Alex Bontje spent the 2016-17 season as an alternate captain and key member of the Robert Morris Colonials’ defensive corps. Bontje established a reputation of playing the right way and working hard early in his career, which stood out among the coaches.
In his first year as a formal leader, he continued to lead by example, and did a nice job contributing to the leadership group.
After the season, he was named team captain. At the time, Coach Derek Schooley said, “Alex was a part of a tremendous leadership group last year, and we have no doubt that he will use his experience to lead this group in the right direction.”
Given his experience as an alternate last year, Bontje knows what is expected of him as a leader on the team. However, being named captain meant he had an even greater responsibility coming into the season.
“The captain, especially at the beginning of the year, has a lot more duties than the alternate captains,” he explained in a phone interview with Pittsburgh Hockey Digest. “More specifically this year, because I was named the captain at the end of last year before we went home for the summer, while the alternates Fergie (Brady Ferguson) and Timmy (Timmy Moore) were only named alternates last week. I was running the captain’s practices, I was helping out in workouts, getting the freshmen going.”
Bontje has been able to handle the new role well, as have his fellow captain classmates. Therefore, he feels that the team has a strong leadership group once again heading into this season.
“I think us three are great leaders, and it’s not only us, as they mentioned, but we have a great senior class and great upperclassmen to help lead the way this year.”
One thing that any team’s leadership group is responsible for is acclimating the newcomers to the group. The Colonials have a noticeably differently-sized group of new faces this year. The team only has four, as opposed to 10 last year.
While this makes things easier on the ice, as it is fewer people that need to be taught systems, plays, etc., it can be difficult off the ice. These players are coming into a well-established team dynamic, with many guys who already know each other well. Bontje and the leadership group recognized that potential difficulty, and have worked to combat it right away.
“We’ve done a great job so far getting them to all of the events and having cookouts and going away for a weekend just to establish some relationships with them so they could feel more comfortable not only around us, but I think that translates onto the ice, as well,” he said.
As he transitions to being the captain, he didn’t have to look too far to find someone he could model himself after. Last year’s captain, Rob Mann, is someone that had been a positive influence on Bontje since very early on in his college career. Bontje recalled playing in a scrimmage during captain’s practices as a freshman, after which he received a text from the then-sophomore Mann.
“I remember Manner texting the freshmen defensemen and saying ‘great job out their guys, keep up the good work,’ and I think that really helped me feel comfortable which helped me in the long run,” he remarked.
Little things like that can really help new players get acclimated to a new team. It certainly helped Bontje. Having a good relationship with players is something that he thinks really helped the team once Mann became captain last year. It’s something that he is trying to emulate this season.
“I really enjoyed how Manner ran the team last year,” Bontje said. “I’ve tried to kind of tweak my leadership style closer to his. I think guys really trusted Manner; they could talk about anything with him, and I think that really brings the team together.”
The vocal aspect of being the captain is something that Bontje has really focused on coming into this season. As he mentioned, he’s always felt he’s been able to lead by example. However, he has made a point to be more vocal this season.
“One of the things when I spoke with the coaches at the end of last year was becoming more vocal,” he explained. “I’ve really tried to work on that at the start of this year. Speaking up, talking to people, seeing what they think, how they like how I’m doing it really. I’ve kind of taken that constructive criticism and tweaked my leadership style just so I can be the most helpful and best leader I can be.”
This year’s team, led by Bontje, has been practicing together for more than a month. As he mentioned, part of the month has been spent getting the team acclimated with each other off the ice. On the ice, the team has also been putting in a lot of work. Captain’s practices and battle drills are a nice sign of the season getting closer. That being said, getting to play in game action is a much more exciting sign that the season is right around the corner.
That first chance will come on Saturday. The team’s exhibition matchup against the University of Ottawa will be the first opportunity to see how all of the offseason and preseason work that they’ve put in translates into a game.
“Preseason has gone great,” he remarked. “We’ve had a lot of battles on the ice. I think that guys are getting a little bit tired of hitting each other and seeing each other all the time. I keep hearing around the room that everyone’s excited to get going.
“I think it will be a great start against Ottawa this weekend. Hopefully we will come out with a lot of energy; I assume we will after playing each other for a month now, so it will be nice to hit some new bodies and play a different team.”
Last year’s Colonials squad exceeded the expectations that most outsiders had for them coming into the season. With a young team comprised of a large number of freshmen, they were note expected to be a top team in the conference.
They ended up advancing all the way to the Atlantic Hockey finals for the third time in four seasons. The result in that game was a hard-fought 2-1 loss to Air Force. Coming into the season, these two teams are expected to be at the top of the conference yet again. The preseason coaches poll has Air Force ranked first and the Colonials second. The loss to the Falcons in last year’s final and the fact that they are “looking up” at them again in this poll is something that provides this year’s RMU squad with some significant motivation.
“Obviously that was a tough loss, and with returning so many guys, I think it’s better in that sense because we can use that loss to kind of fuel our fire this year,” he reflected. “Especially after the news today with Air Force being picked first and us being picked second, I think that again fuels the fire to again come back this year and go after them rather then having the same outcome as last year and come out on top this year.”
This thought process was evident in the team’s goals for the upcoming season. Obviously there is a long way to go, but the team has a plan for how to achieve the success they know they are capable of. They want to exceed the expectations that the coaches poll laid out. With the graduation of last year’s class, there are no current Colonials on the roster that were on the NCAA tournament-reaching team in 2013-14. However, Bontje feels that they have the pieces in place to become the second team in program history to achieve that impressive accomplishment.
“Ultimately we want to go into the Christmas break with as many wins as we can, and really have our game under our belt at that point,” he said. “Then coming back, we want to improve on that and solidify our game for the Atlantic Tournament.
“Like I said before, I think we want a different outcome there, obviously, so win that and move on to the NCAA tournament. I think we have a great shot this year. We have a great group of guys, so I think anything less would be a disappointment.”