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Fistric making the best of his opportunity

by Travis Betts / Dallas Stars

Mark Fistric’s face lit up like that of a child on Christmas morning after his first NHL goal on October 22 against the Los Angeles Kings. The moment was a long time coming for Fistric, skating in his 80th NHL game. It might have been a sign that all the hard work was finally starting to pay dividends.

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As a 21-year-old rookie, Fistric was part of Dallas’ 2007-08 team that made it to the Western Conference Finals, playing in nine postseason games.  But after a slow start last season, Fistric found himself on the outside looking in, and was sent down to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. Playing in the minors provided Fistric with time to work on the fundamentals of his game.

“I was assigned to Manitoba where I learned a lot. At the time, it didn’t seem like a good thing, but now I look back at it and I really appreciate my time down there and what I learned.”

Fistric eventually battled his way back up to the NHL for the second half of the regular season, but was sent back to Manitoba for the AHL playoffs, where he continued to improve, thanks to some help from a couple of teammates with NHL experience.

“Going down there and just playing with Mike Keane was a huge thing for me, and I lived with Nolan Baumgartner, a seasoned guy himself,” Fistric said. “Being around those guys and learning from them was one of the huge benefits for me. I still talk to them and pick their brain, and I think I owe quite a bit to those two.”

So at age 23, Fistric joined the Stars for training camp in 2009 with something to prove to a new coaching staff. Free agents Jeff Woywitka and Karlis Skrastins both signed with Dallas during the offseason, meaning Fistric had his work cut out if he wanted to be an NHL regular. Head coach Marc Crawford was impressed by the Fistric’s size and raw ability, but acknowledged that the 6-3, 234-pound defenseman still had some aspects of his game that needed work.

“I think he’s met expectations for sure. He is a young defenseman who is going to continue to get better. He’s very, very strong. Mike Modano one day said he could bench press a Buick,” Crawford said. At the same time, you want him to use that strength, but you also want him to make a good first pass. We want him to be a guy that looks to make plays.”

Stars’ defenseman Stephane Robidas knows the journey Fistric has taken to get to this point all too well. Robidas was placed on waivers and traded around before finally finding a home in Dallas in 2005, five years after his NHL debut. Now the Stars’ top defenseman, and a candidate for the 2010 Canadian Olympic team, Robidas knows that Fistric must do the same things he once did to make a permanent home in the NHL.

“You’ve always got to be ready,” Robidas said. “You want to prove to the coaching staff and even the players on your team that they can believe in you in practice. Once you do that, you’ve got to try to do the same thing in the game and play the same way in the game.”

Fistric credits Robidas and goaltender Marty Turco with helping him adjust at the NHL level. But Robidas is quick to point out that Fistric has done his part as well.

“I don’t think I’ve done much for him. I think he’s done it himself. I think every time you’re able to earn a spot it’s because you do it yourself,” Robidas said. “In the NHL, nobody’s going to give you a job. You’ve got to earn it, and you’ve got to keep it.”

Fistric may not be the first defenseman Stars fans think of as a candidate to play left wing and make plays from the forward position. But earlier this season, when the Stars were down a forward for a road tilt against the fast Chicago Blackhawks, that’s just what he did.

“It’s kind of funny actually. I was scheduled to not even play in Chicago, and I think it was a last minute decision,” Fistric said. “I was able to jump up there and help out the team, and whenever I can do that it’s a great thing for me.”

It’s even funnier when you consider that when Fistric started his hockey journey years ago as a child, he was a forward. At age five, Fistric made the sacrifice and moved to the blue-line because his team was in need.

“All I wanted to do was score goals, so I was a center. My dad was the coach, and no one wanted to play defense because no one knew how to skate backwards except me,” Fistric said.

Today, Fistric’s large frame helps him at defense, a position he grew to love after the switch. Crawford says his young defenseman needs to learn to use his size and physicality to his advantage without getting carried away in order to improve.

“He’s between being controlled and wanting to show his assertiveness. That’s part of what his character is. Because he’s so strong, he wants to utilize that strength and his aggressiveness in the game. It’s going to come. You see it happening already.”

Fistric, no stranger to doing whatever it takes, understands what his coach is asking him to do, and it’s a challenge he embraces moving forward.

“I just have to continue to improve, and continue to get better every game. That’s the biggest thing.”

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