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Prospect Profile: Fortier's fortitude is what Blue Jackets value most

Character shown by undrafted free agent tipped the scales for contract offer.

by Brian Hedger JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

There are plenty of things to like about Maxime Fortier, the hockey player.

The Halifax Mooseheads right wing, who was signed to an entry-level contract by the Blue Jackets on Nov. 5, has loads of speed. He also owns a good wrist shot, plays on both special-teams and isn't afraid to skate into the most punishing areas of the ice.

One asset stands out above all, however, and it was a big reason Columbus extended the contract.

"Everybody celebrated at the time they signed," said Bill Zito, Blue Jackets assistant general manager and general manager of the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League. "Time will tell, but the one nice thing about [Fortier] is that we did a pretty thorough check on his character, and it came out real strong."

Character.

It's a trait Fortier owns in bulk, and there two main reasons NHL teams crave prospects who have it, the Blue Jackets included. The first is about building a culture of winning, on the ice and off. The second is about the uncertain nature of projecting amateur players as pros.

If you think of each prospect as a wager, the safest picks are the no-doubters taken at the top of the draft. After them, it's the guys who - drafted or undrafted - prove they have great character to go with the physical skills necessary to make it.

"It's two pronged," Zito said. "It's the effect it has on the organization as a whole, and the effect it has on the likelihood of the guy maximizing his potential."

If Fortier doesn't pan out, it won't be for lack of character.

He's built it up in large piles throughout his junior career, thanks to an undersized frame (5-foot-10, 184 pounds) and overlooked abilities. Despite impressive stats the past two seasons with Halifax, Fortier wasn't selected in either of the past two NHL drafts.

He attended both, in Buffalo (2016) and Chicago (2017), and wound up choking back tears.

"Obviously, it's a dream to get called and go get your jersey and hat from a team, but I always knew that if I kept working hard, I would have a chance one day," said Fortier, who has 29 points (15 goals, 14 assists) in 22 games this season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. "It was tough. It was not easy to be passed two drafts in a row, but I have confidence in myself. I knew that one day, if I just kept on doing what I do best, good things would happen."

It wasn't the last time he needed resolve.

After going undrafted, Fortier was invited to prospects camp by the Montreal Canadiens, the team he grew up cheering for. He was invited to training camp with Montreal, too, but wasn't around long.

After being cut, Fortier showed more fortitude.

"He made it a point to come back here and work to get a contract, and he did," said Halifax coach Jim Midgley, who's worked with Fortier since 2013-14. "The day he gets cut from Montreal, he makes sure he gets on a flight to Saint John (New Brunswick). He gets off the plane, gets to the rink 45 minutes before the game and gets two goals and an assist. It just says a lot about the character of the kid."

That character led to Fortier wearing the captain's "C" this season. It's not just because he topped 30 goals each of the previous two QMJHL seasons. It's because he's a proven leader for the Mooseheads, year-round.

After practice, he's usually the first in line for a protein shake or smoothie made of liquefied grass.

"He's got pro habits already, which we love about him, and his character speaks for itself," Midgley said. "He goes through two NHL drafts. He was at both drafts the past two years, and I was talking to his agent the day he signed [with Columbus] … he's crying in the stands, but he never once quit."

This year's draft was the toughest to swallow. Fortier doesn't know what else he could've done to attract a team's interest.

"Every year, I took a step in the right direction, and last year was probably one of my best hockey years," he said. "So, obviously, I went into the draft pretty confident. But I'm not the only guy who didn't drafted, so I couldn't get down on myself. I just kept working."

It paid off with a great start to another season with Halifax. Four NHL teams expressed the most interest in signing him, but the Blue Jackets landed him.

Now, Fortier is excited to be part of a franchise with a lot of young talent. He already knows Blue Jackets rookie forward Pierre-Luc Dubois from the QMJHL, and they were teammates in the Canada-Russia series.

"We actually exchanged texts [when I signed]," Fortier said. "I was really happy to hear from him. Pierre-Luc is an amazing player, but also a really good guy."

Dubois isn't the only young NHL talent Fortier knows.

He's also played on lines with Halifax that included New Jersey Devils forward Nico Hischier, the No.1 overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolai Ehlers, San Jose Sharks forward Timo Meier and Canadiens center Jonathan Drouin.

"Those guys are special," Fortier said. "They do things that make them special, that not everyone can do. But just to see them in practice, they never are satisfied. Even if they score two goals or three goals, they want the fourth one. They want the fifth one. So, that's a little bit of what I'm trying to do now. I never get satisfied."

Midgley said Fortier is also special.

"As good as they are, this guy's just as good," he said. "This guy's the real deal. There are some things he has to work on, as far as the defensive side of the game, but his goal-scoring and 'Hockey IQ' speaks for itself. There's a ton of potential for him to play there at that level. He's a pretty dynamic all-around player."

Columbus will take a measured approach with Fortier, who plans to spend the rest of the season in Halifax. The Blue Jackets know, however, there's potential for something really good to develop.

Too much character involved to bet against it.

"You don't want to hype him up, because you just don't know," Zito said. "At the same time, we're pretty happy and we'll just see what happens."

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