Gabriel Fortier said he was lying in his bed in Syracuse on Sunday, about to start making dinner with his roommate Alex Green when he got the call around 5 p.m. every young hockey prospect dreams of receiving.
On the other end was Syracuse Crunch general manager and Lightning assistant GM Stacy Roest. Tampa Bay forward Mathieu Joseph suffered a lower-body injury in a loss at Minnesota earlier that day and wasn't going to be able to play when the Lightning took on the Blues in St. Louis on Tuesday. Roest phoned Fortier to tell him he was being recalled to the Lightning and would make his NHL debut in St. Louis.
"I wasn't expecting to play in the NHL this year, so for me to get the callup first and then when they told me I was going to play, I was excited," Fortier recalled. "Just a surreal moment for me."
Video: Gabriel Fortier | Pregame 12.2.21
Fortier immediately called his parents and girlfriend on a group chat to deliver the good news. He packed quickly and left for the airport. He was supposed to arrive in St. Louis that night, but he missed his connecting flight and had to spend the night at the Charlotte airport hotel.
"You hear stories when you get your first callup it's never perfect," he said. "To get stuck in Charlotte I think was just normal."
The next morning, he arrived in St. Louis, in time for the Bolts' practice.
"I think I was nervous when I got the call from Stacy," Fortier said. "On the plane I was just thinking about so many things. The next day when I got to St. Louis I was just focused on the game and being prepared to play well."
He also had a singular focus for when he first stepped foot on the Enterprise Center ice to take the customary rookie lap before his NHL debut.
"Don't trip," he said, laughing. "It was fun to go on for the lap. And don't fall. That was on my mind."
Fortier skated 9:37 time on ice Tuesday against St. Louis. He dished out three hits, blocked a shot and even earned the coaches' trust enough to see action in overtime during 4-on-4 play.
"You always want to be in those important moments like overtime," Fortier said. "It was nice to get the tap to go on. Whenever I get the tap, I'll go on and do my job."
Early in the contest, he took a big hit at center ice.
"It was a good hit," he admitted. "The puck was fumbling in my feet."
The next shift, he went after the guy who delivered the hit and made one of his own, drawing respect from his teammates and the coaching staff.
"I really liked his game," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Thursday following his team's morning skate. "His speed was a factor. The big thing for me was somebody ran over him in the neutral zone and instead of putting his tail between his legs he went right back after him. I liked that. He was gritty. As that game went on, he drew a big penalty in the third for us we couldn't capitalize on. Enough that he earned his way into the overtime. I liked his game."
Video: Jon Cooper | Pregame 12.2.21
Fortier parlayed a strong training camp into a fast start with the Syracuse Crunch this season. He recorded four goals and 11 points in 17 games with the Crunch before being recalled. He made his AHL/pro debut April 6, 2019 at the end of the 2018-19 season but didn't skate with the Crunch in 2019-20. He played in 30 games for them in 2020-21, splitting time between the Crunch and the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL. He probably figured he was at least a season away from a realistic chance of making his NHL debut, but after showing marked improvement in training camp and featuring as one of Syracuse's top forwards early this season, he was brought up to see what he could do at the NHL level.
So far, the results have been promising. Fortier will make his second NHL appearance tonight when the Lightning host the Blues at AMALIE Arena to close out the home-and-home series as Joseph is still unavailable for the Bolts.
He'll be one of four rookies in the Lightning lineup tonight alongside Alex Barre-Boulet, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh as the Bolts continue to work their young prospects in while navigating injuries to Joseph, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
During morning skate, Fortier skated on Tampa Bay's second line alongside Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli.
"I liked the way he played," Killorn said. "At the beginning he gets hit, makes a hit. He's skating really well. He made some good plays coming down the end, almost had a couple nice assists. Look forward to playing with him tonight."