It was familiar territory for rookie Justin Fontaine
as the Wild traveled to Duluth on Sunday for a few days of practice and team bonding before the season opener this Thursday at home against the Los Angeles Kings.
Fontaine, who spent four years along Lake Superior as a University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldog, made it through final cuts earlier this week, effectively creating a roster spot for himself on Opening Night in Saint Paul. Fontaine played the last two seasons in the American Hockey League.
“It’s always good to be back here, especially with this group of guys,” said Fontaine. “It’s been a good two weeks of camp. I was excited to get back here and have a couple days to be in Duluth.”
Fontaine fought his way onto the Wild roster. He ended his time dedicated to playing for the Bulldogs with a total of 164 points and an NCAA National Championship title. From 2011-13, you could find Fontaine playing in the AHL sporting a Houston Aeros jersey. Going into his third year of pro hockey, the Bonnyville, Alberta native knew he needed stand out against the other Wild hopefuls.
“I just kind of approached camp one day at a time, just work hard everyday and try to get noticed,” he said. “I played in every exhibition game, so it’s been good experience for me. I learned a lot along the way.”
Being in a more competitive league, Fontaine sees the value in his college hockey foundation as he adjusts to the NHL game.
“Being here [in Duluth] I played a lot, got a good amount of ice time, played with plenty of good players, so skill-wise it helped me. Playing all four years it gave me time to develop as a hockey player preparing for professional hockey,” Fontaine said.
His game has changed since he last played in Duluth, with more of a focus on the defensive side of things and his ability to make better plays at a faster pace. The work he has put in has been noticed and credited by fellow players and coaches alike.
“He earned it,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “Part of it is paying your dues, developing in the minors. This is the best league in the world. Obviously he had a great college career and did a great job here [at UMD]. Like most players, there are other things you have to learn, you have to give him a lot of credit because he improved in all the areas he needed to improve on.”
During practice in Duluth on Monday, Fontaine was a noticeable presence on the ice. He showed not only his goal scoring and playmaking skills but also made his presence known on the back check, impressing veteran leaders on the team as well.
“[He is] a very skilled guy, makes smart plays with the puck,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “You can tell he’s got a lot of hockey sense, I think he’s going to be a good player. You can tell that he can think the game really well.”
Fontaine’s play at UMD and in Houston have fed his knowledge of the game, as well as created a strong work ethic.
“[You] just kind of take it day by day, right now you just play whatever role you’re put in,” Fontaine said. “That’s all you can really ask for, just take advantage of whatever ice time you’re given.”
His versatility on the ice and ability to play on any line has Yeo raving about the young forward, which speaks well for his ability to stay with the club this season. Something Fontaine is hoping for as well.
“It’s definitely something I’ve worked for my whole life,” Fontaine said. “I’m going to be pretty excited come Thursday, so I’m just taking it day-by-day like I said, enjoying the moment as it happens.”