By Tyler King
The trek to Fort McMurray is considered a lengthy one even for players who graduate from minor hockey in the relatively nearby communities of St. Albert or Fort Saskatchewan, and for decades it has made recruiting talent to this team naturally tougher.
That makes it all the more impressive to see St. Jerome, Quebec’s Zach Fortin make the more than 3,500 kilometre swap from Cape Breton, where he played last year, to join the Oil Barons for the 2013-14 season.
It’s not only impressive based on the distance travelled; but also on the significant goaltending pedigree that the 19-year old brings to the team.
Fortin entered the junior ranks after posting the best goals against average in his entire midget AAA league in 2011-12, when he capped off his minor career with the Ontario Hockey Academy. Fortin not only posted a 1.78 GAA, but also helped backstop OHA to a league championship.
The following year, he entered major junior hockey with Patrick Roy’s Quebec Remparts, where he posted a 9-4 record, and only averaged two and a half goals allowed per game at just 17 years old.
Last season, beginning the year with the Rimouski Oceanic, Fortin continued his winning ways with an 8-1 record in 15 games, before being a major deadline acquisition by the Screaming Eagles out in Cape Breton.
With a significantly less talented team in front of him than he had with the Remparts, Fortin continued to post wins, going 8-2 for the team and winning his final 6 starts of the season.
Then, come playoff time, Cape Breton benched him.
For the first two games of their opening round series against Gatineau, Fortin came in to relieve the shell shocked starting goaltender. By the time the team wised up enough to start him in games 3 and 4, it was too late, and Cape Breton was swept out of the playoffs.
Fortin admits the end of that season was a major reason for his decision to seek a new hockey home.
“I asked my goalie coach if he could help me find a good place for me,” he told me after his first win in a MOB uniform; an impressive 36-shot shutout against Drayton Valley. “Right away, he threw me in Curtis [Hunt]’s way.”
It turned out Fortin’s goalie coach, Scott Gouthro, had coached with the Barons’ new bench boss as Video Coach when Hunt was on the staff of Canada’s national men’s sledge hockey team at the Paralympics in Sochi as an assistant.
But Fortin says there were plenty of factors that made him decide that Fort McMurray was where he wanted to be.
“It’s a prestigious team,” he started, “they’re hosting the Western Canada Cup, and a goalie I know already played for the Oil Barons and got drafted to the NHL.”
“There are plenty of reasons why I’m here today, and I don’t regret anything – it’s an amazing place.”
But he’s also quick to admit that there are significant differences between the way Albertans approach the game as compared to his familiar foes in “the Q.”
“I’d say Quebec has more finesse,” he said. “But here, it’s intensity, it’s competitive, there are hits, and I’ve rarely seen a team with as much character [as the Oil Barons].”
Fortin didn’t take long to make an immediate impact for his new team. After a narrow 2-1 overtime win in the team’s home opener on Friday night behind a spectacular 40-plus save performance by veteran Jesse Gordichuk, Fortin helped suggest to all onlookers that the MOB may have a critical one-two punch in net, when he helped the team cruise to a 3-0 shutout win the following night.
Afterwards, the goaltender had about as wide a smile on his face as any player does after a home performance.
“It’s a great feeling; there’s nothing compared to this,” said Fortin without a hint of exaggeration when asked to describe his post-game emotional state. “The crowd was amazing; I was really surprised.”
“And the guys played awesome.”
Observers would be right to point out that it’s just one game, and there will be bigger and tougher tests down the road for the MOB’s newest netminder.
But so far, with his level of enthusiasm, hockey pedigree, and sheer natural skill, adding to the asset of having another year of junior hockey eligibility left, Zach Fortin is making a strong early case as one of Curtis Hunt’s most significant recruits.
Communication won’t be an issue for the Quebecker, either; he already speaks better English than I do.
Though, to be fair, that’s not exactly the highest standard.
Follow me on Twitter @tyler_king