Paying His Dues
Growing up in Bonnyville, Alberta, Justin Fontaine never imagined he’d spend so much time in the State of Hockey.
After playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the Bonnyville Pontiacs for a few years — in which he racked up 157 points (57-100=157) and was recently named one of the AJHL’s Top 50 players of All-Time — Fontaine made his way to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Over four seasons in Duluth, he became a Bulldog favorite, posting 58 points over 42 games his senior year — third most in the Western Collegiate Hockey Conference in the 2010-11 season and fourth in the nation. The effort helped lead the Bulldogs to their first NCAA National Championship Title in school history.
Only ten days after claiming the title at Xcel Energy Center, Fontaine signed as a free agent with the Wild. Fast-forward three years; he earned a roster spot out of camp with a fan base that was already familiar with his name.
“I didn’t even know where I was going to end up,” Fontaine said. “I’m glad it’s Minnesota with such great people and great hockey fans. It started in college with such good support. Even when things weren’t going your way, people were always there to support the team.”
With a Minnesota fan base from the start — one that’s still growing — the right-winger eventually found a comfortable spot in the lineup and crept up the Wild’s stat chart. With 12 goals this season, he’s third on the team, behind Jason Pominville’s 19 tallies and Zach Parise’s 15.
The rookie, who turned 26 in November, showed his nose for the net early on with six goals through the first 14 games of the season. But he hit a drought between November and December, picking up just three assists, and eventually was a healthy scratch four games in a row.
“It’s my first year in the league so I’m still learning,” Fontaine said. “I’m just coming to work every day and playing whatever role I’m put into. That’s pretty much it. I’m just working hard. I’m not trying to go out there and think I have to score. I just try and create things and take care of our defensive game.”
In 11 games since the Christmas break, Fontaine has picked up eight points on six goals and two assists. The effort included his first career hat trick.
On Jan. 9, the Wild traveled to Phoenix, looking for its fourth straight win. With a 3-1 lead late in the third, the Coyotes were skating with an empty net. Kyle Brodziak picked up a pass from Nino Niederreiter at the blue line, and shoveled it off the boards and down ice. Fontaine picked up the loose puck and swept a backhanded shot straight at the yawning net.
As he watched the puck slid into the goal for his third of the night, he lifted his arms in celebration. Wild fans in attendance made sure to sprinkle the ice with hats. It was his first hat trick since his junior year in college.
“It’s definitely a great feeling,” Fontaine said. “The past two years in the minors I had a couple chances with two-goal games. To get it at this level is definitely special — that’s pretty much why I celebrated on an open net goal.”
After the hatty — the first ever by a rookie in franchise history — Head Coach Mike Yeo attributed the feat to the hard work Fontaine has put in all season.
“He used that time (out of the lineup) to continue to work and make sure he was on top of his game when he got back in the lineup,” Yeo said. “He did it the right way. … That’s what you’re looking for in players, to go out and do the right things. You don’t have to go out a make great play after great play. You go out and make good play after good play, and the right play—that puts you in a position to have those great moments.”
Fontaine will admit those good plays are also a result of the players alongside him. After moving up and down the lineup, essentially playing on each line at some point, the right-winger has found a home — for now — with veterans Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke.
Between chatting on the bench after shifts and continually going over plays with one another, their chemistry is still building.
“It’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s been good,” Fontaine said. “They’re two guys that I enjoy playing with. They work really hard. There isn’t more you can ask for, two guys beside you who are willing to get in there and get you the puck.”
With plenty of season left, Fontaine still has room to show off his best. Much like his journey to the National Hockey League — with pit stops at UMD for four seasons and in Houston for two — he knows it’s all a process, just one step at a time.
“At UMD I played all my four years to develop more and have the puck more,” Fontaine said. “I put my time in down in Houston where I learned a lot and played in all situations. This year I just came into camp and was focusing on taking it day by day and having a good camp. Here I am today. I’m happy. It’s definitely an accomplishment for me.”