teams were looking at him as the big game with the Huskies approached.
“Before the championship game, I was just focusing on that and I had no idea about teams that were interested,” Payne said. “That Sunday (one day) after the championship game, I got a text from my agent and he said there were roughly around five teams that were interested in me.
“By Monday, they were down to two and I was signed by, I’m pretty sure it was Tuesday, and was packing my bags. It was extremely quick and I didn’t know if I would be in the cold or warm. I ended up in Texas and in a good spot and I liked it a lot.”
Just how fast was the turnaround? Let’s just say that Payne went from inking a contract to practicing with a professional franchise in the span of 24 hours.
“I signed at like probably around 4 or 5 (p.m.) on Tuesday and the next day, I had to meet with (NMU President) Fritz Erickson and after that, I flew out at noon,” he said. “When I got down there, I had one practice and there was a game the next day. I didn’t end up playing in that game, but I played in the game after that.
“It was really quick getting used to everything and what the coaches were going over on the board. Every play and system that they had, I had to get adjusted to that.”
It wasn’t just the on-ice stuff that Payne had to adjust to. Temperatures were below freezing in Marquette when he left to the high 80s in Texas. He also had to get used to that state’s need to have everything be huge.
“The first thing that I saw when I got to Texas was the highway system,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how big and tall some of the overpasses are. I couldn’t believe it. There were like six or seven overpasses over the top of each other.
“Is that necessary? What is that? They say everything is bigger in Texas and it was definitely true for that.”
It’s not just overpasses where the state likes to be big, it also applies to its arenas, which Payne discovered when he put on the pads for his first game with the Stars.
“We were playing down in San Antonio and they play in an NBA arena (where the Spurs play) so there was a big crowd in a huge stadium,” he said. “It was a game that I felt I couldn’t catch up to because I was so nervous and so into it, it was just crazy.
“After the first period or second period, I started to get into the flow of the game. It was like I was playing again here at Northern and I was just enjoying it.”
Payne didn’t score a goal during his short time with Texas, but he did pick up two assists, which interestingly enough came in the same game.
“Before I had my first point, I had played four games,” he said. “I kind of felt that I should be doing more, but I was playing well and everything. Early in the game where I ended up getting an assist, I tried a breakaway pass to (Denis) Gurianov, who is a very good player, and he didn’t score. He’s a Russian guy and he’s like ‘Pass to me, I score.’
“Maybe three shifts later, I gave him another pass and he scored. Later in the game, he was like just keep passing, keep passing. So I gave him another one. So I got two assists in that same game. That first assist, I’ll always remember my first point. It was pretty cool.”
At the time that Payne joined Texas, the Stars were fighting for a playoff spot and he was preparing for his short stint there to end if they didn’t make it. Instead, not only did Texas make the playoffs, but got all the way to the Calder Cup finals.
“It was funny because when I signed with Texas, they were in fifth place,” he said. “To get into the playoffs, they needed to get fourth place.
“When I signed, I thought maybe we won’t make playoffs and I’ll be back in three weeks. Then we make playoffs and we win the first round and the second round and third round, then we’re in the final.
“I didn’t get to play in the playoffs, which was unfortunate, but it was a good learning experience practicing and being with the team and watching the guys who were playing and learning from them.”
Even though he didn’t suit up in the playoffs, Payne did go to Dallas’ development camp in June, which he said he was well prepared for. Payne was also one of six NMU players from last season to get invited to camps.
He’s now working out in Marquette and he’ll head to Dallas’ training camp in September. If he doesn’t make it with the “big” club, he’ll get sent back to the AHL, though Payne said he thinks the time he already spent with Texas will pay off for him.
“Playing in those games will help me so much going into next year because of how good the players are,” he said. “Coming out of college and having a good year, you think that you’re going to translate your game over immediately to the AHL, but the league is so good and every player in the league is good.
“Even though it was only six games that I got to play, I got to practice with all the players. I got to understand how fast the game is, how strong the players are and how big the defensemen are and how good they are with the puck.
“Knowing that going into this year, I’ll have a good start on those guys and I’ll find a spot in the lineup early in the season knowing the system that I learned last year.”
Payne says he’s grateful for the support he’s received from his family as well as from NMU fans. He’s still kind of blown away by playing pro hockey and doing something he enjoys.
“It’s a crazy experience but it’s been fun,” he said. “Going from playing your biggest rival in the biggest game of my life to starting to play professional hockey and getting the opportunity to be paid for doing what you like doing, it’s like you don’t have a job.
“I mean, you have a big job and you have to work hard for it, but I’m glad I’m able to do it.
“I have so many people to thank for helping me get here but the list is too long. There’s so much that I’m thankful for just to have the experience that I’m having here.
“I have to work hard for it, but it’s a completely different thing than what I expected to be doing.
“A couple of years ago, maybe I didn’t know if I’d be able to play professional hockey and now I’m having this opportunity. It’s just awesome.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.