By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Robbie DeMontis loves winning hockey championships more than anything, and he’ll play any role necessary to help his team achieve that goal.
He can propel his team by being a big scorer, like he was in 2012-13, when he helped The Hill Academy (a Toronto prep school) win a league title by tallying an amazing 47 goals and 75 assists.
Or he can help by being the playmaker who sets up goals and piles up assists. That’s the role he’s been playing been so effectively for the Muskegon Lumberjacks the past two seasons, with 24 assists in 2013-14 and 17 so far this season.
Of course DeMontis is still quite capable of scoring goals, like he did last Saturday in the Lumberjacks’ 3-2 loss to Youngstown. That was his fourth goal of the season, matching his total from 2013-14.
But his major focus is on winning, whatever he has to do. That’s what makes him so valuable for the Lumberjacks.
“Any time you come into a season and your goal is not to win a championship, you’re playing the wrong sport,” said DeMontis, who added that winning the league title in prep school was one of the “best experiences I’ve ever had.”
“We want to win this year,” he said about the current Lumberjacks squad. “We think we have the team to do it, and I’m looking forward to that opportunity.”
DeMontis, who hails from Vaughan, Ontario and turns 19 in a few days, said he’s always been a “pass first” type of forward who takes pride in making the play that leads to the goal.
“The year before I came here I kind of kind of put up some big numbers in the goal column,” he said. “I played for a program where I was kind of the guy who was looked upon to do that.
“But coming here, we had guys who could put the puck in the net, so I have focused on finding those guys and helping them score. It’s just as satisfying when you make a nice play.”
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said there’s always room on a good team for valuable role players like DeMontis.
“He has an excellent work ethic and he’s a smart hockey player,” Krygier said. “He understands when and where to get guys the puck. That’s part of his smarts.”
Krygier also thinks DeMontis could score a lot more, if he set his mind to it.
“It’s probably a confidence thing for him,” he said. “He doesn’t shoot nearly enough. He’s one of those players who, once he gets on a roll, will do very well.”
Luckily for the Lumberjacks, DeMontis plans to return to Muskegon next fall for a third season in the USHL.
After that, he will be off to New Haven, Connecticut, where he will study and play hockey at Yale University.
Yale is obviously an institution where academics come first, regardless of a student’s athletic ability. DeMontis said he attracted the interest of Yale hockey scouts (as well as other Ivy League schools) by earning A’s throughout his high school years.
“I’ve always been a pretty good student, but without hockey I would never get into a school like Yale,” said DeMontis, who plans to study economics and perhaps become a financial planner in the future. “To use hockey to get into a school like that is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”
The Lumberjacks are currently 24-13-3, good for 51 points and third place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
They are five points behind first-place Cedar Rapids, one point behind second-place Dubuque, and only two points ahead of fourth-place Youngstown.
Bloomington is in fifth place with 43 points. The top four teams in the conference make the postseason playoffs.
Long road trips ahead
With such a tight race in the Eastern Conference, the remaining 20 games in the regular season are going to be crucial.
And the Jacks will be playing 15 of those games on the road.
Muskegon will open a five-game road trip on Friday in Waterloo, then will play Saturday and Monday in Bloomington.
The Jacks will end the trip with a game in Dubuque on Feb. 20 and another in Chicago on the 21st.
They will return home Feb. 27-28 for the long-awaited weekend series against Cedar Rapids, but then will hit the road again for six straight games between March 6-21, visiting Sioux City, Chicago, Bloomington and Green Bay.
They will also play four of their last five regular season games on the road, between March 29 and April 11.
The Lumberjacks only have five regular season games remaining – the two Cedar Rapids games, two against Des Moines (March 27-28) and one against Team USA (April 3).
It’s obviously more difficult to win on the road, but Krygier doesn’t seem concerned. He points to his team’s 8-6-2 road record so far this season.
“At this point, if we have to get guys up to win on the road, we’ve got the wrong personnel, and I don’t think that’s the case,” Krygier said. “We’ve played pretty well on the road, and we’ve lost a few that I think we should have won.”
The coach admits there will be big challenges on the road trip, starting this weekend in Waterloo.
“They are 6-1 since getting a new goaltender,” Krygier said about the Black Hawks. “They also have a (larger than usual) Olympic-sized ice surface. You have to play with a lot more control and a lot more structure. We’ve changed a number of things to get ready to go into that building and play.”
Krygier is also wary of Bloomington, a first-year expansion team that is 6-2-2 over its last 10 games.
“They’ve kind of crept into fifth place (in the Eastern Conference),” he said. “They’re keeping themselves alive for the playoffs.”