Leadership role from the blue line

Tech Hockey

HOUGHTON — For most of three seasons, junior defenseman Mark Auk has been known to Michigan Tech Huskies’ fans as a very visual part of the Huskies’ attack, driving the puck up the ice whenever he sees room.

Heading into tonight’s WCHA Championship against Bowling Green, Auk is fifth on the Huskies in scoring with 23 points.

More important than his offense is the fact that he is beginning to learn to how to lead from the Huskies’ strong core of veteran defenders who are finishing up their final season in Black and Gold.

“It’s a cool experience,” said Auk. “Learning from Cliff [Watson] and Shane [Hanna] and even Chris [Leibinger], how hard they actually work defensively and what they do for the team. Hopefully, we can do the same for the underclassmen.”

Auk, like his teammates, is excited for the opportunity to play for the league title and NCAA berth. Start time is 6:07 p.m. (Central time) at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the guys on the team,” said Auk. “Having the home crowd support is very important, especially here.”

When Auk joined the Huskies along with Matt Roy and Dane Birks in 2014, the St. Clair Shores native was fresh off his first full season with the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders where he scored 10 goals and 29 points in 59 games.

In his freshman season, Auk dressed for a game against Lake Superior State University on Oct. 5, but did not get a chance to play again until Dec. 13 in a nonconference tilt with Minnesota-Duluth. Watson, Hanna and Leibinger were all sophomores who had started nearly every game as freshmen; Riley Sweeney was a freshman, and there was little room to fit Auk in.

Once an injury opened a space for Auk to step in, he stuck in the lineup, flashing his ability to carry the puck the length of the rink whenever he could. His ability to push the offense with the puck up the ice quickly off a turnover led to him putting up multiple points three different times and finish with four points in his final six games of the season.

As a sophomore, Auk earned a permanent spot on the blue line and opened the season with four assists in the first five games. He racked up three points during the GLI and put up a goal and four assists in four games near the end of the regular season.

He finished his sophomore year with four goals and 17 points.

With the Huskies’ off to a rough start to the season, going 1-5-2 in their first eight games, Auk had points in just three of those games. Like during his sophomore year, his struggles were in tune with his teammates’ in that when he took to pushing the puck up the ice and turned it over, he created scoring chances for the opponents, rather than the Huskies.

“Sometimes, earlier in my career here at Michigan Tech, I was trying to force things, especially when offensive situations weren’t going my way,” said Auk. “Which caused odd-man rushes and hurt the team more than it helped. This year, I have learned that my talent offensively is coming from the offensive blue line in and not leading the rush.”

Settling into a pairing with redshirt sophomore Dane Birks has helped. The younger Birks, who spent his freshman year alongside Watson, has learned a lot from playing alongside Auk.

“I really didn’t know what my role was coming in,” said Birks. “Playing with Cliff, and they have moved me to Mark now, I understand my role. I watch the back end and let Mark do his thing. I’ve always got his back, so he makes the magic work and I will do the dirty work.”

In turn, Auk has learned from working alongside Birks and has developed a better sense for when to pick his spots and when to make the smart first pass, which has helped during the Huskies’ run to the WCHA title game.

“One of the things I have tried to strive for is better defense,” said Auk. “I am accomplishing that day-by-day. I think it is improving, but there is always room for improvement.”

In the last nine games, Auk has produced three goals and 10 points, including two assists on Sunday in the 4-1 series-clinching victory over Minnesota State.