NEVILLE TWP, Pa. — As college players mature from inexperienced freshman to upperclass leaders, there are a lot of lessons to be learned along the way. Some come on the ice in the heat of the action and others come far away from the game.
Robert Morris sophomore forward Brandon Watt had to learn one of the latter this season: patience.
As a freshman in 2015-16, Watt played in 20 games but saw a very limited role on what was a senior-laden team. It was a good experience for him to get the routine of being a college hockey player down pat — the travel, the practices, the mix of athletics and academics — all while honing his craft on the ice so that when the 10-player 2016 senior class moved on, Watt would be one of the guys poised to step into a bigger role in 2016-17.
It seemed as if everything was going to plan when Watt collected a pair of assists in the season opener against RIT. But Watt suffered an injury in that game that would affect the way the rest of the season played out. Watt tore his triceps against RIT and he initially tried getting through it, but the inability to take faceoffs was limiting his play. After four games, the decision was made to shut it down. It was a tough pill to swallow for Watt, who knew he wasn’t 100 percent, but still felt like he could push through the pain of the injury.
“It got a little bit tough right when it first happened, just because I felt like I was still able to play even though my triceps was torn pretty badly,” Watt said. “When I started to get upset when I wasn’t able to do anything, I just had to tell myself that it was the right thing to do because if I kept playing and made it worse, it could have ruined my career or ruined my year.”
Watt ended up missing 12 games while the Colonials finished the first half 8-4-3 without him. Perhaps most distressingly was the play of the team’s freshman forwards, as players such as Matthew Graham, Luke Lynch and Daniel Mantenuto nailed down top-nine roles in Watt’s stead.
“There’s always competition within the team for ice time, but it’s good to see some young guys step up,” Watt said. “As tough as it was to see that, it made me really happy to see the young guys be able to contribute that way.”
Unfortunately, dealing with players that miss significant time to injury is nothing new to head coach Derek Schooley, who had goaltender Dalton Izyk and forwards Ben Robillard and Kyle Eastman miss significant time just last season in addition to Watt, Kyle Horsman and Izyk again this year.
“You just have to stay positive with them and get them back to playing how they were playing before they got hurt,” Schooley said. “To get back to playing the way you can play, you have to be [fully] healthy. You have to make sure that your health is there because we do have people that are performing fairly well. It makes no sense to take out someone that’s 100 percent healthy and playing well.”
TIME FOR REHAB
The time off for Watt’s injury was just that — time off. He couldn’t skate and basically couldn’t exercise at all while the team’s physicians attempted to limit the use of his upper body.
“It was really tough going out there every day and playing to pretty much nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move my upper body whatsoever. It was long and it was tough, but it was the right thing to do.”
Watt wasn’t able to skate until December because the team’s physicians were trying to limit his use of his upper body. He had just started practicing with the team in a limited capacity when the semester break hit, meaning Watt had to take his rehab back home with him.
“It gave me another week’s rest and a chance to gear up for the Three Rivers,” he said. “I got to skate with my old junior team back in Ottawa, so that was good.”
BACK ON THE ICE
Watt made his return for the Three Rivers Classic opener on Dec. 29 and he made an immediate impact. In the four games since he’s been back, he’s recorded a goal and two assists and has points in three straight games while skating on the team’s third line.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “After the nine or 10 weeks that I was out, getting back — especially for the Three Rivers — that’s an easy game to get up for. It was a long time coming. It was definitely get exciting.”
Head coach Derek Schooley eased Watt into the lineup, starting him on the fourth line before moving him up to the third as Watt got his legs under him.
“You can work out and skate as much as you want, but there’s nothing like being in mid-season shape,” Watt said. “I think my first two games back were OK. I’m just looking to continue to get better and try to get back to where I was before I got hurt.”
His legs certainly looked fine in his third game back against American International, when Watt caused a turnover in his own zone and took off up the ice on a 2-on-1.
When the team and Watt arrived at the decision to shut him down until his injury could heal, there was another party involved in the decision — Watt’s father, Randy. While a typical hockey dad might not necessarily be at the top of the list of people to ask about his son’s injury, there’s a clear exception in the case of the Watt family.
Randy Watt is the general manager of the Nepean Raiders, a Canadian Junior-A team located in Ottawa. That experience makes it a little bit different for Brandon when he gets a phone call from dad.
“When he found out the degree of the injury, he said I shouldn’t play,” Watt said. “He always gave me the choice of what I wanted to do, but he told me not just as a father but as a hockey guy, that I needed to shut it down.”
Taking advice from dad has been something that Brandon has gotten used to over the years. He played for parts of six seasons for his father’s Raiders.
“Any hockey player, when they’re young especially, and their dad tries to tell them stuff after the game, you usually just brush it off, but it’s a little bit of a different story for me, because my dad actually knows what he’s talking about,” Brandon said. “I have to remind myself that he has more experience in hockey than I have on this planet.”
Randy Watt typically spends his weekends with his club in Nepean, but with the Raiders on holiday break, he got the chance to come to Pittsburgh to see his son’s return to the ice. Watt’s successful return and the tournament victory for RMU turned it into a nice moment for father and son.
Watt, Izyk (lower body) and Horseman (back) are back to health after suffering early season injuries, though the latter two have yet to make their return to the ice.
Freshman Jacob Coleman (concussion) and senior Rob Mann (lower body) remain out as the Colonials enter their bye week.
RMU is in second place in Atlantic Hockey with 20 points, one behind first-place Air Force. The Falcons have two games in hand on the Colonials and will play them this coming weekend before paying a visit to RMU on Jan. 20 and 21 at 84 Lumber Arena.
In this week’s USCHO.com poll, RMU received 22 points and is now third amongst others receiving votes in the 20-team poll.
The RMU women’s team moved up two spots to No. 7 in both the USCHO.com and USA Hockey polls, the highest national ranking that program has ever achieved. The ladies host Lindenwood this weekend.