By Ben Shanahan
Special to the Sentinel-Tribune
Austen Swankler, a Bowling Green State University hockey forward, is a unicorn in the hockey world since, technically, he should not even be allowed to be competing in NCAA athletics, but he’s doing just that.
According to CollegeHockeyInc.com, “NCAA student-athletes are amateurs and cannot have played for a professional sports team prior to enrollment. In hockey, specifically, this means that anyone who signs a contract with or plays for a team in the Canadian Hockey League (OHL, QMJHL, or WHL) forfeits their NCAA eligibility.”
Which is exactly what Austen Swankler did early in his hockey career, first playing in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) before much later joining the BGSU hockey program.
But that is not where this unique career began for the now 6-foot, 21-year-old with long flowing hair.
Swankler started playing the game before attending kindergarten, but he dreamed about playing a different position than the one he plays now.
“My two older brothers played, and when I was growing up, my brothers got me on the ice when I was like 3, and I just fell in love with the game then,” said Swankler.
“I actually wanted to be a goalie when I was young but ended up being a player when it was all said and done.”
From there, Swankler played a few seasons of youth hockey in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, at his hometown rink.
“I grew up in a small area that was not too big into hockey. Most kids did not play at my school or know about it. I was an outlier. I played with the Alagani Black Bears. They helped me a lot to showcase my talent at such a young age,” said Swankler.
By the time he was 14 years old, people started noticing the talent Swankler displayed on the ice, and he began playing youth hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Youth Hockey program.
Playing in 47 games at the elite level spanning two seasons, he tallied 52 points: 24 goals and 28 assists.
Penguins Elite is also where Swankler committed to his first college, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).
“I played there for a few years, and their development put me where I am today. I cannot thank them enough.” Swankler said. “They had top-notch coaches and top-notch facilities. They helped quite a bit to get me to juniors.”
Moving to Michigan
After his stint with the Penguins Elite was over, he would decommit from RPI and commit to the University of Michigan. His next team would require Swankler to leave home at just 15 years old.
This is where he played Triple A hockey (the top tier of youth hockey) for the Oakland Junior Grizzlies in Troy, Michigan.
“I moved to Michigan when I was 15; at the time, I was committed to the University of Michigan. They thought it was smarter to move me out there, where the coaches could watch me more,” said Swankler.
He made an impact in one season at the Triple A level, earning 122 points on 44 goals and 78 assists in only 82 games. His just under a point and a half average would get him drafted to the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League, the top junior hockey league in the country.
In his only season in the USHL, he would play 15 games for Waterloo before being traded to another USHL team, the Sioux Falls Stampede.
“At first, I was stunned,” Swankler said. “Not knowing what was going to happen, I drove nine hours home for a week and waited to see what Waterloo was going to do with me.
“Then, once I got the call, I drove another 14 hours to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and we ended up winning the Clark Cup.”
Sioux Falls did win the Clark Cup with Swankler playing 44 games in the regular season for 36 points: 11 goals and 25 assists. In the playoffs, he would play 10 games with three points: two goals and an assist.
Then Swankler would decommit from his second college and declare for the 2017 OHL Draft, where he was selected in the third round, 59th overall, by the Erie Otters, forgoing his amateur status and barring him from college hockey, or so he thought.
For the Otters, his offensive power continued, with 45 points in 59 games on 18 goals and 27 assists.
Unfortunately, his OHL career lasted less than one season due to the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the league to cancel the rest of the 2019–20 session and the entire 2020–21 season.
“It was a great time development wise. I was able to become more skilled and develop my offensive game. You look at some guys that come out of the OHL, and it is all offense, offense, offense. It was amazing to experience that, but I prefer college much more,” Swankler said.
Due to the pandemic and Swankler nearing the age cutoff when the league was starting back up, Swankler and his dad sent a prayer to the NCAA asking for his college eligibility back.
“Once COVID hit, the question got asked would I be able to get my eligibility back, and I was blessed to receive it back and actually visit Bowling Green when I was 14,” Swankler said.
“I came on a visit and fell in love. I just knew with all the coaches and culture BG hockey has, this was the place for me.”
This shocked the hockey world once he got his eligibility back from the NCAA, being one of only two to do so in the long history of both leagues, making him a unicorn in the sport.
“I think that the last two years I have earned the respect of other players in the league. I am obviously fortunate and blessed to be eligible,” Swankler said.
“It honestly saved me from where I was going because I had only one year left before I aged out of junior hockey. Kind of a crazy thing my dad and I tried to do, and it ended up working.”
Since Swankler has stepped foot on campus, he has been a fan favorite. Momo Pfaff, a BGSU senior and avid hockey fan who covered the Falcons for the Sentinel-Tribune, had an appreciation for Swankler’s style of play.
“It’s hard to watch him and not get excited like any other BG fan,” Pfaff said. “Swanker left a prestigious junior hockey team to join us, and every time he skates, I’m thrilled to see what he does next. His talents on the ice truly shine, and off the ice, his charisma shines as well.”
Getting his feet under him
His first year at BGSU, Swankler jumped right into tying for the most points on the team but says he had more in the tank and just did not have his feet under him his rookie season.
“It helps get your feet under you,” Swankler said. “I kind of died out towards the end of the year, and the losing streak ended that season, but my teammates helped me go into my second season even better.”
To make sure a player can play all season, Swankler says they must work as hard off the ice as they during on the ice.
Molly Dineen, a BGSU junior and student trainer for the hockey team, has witnessed firsthand how Swankler stays healthy since being on campus.
“Austen takes very good care of himself. Honestly, I think it is his No. 1 priority. If he ever is in discomfort, he is immediately in the office to evaluate if it is anything serious,” Dineen said.
Swankler nearly doubled his freshman point total during his sophomore season, averaging more than a point a game with 44 points (19 goals and 25 assists) in 35 games. He led the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in points and was 12th in the entire NCAA.
Over this past spring, many expected Swankler to sign an NHL contract and leave BGSU hockey behind to live out his dream. But that was not the case. He announced on April 12 that he would be returning to the Falcons.
Zach Brandewie, a sophomore equipment manager, says there is an excitement brewing about having Swankler back in the locker room.
“He is a good guy to have around huge on the ice, the stats have shown that, but off the ice, he is always good for a laugh and some interesting conversations, to say the least,” Brandewie said.
Swankler will be returning to the Falcons next year to play hockey, but also to live up to a promise he made with his mother.
“My plan is to finish my degree in three years instead of four. I promised my mom I would finish my degree before leaving the NCAA, and I get to spend one more year at the greatest college in the world.”