There’s No Place Like Home for Justin Fontaine
Regardless of where he plays, Justin Fontaine will always hold on firmly to his hockey heritage.
It’s a rooted history complete with vivid memories and celebrations and one he doesn’t rule out returning to one day when his professional career is complete. But for now his hockey pursuit continues elsewhere and usually multiple time zones from home.
With a population of nearly 7,000 in the oil- and agriculture-rich east-central part of Alberta, Fontaine’s hometown of Bonnyville is a place where winter outdoor activities include ice fishing, snowmobiling and riding ATVs.
But like most prairie places in Canada, hockey is the primary recreation, and chasing the dream of playing in the National Hockey League an adolescent intent. Some before him, like Jim Harrison and Jon Kalinski, have attained that goal, but Fontaine would be considered Bonnyville’s most current, famous hockey export.
In reflection, he fondly admits an appreciation for having spent his youth and teenage years there, especially since he was nurtured through its minor hockey system and on to becoming a star with its Alberta Junior Hockey League team, the Pontiacs.
For the 29-year-old, Bonnyville provided everything, including a chance to advance his career to the NCAA and eventually to the Minnesota Wild as an undrafted free agent, seemingly every year preparing him well for the ascension along the way.
“It’s a pretty unique environment in Bonnyville,” says Fontaine, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Rangers this fall and is currently playing with their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. “You’re the sports story. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.
“Obviously, I knew everyone in the community. I still enjoy going back. It’s like I never left, even though I haven’t lived there for eight years. It was an awesome experience.”
Around the time Fontaine turned 17 he began the journey into elite hockey, starting what would be a solid career with the Pontiacs – he finished third in AJHL scoring in 2005-06, and eighth the following year.
“I was a kid that never left home and played with all my best buddies,” he recalls. “Growing up going to the junior games and then eventually playing for the team was a thrill.”
Always highly skilled but considered undersized for a winger at five-foot-ten and 174 pounds, like most diminutive players in the game he had to persevere through that prejudice to get noticed and earn respect.
And playing for the Pontiacs added an additional layer of pressure to absorb and parochial obstacles to maneuver.
“Playing at home can’t be that easy,” says Chad Mercier, another Bonnyville product, who was the coach and general manager of the Pontiacs during Fontaine’s final junior season in 2006-07.
“Especially playing in a small town and being an elite player. It’s a battle of commitment to the team and then to balance that with everyday friends and family. There are certainly challenges, but I think Justin handled those extremely well and was an absolute go-to guy on our hockey team.”
Looking back, one might even suggest Fontaine thrived in the backyard environment after being named AJHL Rookie of the Year in 2005-06 with 26 goals and 81 points in 50 games, and then earning an opportunity to play for Canada West at the inaugural World Junior A Challenge in Yorkton, Sask., in November 2006.
“The first year I enjoyed the ride,” says Fontaine. “But after that there’s definitely added pressure. Being in my hometown and going to the same school allowed me to balance everything and get away from hockey when I needed to. But after that I was able to get back to the rink and do what I needed to do.”
At the 2006 World Junior A Challenge, Canada West – led by tournament MVP and current NHLer Kyle Turris – captured gold with a 4-3 victory over Canada East. That experience undoubtedly showcased Fontaine’s skill set for the University of Minnesota-Duluth to recruit him.
“In terms of personal moments in the game for me, it’s Top 5 for sure,” he says of winning gold. “I didn’t know how (the tournament) was going to be. I was just looking forward to the opportunity. Once we showed up it kind of hit you that it was a pretty big deal.
“When you play high-caliber guys like that and come out on top, it’s a good feeling. It was a great experience and solid stepping stone.”
Fontaine maintains the 2006 World Junior A Challenge helped advance his career to the college level in the United States. He committed to UMD after that season and never looked back.
He spent four years with the Bulldogs, winning an NCAA title in 2011, and was a three-time member of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Second All-Star Team and All-Academic Team (2008-09 to 2010-11).
And while the sojourn continues for Fontaine this season in the AHL, he’s confident he’ll find a spot back in the NHL to continue what has amounted to 27 goals and 68 points in nearly 200 games.
Blessed with great skating, puck handling and shooting skills, Mercier believes its Fontaine’s vision and ability to read the game at high speed that has set him apart as a player.
“He had all those things that as a coach are tough to teach,” says Mercier, now the proprietor of Sign Solutions in Bonnyville. “If you look at his career everywhere he’s been he’s had nothing but success.
“He played a huge role in winning an NCAA championship at UMD after that. What’s he’s accomplished he deserves a lot of credit for. He’s faced a lot of adversity and overcome a lot. A lot of people miss that through the journey.”