Bonnyville native Justin Fontaine seems to be getting adjusted to life in the NHL, now midway through his second season as a member of the Minnesota Wild.
“It takes time, but I feel pretty comfortable,” said Fontaine after practice on Jan. 27. “You just have to get used to travelling back-to-back (days) and bringing it every night. Consistency is the main key in staying in this league.”
This past summer the 27-year-old signed a new two-year pact with the club that will pay him $1-million annually.
The deal is a reward for all the hard work the former Bonnyville Jr. A Pontiacs star forward has put in over his 11-year hockey career. A career that has seen him play in four different leagues (AJHL, NCAA, AHL, NHL) and suit up for teams like the Pontiacs, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Houston Aeros and Wild.
His long journey to the NHL ended last year when he stuck with Minnesota out of training camp. Now, in the midst of his second season in the league, the Bonnyville product is a consistent presence on the team’s third line and has amassed over 100 games in the world’s top hockey league.
Fontaine’s 107th NHL game, on Jan. 27 in Edmonton, was only his second career game against his “hometown” Oilers. Having grown up a mere two-and-a-half hours down the road in Bonnyville, the return to Rexall Place was a sort of homecoming for the Wild sophomore, who visited the rink many times as a kid.
“I’m going to approach the game just like any other game,” said Fontaine, hours before he took on the Oilers in front of a crowd packed full of family and friends. “I’m just going to go out there and play and not think about things too much. It is all about the start, getting into the game, getting pucks deep and getting the feet going.”
A quick start is exactly what the visiting Wild got on this night with a hard forecheck from Fontaine resulting in a turnover, and an early Wild goal.
“We just kept pressuring and making them turn back,” said Fontaine, describing the goal. “They eventually ran out of room and just bobbled the puck. I was able to strip him of it and make a play out front.
The Oiler Fontaine embarrassed was none other than Nail Yakupov, a former first round draft pick in 2012. Once he took the puck off Yakupov, he found teammate Nino Niederreiter out front of the net, who then chipped it past Oilers net minder Viktor Fasth.
Fontaine’s key contribution to the goal impressed father Denis Fontaine, who was among the many family and friends in attendance.
“When he gets an opportunity to set up a goal in a tight game with a pile of people in attendance, that was pretty cherishable. I would have liked to see him score a goal, but seeing him set one up was just as good,” said the elder Fontaine.
“I thought he had a pretty strong game. There is a lot of pressure to do that in front of a lot of friends, but when you play in the NHL you have pressure on you every game.”
The Wild squeaked out a 2-1 victory over the Oilers on this night with Fontaine recording a shot on goal, to go alongside his assist in 11:55 of ice time.
After the game, Minnesota assistant captain Zach Parise commented on how nice it was for the team to receive some secondary scoring.
“We need everyone. We need everyone feeling good about how they are playing and contributing on the offensive side of things and doing their part,” said Parise. “It has to feel good for them (to contribute).”
Kyle Brodziak, who is from St. Paul, AB, joins Fontaine and Matt Cooke in making up Minnesota’s third line. The 10-year NHL veteran had nothing but praise for the former Pontiac.
“(Fontaine) is such an underrated player. The way he plays with the puck and his hockey IQ is very high,” said Brodziak. “He is always fun to play with because he is easy to read off of, you know what he is going to do.”
After the game, just like most nights throughout the busy NHL season, Fontaine will take the time to go over his play with his father, who provides a different perspective.
“We just talk through things. He gives me tips here and there and tells me what to focus on and what he sees,” said Fontaine. “He has been my coach my entire life, so I always take into account what he has to say.”
According to Denis, he holds nothing back when talking to Justin about his play, feeling honesty is the best way to approach their conversations.
“I watch it with honesty. I don’t try to pull any punches and I don’t try to be as hard as I want to be, but there are times were he is saying one thing and I tell him the way it is,” said Denis.
“We talk about the game and what I see and what I think he needs to do, but it is easier said than done. Watching is easier than playing, especially in the NHL. We have always had a good relationship in regards to me being perfectly honest on his game and he takes it. He respects me for my opinion.”
This past January saw Fontaine hit a significant career milestone, when he suited up for his 100th NHL game.
Although the Wild dropped a 4-2 contest to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks, Fontaine acknowledged the game as being “cool.”
“It was cool. Growing up you always dream of playing at this level, finally getting there and being able to play that many games. It has been a lot of fun and a learning experience all the way through.”
Denis also acknowledged the milestone, knowing just how tough it is to make it to the NHL and stay there.
“It is any father’s dream to watch their kid play in the NHL. I cherish every game I can watch,” said Denis. “I’d like to see a lot more games that is for sure.”
“I think he has done a wonderful job so far in the league. I am pretty proud of the kid.”