Schwartz: An Afterthought No More
Justin Fontaine leaps head first through window of opportunity …
When former Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Justin Fontaine first began preseason camp with the Minnesota Wild back in the late summer, there was very little assurance that he’d even stick with the big club this season.
“It was kind of wait and see how I produce,” Fontaine says. “I think they kind of knew it was a learning curve for anyone especially for a guy new to the league so I was just happy to make the opening roster.”
Fontaine has done more than just make the roster. Through the second week in January, Fontaine has played in 43 games, sits third on the team in goals scored with 12 and is ninth on the team in total points with 17. For a guy whose ticket to Iowa was practically already printed before the season, Justin Fontaine is living the impossible dream and he’s done it by being whatever player the Wild need him to be, on any given night.
“I try to be a very versatile player, be able to play with some skill guys,” says Fontaine. “Or be in a checking role and get some pucks or just bring some energy.”
The energy is working. On Jan. 9 in Phoenix, Fontaine netted his first career hat trick. Though they weren’t the prettiest of goals and the final came on an empty-netter, it was a milestone that he was glad to accomplish. In fact, when asked he can hardly hide is glee that he’s already recorded one mid-way through his rookie season.
“Yeah it was pretty awesome,” he chuckles. “It was something I never thought would happen this year that is for sure. Getting three in a night is always a great accomplishment. It was just one of those nights where the puck bounces and finds the back of the net.”
Fontaine has certainly made the good bounces count with his willingness to do what it takes and his hustle, but injuries to key Wild players have helped also. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, who have accounted for a lot of the team’s points this season, have missed significant amounts of time due to injury, which has given someone like Fontaine a window of opportunity. One that he intends to make the most of.
“In order to win games, you need guys to step up,” says Fontaine. “We’ve been able to do that as a young crew right now. We’ve been able to step up into more ice time and play effectively and help our team.”
Part of the gig of being a rookie is having a thick skin, in fact it’s imperative. You must constantly play your best hockey while dealing with the pressures from coaches and fans. And do it all while not looking too much over your shoulder at the guy looking to take your place. That is something that everyone, from a top draft pick to an undrafted free agent like Fontaine must deal with. But if you think it’s tougher being a guy the team used a draft pick on, Justin Fontaine begs to differ.
“It’s probably even a little bit more pressure,” says Fontaine. “A guy like that (a top pick) will have time to stick around and learn and develop if things don’t go his way right away. Whereas with me I am on a two-way [contract] and it could be up or down. So it’s a lot of pressure.”
But it’s pressure that Fontaine’s not only been able to handle, but thrive under.
“Every day you’ve got to approach it like you never know if it could be your last,” Fontaine says. “It’s a lot to think about and take in but ultimately you have to go out there and play your game.”
And if Justin Fontaine continues to play the way he has, he could soon guarantee that he won’t be playing his last day in Minnesota anytime soon.
Not bad for a kid who was nothing but an afterthought to start that season.