RMU Hockey: Colonials Keeping Things Simple For Young Defensemen


RMU freshman defenseman Alex Bontje is one of three inexperienced players getting a lot of ice time early this season (Photo: Jason Cohn/RMU Athletics)

NEVILLE ISLAND, Pa. – The transition from junior hockey to the college game is challenging for even the most prepared athletes.

That step up is even more taxing for defensemen, since a mistake on the blue line can result in a goal allowed much more easily than a similar error by a forward.

The Robert Morris University coaching staff knows this, so they’ve tried to keep the start of the season simple for the three inexperienced defensemen who’ve played regularly so far: freshmen Alex Bontje and Robert Powers, and sophomore Rob Mann.

A glance at the RMU line chart tells you all you need to know, as each of the Ontario-born neophytes have been paired with college veterans. Mann has played with junior Evan Moore (82 college games), while Bontje is skating with junior Chase Golightly (75 games) and Powers is paired with sophomore John Rey (41 games).

“You definitely look for the older guy to be the stronger of the two, so it takes some pressure off the younger guy and he can go out and play,” said RMU associate head coach Mark Workman. “Hopefully the veteran takes the younger guy under his wing…and shows him the ins and outs. For the most part, I think that’s happened.”

It’s difficult to argue with the Colonials’ results in their first four games: four total goals allowed in four wins. Even though any coach will tell you defense is dependent on team-wide execution, a 1.00 goals-against average indicates that there have been more positives than negatives from the ‘D’ corps.

“So far, so good,” Workman said after a recent practice at the Island Sports Center, although he tempered that feeling a bit. “A defenseman takes a longer time to develop than a high-quality forward. It’s just the pace, everything happens so fast at this level. It’s the same for any freshman, but as a defenseman there’s always that extra pressure.”

Workman also noted the increased size and strength of college players compared to their junior counterparts. The large age gap between NCAA players, which the Colonials took advantage of with senior defensemen Andrew Blazek and Evan Renwick on their roster last season.

Now, with Blazek and Renwick both having graduated, RMU’s blue line is skewing younger. Some of that will change when redshirt junior Tyson Wilson returns to the ice from offseason surgery, but there figures to be at least three underclassmen on defense at any given time this year.

Although he played in 10 games as a freshman, this season represents a new beginning for Mann. The 220-pounder found himself on the outside looking in as the Colonials went on their history-making run last spring, so he’s motivated to carve out a more consistent spot in the lineup.

“Last year was pretty tough, but I stuck with it,” said Mann, who at 6-foot-6 isn’t lacking for wingspan. “I worked hard to get where (the coaches) thought I needed to be. Having (Moore) as a ‘D’ partner makes it pretty easy. You know where he’s going to be, so we’re off to a good start. We’re not the most offensive guys out there, but I think we’ve done our job well.”

For Mann, success comes from good positioning and knowing how to leverage his size and strength.

“For me, it’s about containing guys,” he said. “I try to lead guys to the outside. If I get into a footrace with a small, fast guy, I use my reach to my advantage so he doesn’t roast me wide or anything. I try to play the body when I can, but I’m not an overly physical guy. I focus on that and having a ‘good stick.'”

If it’s physical play you like, Bontje will catch your eye. He’s cleaned up his own end while compiling a team-best plus-5 rating, with much of that success coming from a taste for contact.

“Throughout my junior career, and most of the time I played growing up, I’ve tried to use my body to my advantage,” said Bontje, who packs 200 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame. “I like laying big hits and separating guys from the puck as much as I can.”

Bontje’s partnership with the more offensively ambitious Golightly has an odd-couple feel, but it’s been effective so far.

“It’s been a learning process and I’m trying to keep my game pretty simple,” Bontje said. “(Golightly) has really shown me the way. He’s more offensive and I’m more defensive, but he’s given me tips on how to play at both ends of the ice. I think everyone’s been good about stuff like that.”

As for Powers, his best attributes are “moving his feet and using his hands,” according to Workman. Like Mann, the 6-foot-1 Powers is better suited to a positional game than going out of his way to engage in physical battles, although he can bring some offensive flair when the time is right.

“I’ve gotten an opportunity to play and I’ve tried to be as steady as possible,” said Powers, who provides a counterpoint to the aggressive Rey. “You’ve got to do all the little things at this level. You can’t take a shift off because guys are bigger, stronger, faster. They’ll burn you if you let up for even a second.

“Obviously I’m not a big shutdown defenseman, so I’m trying to be sound positionally and play inside the (faceoff) dots and do the things I do well – puck moving, skating and using my shot when I can get it off.”

Powers is just a few games into his Colonials career, but he has been impressed by the commitment the team has shown during its undefeated start. RMU (4-0, 2-0 AHA) continues Atlantic Hockey Association play this weekend against Army in West Point, New York.

“Everyone’s bought into the team defense that coach (Derek) Schooley has taught us,” Powers said. “Everyone’s blocking shots…I’ve never seen a team block as many. When everyone buys in, it’s pretty easy to be successful.”

The same could be said about young defensemen being open to mentorship. Because of that, their adjustment to college hockey has been made much smoother.