Payne stays sane, not vain, during senior reign

NMU star forward breaks through on national stage

Northern Michigan University’s Robbie Payne (29) has the puck as Ferris State’s Craig Pefley, left, and Joe Rutkowski (26) give chase Saturday evening, December 16 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Payne is currently second in the nation in goals with 15. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — Robbie Payne isn’t your typical college hockey player.

For one thing, the Northern Michigan University forward can score with ease from any angle, an uncommon talent.

If in doubt, check out one of his highlights against Minnesota State this season. Payne fell chasing a puck in the crease and despite laying on his back, had the presence of mind to flip the puck behind himself and into the back of the net while the rest of the Mavericks stood in disbelief.

Payne has 15 goals so far, second in the nation, and has already passed his career-high of 13 that he set last season. Payne credits his previous experience as a Wildcat and the amount of time he puts into his game for the impressive start.

“I have three years under my belt already and I think I’ve been able to build on what I had from last year,” he said.

“I think I had a good season and I think I can just build on that just like I have so far.

“Obviously, I’m always trying to get better all around. In the past, I’ve had times where I haven’t been so competitive in games and I’ve been working more on that in every game and I think it’s helped me out a lot.”

The sharpshooting senior also says that the change in NMU’s offensive style has benefited him. When new head coach Grant Potulny was hired last spring, he instituted a new system that emphasized speed and improvisation from the players, which suits Payne perfectly.

“There’s a lot more offense and a higher emphasis on playing offense,” he said. “Playing in the offensive zone rather than just being good defensively. Under (former head coach) Walt (Kyle), I think we played more defensive-style and this year we’re allowed to be a little bit more creative in the offensive zone and really be able to make plays. That’s the big thing that’s changed this year.

“I think it helps show my ability in the offensive zone. Not that you don’t have to worry about the defensive zone, but you’re really able to play your game and just really show what you have available. I can score goals and I think getting opportunities to be in the offensive zone and play fast and things like that have really helped suit my game a little better.”

Potulny has noticed how well Payne fits into his system, but says that someone of his ability could fit in anywhere. He also praised his ability to somehow always getting his stick on the puck.

“If you have guys that have good brains like Robbie has, I think he’s going to be successful anywhere,” he said.

“The fact that we do let our guys make some plays, guys who have sticks like Robbie has or Loggy (Troy Loggins) or Rock (Adam Rockwood), they have the confidence to make a play at the blue line or the confidence to try that one extra move that might work or might not.

“But they have the confidence to do it and they know that even if it doesn’t work, they’re going to be given the opportunity to do it again.

“With pucks around his bubble (area), his bubble is incredible. It might be the best bubble of any player that I’ve ever coached. Anything that comes in the area of his stick, he gains possession of it.

“Whether it’s balancing or flipping or on his knees, it doesn’t matter. He finds a way to get his stick on it and he’s got a real elite ability to handle pucks within his reach.”

It isn’t just his abilities that set him apart from other players. Another reason is that he’s having success despite changing his forward position when he got to Northern.

“I was actually a center for most of my career and then when I got into juniors, I was a right winger,” he said. “When I came into Northern, Reed Seckel was out for the first four games, I think, of the season and we needed a left winger. So Walt put me on left wing and I started playing there.

“A lot of times, you’ll have right wingers that are right-handed and left wingers that are left-handed. And I’m a left winger that’s right-handed. So it’s a little bit different.

“It’s a lot more play on your backhand, so it’s a little tougher, but it also makes it a little easier on the offensive zone coming off the wall down the left side; you’re coming in on your forehand. So that makes it a little better.”

Payne is also remarkably easy-going for a guy who plays such an intense, hard-hitting sport.

When looking at the big screen hanging over center ice at the Berry Events Center, almost all of the players have a tough, serious look on their faces. Payne, on the other hand, is laughing in his photo like someone cracked a joke during the photo shoot.

When he lights the lamp, he doesn’t just have one goal celebration, he tries to change it up each time, primarily due to some ribbing from his former teammates.

“I always got made fun of my freshmen and sophomore year because I did the exact same goal celebration for every goal and it was standing on one leg with my knee up, throwing my hands in the air,” Payne said with a laugh. “I got made fun of a lot by my teammates, so they told me that I had to change it.

“Sometimes I still go back to that out of habit, but it’s just fun to score goals and it’s fun to play hockey. You just get excited and see whatever happens.”

Payne’s enthusiasm and fun demeanor has made him a fan favorite in Marquette, especially with young hockey players. When the players come out of the tunnel for warmups or back to the locker room in between periods, Payne is usually the first person they ask to high-five or talk to.

He also is the one most of them talk about in the hallways after games. Payne likes that they enjoy what he does on the ice.

“It’s great that they like watching me and hopefully they think that I’m doing things right,” Payne said. “I love interacting with the kids or volunteering for Skate with the Cats. I’ve gone to U-8 skates at Lakeview and I like doing that.

“It’s just nice giving back to the kids and how they support us. When I was a kid, college hockey players were like gods in our book. I hope that they are able to look up to me and (I am) putting a smile on their face.”

He also has some advice for those kids who want to be like him and it’s not surprising, given his personality. It’s not simply focusing on scoring goals and just having fun like he does.

“I think growing up I just always tried to work on becoming a better player all-around,” he said. “I think being a goal scorer, it’s more of a natural touch than something you can practice too much.

“But you can never not practice your shot enough and your stick-handling and especially your skating. Working on your puck handling, skating and shooting will get you a long way.

“Also, always have fun and play as much as you can, even if you’re not on a travel team or anything like that growing up.

“Growing up, I was on a Double A team and everyone else was playing Triple A hockey. Everybody was saying that it was so much better, but I was able to get on the ice with my Double A team and I would skate with the house team back at home.

“I just lived on the ice all the time. That’s a big part of it, too. Just being able to practice and not just saying that you’re a Triple A player. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, it’s what you do with it.”

Payne proves that statement correct every time he steps on the ice.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is