"My teams are my extended family," he said. "The arenas are my other homes. Hockey is a big part of my life, and the best distraction there is."
Just over a year ago, Cizikas was charged with manslaughter in the death of Manny Castillo. During a rugby match in Mississauga, Ont. in 2007, a physical confrontation -- some witnesses called it a "tackle," others a "rough play," Cizikas said it was "self-defense" -- led to a brain injury and subsequent death of the then-15-year-old Castillo. On July 6, 2009, in court in Brampton, Ont., Cizikas was given a sentence of one year probation and 100 hours of community service.
Selected by the Islanders, with complete knowledge of the incident and his impending trial, in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL Draft in June, Cizikas was free to resume his hockey career. In the time between Castillo's death and Cizikas' conviction, the skilled and hard-working center played hockey for Mississauga-St. Michael's of the Ontario Hockey League -- a primary developer of NHL players in Canada. However, hockey was the last thing on the young man's mind, and everyone understood.
"There were the occasional nights when Casey would control a game and you could see the talent," said Central Scouting director E. J. McGuire of Cizikas' play during his draft year of 2008-09. "But most of the time, you could see how the burden was affecting him. You rooted for him and hoped that maybe everything he had gone through would make him more resilient with time."
While most scouts viewed Cizikas as a second-round talent with baggage many NHL teams were not prepared to deal with, the Islanders took a low-risk gamble and utilized a fourth-round draft pick on him. In 2008-09, the 5-11, 185-pound center had 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in 55 games. The Islanders' thinking was, if he could produce at that level without hardly any focus, what was he capable of when the trial was behind him?
This past season, the Islanders got their answer: in 68 games with St. Mike's, Cizikas scored 25 goals and added 37 assists for 62 points. As a result, he was invited to the Evaluation Camp this summer when Team Canada assembled its roster for the World Junior Championships.
"The improvement in his play and in his confidence was noticeable the moment he hit the ice," said Islanders head coach Scott Gordon of Cizikas' performance last week at prospect camp. Cizikas may be his own toughest critic, saying, "I played a bit tentative. I still had some nervous moments out there,"
Gordon disagreed. "I'm sure he expects a lot of himself, considering this was his second prospect camp and the first one with some of the distractions behind him. I was very happy with his play. He's a very smart and skilled young player, there isn't any question about that."
Besides his parents, Cizikas credits his hockey family for their support over the last year. His head coach at St. Mike's, Dave Cameron, never left his side at his court appearances. Cameron, who is the head coach of the Canadian national squad Cizikas will try out for in August, lives in Prince Edward Island with his family during the offseason, but regularly traveled back to Ontario to support his troubled player. "I know for a fact Coach lost time with his family so he could be there for me," said Cizikas. "I couldn't ask for anything more from a person in my lifetime than what Dave Cameron has done for me."
In the time since they drafted Cizikas last summer, the Islanders have had development coach Eric Cairns and Ontario scout Tim MacLean regularly call and visit the young player. "The Islanders' support for me, standing up for me the way they have when other teams would not, it says a lot about the character of the organization. No matter what happens with my hockey career, I'm never going to forget what they've done."
Cizikas will have a professional hockey career in North America. Most scouts believe his maximum upside is as a No. 3 center at the NHL level, while a few feel he has more to prove over the next two years to show he is more than a depth forward who will bounce between the big league and the minors. Cizikas is ready for the challenge. "I've come a long way as a player and a person in the last year," he said, "but I still have so many more strides to make."
"The Castillo family ... they are special people," said Cizikas. "They never once pointed fingers at me. They know how I feel, and how I feel about them. It was a terrible, terrible accident.
"I know the next step is for me to some day down the road meet with them. But I should do it when I'm completely ready. I'll probably only have one chance. I'm still very young. I want to take my time so when I do it, I do it the right way."
Cizikas is not callous or insensitive. Every day since that tragic incident on a rugby field three years ago, his family has guided him in doing the right thing.
"I would hope people know this," Cizikas said, "but I'll say it anyway. There isn't a day that goes by when I do not think of Manny and his family."