By Jason Shaya
“If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” – St. Thomas Aquinas.
Ryan Schmelzer was named the team captain of the Utica Comets last season. From that moment on, he took his team into battle each night with the idea that leadership means putting your head down and going to work. There weren’t any florid pre-game speeches to his team or emotional post-game remarks after wins or losses. He was quiet in his pursuit of a team goal, but his actions spoke forcefully.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Schmelzer and his family found their way to Buffalo, New York. It was there were he captained the Jr. Sabres of the OJHL and caught the eye of Canisius College where he’d ultimately end up playing Division I hockey for four seasons. It’s not always easy for a freshman to find his way into the lineup, but that’s what Schmelzer did. He played in 36 of 37 games and led team freshmen in scoring with 14 points while leading the entire team in plus/minus with a +15. He was named to the Atlantic Hockey All-Academic Team all four years of his collegiate career. Whether it was scoring big goals, blocking shots, or turning in his assignments with high marks, Schmelzer proved more than capable.
Canisius head coach, Trevor Large, told the Buffalo News during the Comets playoff series against Rochester that he wasn’t surprised Schmelzer was picked to wear the “C” on his sweater in Utica. "There's different types of leaders but the way Ryan is, the leadership ability does ooze out of him," Large said. "It's in a very quiet, very serious, very much by example by the way he behaves. I'm not surprised he's a captain in Utica. He was a heck of a captain here. It's who he is."
There was excitement amongst Comets fans when it was announced last week that Schmelzer is set to return for another two seasons. It makes sense for him in many ways, especially considering he thrived offensively last season under head coach Kevin Dineen. Putting up a career high 18 goals and 32 points in 64 games played, the captain ranked sixth in team scoring at season’s end. Although, his worth is not solely measured in points. It’s his lead by example style of play that inspires his teammates to bring their games to his effort level. He understands being a captain is more than having a letter sown into your hockey sweater. It’s about going into the breach and doing the work.
“I wouldn’t say I have a definitive leadership style. I think it’s important to be versatile and have a good feel of the room. First and foremost, leading by example is a must. This is the easiest part of being a leader in my opinion,” said Schmelzer. “It’s easy to show up and work hard and set an example for everyone else. But for the most part, I’m someone who wants to get everyone included. I look to connect with people and get to know them individually, so I know when it’s a good time to lean on them or not. Keeping the room calm and easy going, but focused, is what I look to do.”
With a new contract signed, the captain is eager to get back to work and avenge last year’s playoff loss to Rochester. “As a group, we were pretty bitter about how the season ended. We felt we had the team to go deep into playoffs and obviously that didn’t happen,” remarked Schemlzer. “While it was painful, I think it was a great learning experience for the group. We will use that knowledge to take us even further. We are excited and expect big things.”
There is more work to be done and the captain knows there is another battle to be waged.