Austin Heakins skated onto the ice Tuesday at Bird Arena with a wide grin. The junior forward was happy for a simple reason: He was playing hockey again.
Heakins and the term student-athlete are intertwined. After totaling just one point in Ohio’s opening weekend against John Carroll a season ago, Heakins made one of the toughest decisions of his young life.
He had to walk away from the game.
He didn't walk away because of a measly one-point weekend, but because the balance of school and hockey was nearly impossible for him.
As the conversation happened in coach Sean Hogan’s office, Heakins left with a mixed bag of emotions. First, sadness because the game he’s loved since he was a boy was put on hold. But second was relief, because he could give his full attention to focusing on his academics.
“School got hard," Heakins said. "I’m fortunate that my parents are able to pay for school, so it has to come first. School is important, but I missed (hockey) every day.”
A specialized studies major, Heakins has a keen interest in the food flavoring business, a program that OU doesn’t offer. The classes he was taking, which consisted of 17 credit hours, interfered with the practice times.
“I was taking anatomy, physiology and chemistry all at the same time,” he said. “All three of those classes require labs and all just added up.”
And while academics took over and he was away from playing the game, Heakins wasn’t totally removed: Heakins reserved his Friday and Saturday nights to watching his team play.
The Bobcats had another strong season last year, but it was marred by a lingering national championship game appearance hangover, a young roster and unexpected injuries.
While he never felt responsible for the series of unfortunate events, Heakins — as he sat in the stands — couldn’t help but wonder what difference, if any, he could have made.
“I don’t put any blame on myself necessarily,” he said. “But it definitely made me wonder, ‘What could I do if I was still there?’”
As Ohio worked through their season — which ultimately ended in a quarterfinal loss to league rival Illinois in the American Collegiate Hockey Association national tournament — Heakins’ potential return to the team started to transition from a hopeful idea to a solid plan.
He had conversations with his parents and teammates. But it wasn’t until a month before school started this semester that Heakins was able to adjust his schedule. It fit both his academic schedule and hockey.
In early August, Heakins made a visit to Hogan’s office to formally ask if he could rejoin the team. He then said he wanted to ask his teammates if he could rejoin. He wanted to ask each one.
Hogan took him back right away. He understood the impact a 6-foot-3-inch forward would make on the team.
“He brings the size to the position that we want paired with our speed,” Hogan said. “The best thing about his game is how he plays on the forecheck.”
Tyler Harkins was elated to have Heakins back. The two forwards shared the ice together as freshmen, where they learned the ropes of collegiate hockey. Harkins expects their on-ice chemistry to pick up where it left off over a year ago.
“Heakins might have some jitters in that first game back, but once he makes the adjustment, he’ll be a real solid player for us,” Harkins said. “He proved himself his freshman year and I know he’s ready to get back out there and do it again for us.”
On Sept. 28, Heakins will find clarity once again when the Bobcats open their season. He'll be on the Bird Arena ice, where he wanted to be all along. But sometimes, life gets in the way.
“I think I’m going to have the butterflies early in the first when seeing the fans and being on the ice,” Heakins said with a sly grin on his face. “But after that first shift, I think things will be just fine.”