Nine years after winning the AJHL’s rookie of the year award as a forward for the Bonnyville Jr. A Pontiacs, Justin Fontaine is putting together another great rookie season; this time for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
For years, folks in the small town of Bonnyville had the chance to watch Fontaine carve up the ice of the RJ Lalonde Arena.
On Feb. 27, 2014, many of those same fans had the opportunity to watch Fontaine once again, but this time he was suiting up for the visiting Minnesota Wild, facing off for the first time against the Edmonton Oilers, in front of 18,000 fans packed into Rexall Place, an arena located just two-and-a-half hours from Fontaine’s hometown of Bonnyville.
“I grew up coming to this building to watch games. It is every hockey players’ dream to play in the NHL and I worked my way here,” said Fontaine, who previously skated at Rexall Place as a minor hockey player.
“I remember the first time coming to Rexall and how sweet the place was and how big the atmosphere was. Skating at (Rexall) was definitely exciting and something that I will always remember.”
Minnesota shutout the Oilers 3-0 on this night with Fontaine logging 12:45 in ice time and recording one shot on goal.
“The night was a little different,” said Fontaine, who admitted he had “jitters” at the beginning of the game. “I know there were a lot of people coming from back home, which is exciting to see the kind of support I’m getting from (Bonnyville). It was a special moment.”
Although there were some “jitters” playing in Edmonton, they were nowhere near the feeling he had on Oct. 3, 2013 when the 25-year-old made his NHL debut at a packed Xcel Energy Centre in St. Paul, Minnesota against the visiting Los Angeles Kings.
Hard work and a ton of dedication has allowed him to stick with the Wild through the first three-quarters of the NHL season. So far, Fontaine has 12 goals and 6 assist in just 53 games and has found a solid spot on the team’s third line with Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke.
“We were playing against other teams’ top guys for about a month and a half,” said Fontaine. “We were going against the best of the best and it was kind of surreal at times. You know you can’t take a second off or they will beat you.”
The checking line role doesn’t bother Fontaine, whose 12 goals are third most on the team behind forwards Jason Pominville and Zach Parise.
“(Fontaine’s) a guy who’s not the biggest or fastest, but he’s a really smart player. He’s got a great shot, good hands and good vision. He does a lot of the little things right in the game and it makes him a really complete player,” said Brodziak, who is also from rural Alberta, having grown up just down the road in St. Paul.
“You can play him anywhere throughout the lineup and he’s going to make our team better. He is a great player. Just getting the chance to know him, he’s very fun to be around and a very funny guy.”
According to teammates, Fontaine has loosened up over the course of the season and now “fits in really well” in the Wild locker room.
“He was quiet at first, but after the rookie dinner he has been pretty relaxed and a little more comfortable. Everybody gets a long with him. He is a funny guy. He fits in really well with us,” said Wild assistant captain Zach Parise.
Fontaine is also described as having a “knack” for the net, and is having no trouble finding the back of it this season.
On Oct. 12 he ignited the Xcel Energy Centre faithful with a backhand under the blocker arm of Dallas Stars netminder Dan Ellis just 12 seconds into the game. The goal, Fontaine’s first in the NHL, set a franchise record for fastest Wild goal to start a game.
“It’s a feeling you can’t really explain,” said Fontaine on the record-breaking goal. “Something you always dream of is being able to put one into the back of the net in this league. It was awesome.”
Fontaine wasn’t done there. On Jan. 9, 2014 in a game in the desert against the Phoenix Coyotes, he found the back of the net three times to record his first NHL hat trick.
“It was awesome. I don’t think I have too many hat tricks,” said Fontaine with a smile. “It was a great feeling to get one at this level. It was one of those nights where things were going my way.”
On Feb. 28, a day after playing at Rexall Place, the Wild found themselves deadlocked in a 1-1 tie against the Vancouver Canucks. The game had entered a shootout and was six shooters deep when Fontaine got the call. Busting in with speed he slid the puck under an outstretched Eddie Lack to give the Wild a 2-1 win on his first career shootout attempt.
“You can tell he has a knack for offense and a knack for scoring,” said Parise. “He puts himself in good positions to get scoring chances. Sometimes you don’t see that with guys in their first year, but you can tell he has got that good knack for scoring.”
Although he is considered a rookie in the NHL, the 26-year-old Fontaine isn’t new to the game of hockey having played in four different leagues over a 10-year span.
The first of those leagues was the AJHL, where he starred for his hometown Jr. A Pontiacs from 2004 to 2007. In three years with the “Yaks” he accumulated 57 goals and 100 assists in 114 games.
“I was put in a good situation (in Bonnyville) and got to play with some good players, so I was able to hop into the league and kind of be effective in my first year as a rookie,” Fontaine said, reminiscing about his time in Junior A. “Then I stayed another year which was good, I got to handle the puck more and play in all situations.”
The extra year allowed him to expand his role on the team and play in a variety of situations. This led to him catching the eye of the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs NCAA Division 1 college hockey team.
From 2007 to 2011, Fontaine wore the Bulldogs maroon and gold, and tore up the NCAA ranks notching 62 goals and 102 assists in 159 college games.
From there he went on to play for the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League (AHL), an affiliate team of the Minnesota Wild. During the 2012-13 campaign he lead the team in scoring with 23 goals and 33 assists over 64 games.
“It seemed like a long journey, but you have to go through the steps,” said Fontaine. “If you look at the top guys in the NHL, most have played a couple years of college or a little bit of junior or in the AHL. You have to put in the time to develop and that is what I did.”
With files from Ryan McCracken