By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
MUSKEGON – Players are usually thrilled when their coach names them captain of the team.
He became captain in midseason due to a couple of unexpected trades.
The Lumberjacks sent defenseman Trevor Hamilton, their former captain, to the Chicago Steel for three players.
They also traded forward Max Humitz, a productive offensive player, to the Tri-City Storm.
So DeMontis suddenly had the “C” on his jersey, but he also lost a couple of teammates who were pretty close friends.
“It was difficult for me personally because Trevor was one of my best friends and so was Max,” said DeMontis, 19, who will lead the Jacks into Friday and Saturday night games in Dubuque and a Monday game in Bloomington, before the team returns home next weekend. “I played a lot on the ice with Max since last season.
“I understood the trades, and following both transactions I talked to the coaches and they reassured me that they weren’t a sign of giving up. Hockey is a competitive sport that no one wants to lose. Regardless of who is on our roster, our goal is to win games.
“It becomes my responsibility to make sure that message translates to all the guys that we are not giving up just because we traded our captain. We received guys that can impact our lineup.”
Lumberjacks Coach Todd Krygier said DeMontis has the dedication and character to be the team captain.
“Robbie has been a leader, on the ice through his work ethic and passion for the game, and off the ice through his character and care for the team and his teammates,” Krygier said. “I’m very grateful for Robbie’s commitment and dedication to the Lumberjacks.”
An up-and-down season, but it’s not over
DeMontis finds himself the captain of a team that’s been through a strange and sometimes difficult season – at least so far.
The Lumberjacks started out 2-6, got hot and won five straight games, played nearly .500 hockey through early January, then took a dive in the standings.
They are 3-7 in their last 10 games, putting them back in the basement of the United States Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.
To complicate matters, they have three new teammates who are trying to find their niche in the lineup halfway through the season.
On the bright side, the Jacks have won 2 of their last 3, including an exciting come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory Wednesday night in Madison.
Still, it’s a far cry from last season, when the Jacks won the Eastern Conference playoffs and advanced to the Clark Cup finals.
But the challenge of turning around a losing season is familiar to DeMontis.
His first Lumberjacks team, in 2013-14, had a horrible start before getting hot toward the end of the season and finishing just one point out of the playoffs.
DeMontis is convinced this year’s team could duplicate that feat and maybe sneak into the postseason.
“Our struggles are a matter of inconsistency,” said DeMontis, a native of Vaughan, Ontario. “This group of guys can compete with any team in the league. I know our coaching staff has confidence that we can win games every night. I think our goal is to go in on a nightly basis and just try to win games and not worry about the playoffs.
“Regardless if this was my last season or not, when I come into a hockey season I want to win a championship. It is disappointing that we are not at the top. But throughout my years here there has always been a different challenge.”
New challenges ahead
DeMontis is not the type of player who lights up a scoreboard. The small forward is a grinder who specializes in setting up plays, piling up assists and performing well on defense.
His offensive numbers have been consistent throughout his years in Muskegon.
He had four goals and 24 assists in 2013-14 and seven goals and 22 assists last season, and has five goals and 13 assists so far this season.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a player,” DeMontis said. “I’m at ease with what I can bring to the table. I appreciate what I can do and will use those skills to try to be an all-round player in the future.
“I go into every game doing what I can do to help the team win. I’ve never been a ‘shoot first’ type of player. I adapt to the players I play with.”
DeMontis will close his career with the Lumberjacks at the end of the current season. He will have to say goodbye to a lot of friends, including his billet parents for the past three years, Kelly and Lisa Powers.
He said it will also be tough to bid farewell to Krygier, his coach for all three of his Lumberjack seasons.
“We both came into the league together and we’ve built a pretty good relationship,” DeMontis said about Krygier. “It’s not often where you have a friendship with a coach that will last more than the time working together.
“He treats his players better than anyone in this league, so we want to play our hearts out for him. He taught me how to be a pro and how to bring preparation to a game. I’m very thankful for everything he has taught me.”
The future is exciting for DeMontis, who will enroll and play hockey at Yale University in the fall, with a possible goal of gaining a degree in economics.
“As a person I have been successful because of my work ethic,” DeMontis said. “I was never a genius. I just put in the work and was focused on getting good grades.
“Going back to the classroom, I’m sure there’s going to be some culture shock, but I’m going to work my butt off to make sure I get good grades and get through it.”