Fortier a dedicated coach but knows hockey isn’t everything
He loves his gig as an associate coach with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, but Jason Fortier enjoys his time away from the rink as well.
The 42-year old Fortier has known splendid success as a coach at various levels. And while he has a self-admitted passion for the game, he tries to not let it consume him.
The affable native of Sault Ste. Marie is totally devoted to his job with the OHL Rangers and wants to ascend as far he can in hockey while keeping in mind that it is still a game.
“As a coach I have made it my job to try to teach and develop the kids as players and young men while combining hard work in a positive atmosphere,” Fortier told Hockey Weekly.
“At the end of the day, regardless of the goals that we have, when our players leave the rink, I want them to have learned something and enjoy the game because that’s what hockey is – a game.”
And Fortier waxes philosophical when it comes to combining his job and personal life.
“As coaches and as much time as we put into hockey, it’s important to create a life away from the game,” he said.
His formula of helping to build a strong organization and treating players well seems to be working. In the past three seasons alone, Fortier has coached three teams to five league championships.
That’s right. In both 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 he coached two teams in two different levels at the same time – the Toronto Young Nationals Midgets and the Toronto Lakeshore Patriots Juniors. Both teams won back-to-back league championships.
Fortier then moved up to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as an assistant coach with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 2015-2016, and helped them to a championship and eventual Memorial Cup berth which ended in a title tilt overtime loss to the OHL’s London Knights.
So, suffice to say that Fortier has been part of considerable achievement over the past three years.
It was only five years ago that Fortier became really serious about coaching.
“I was coaching without direction when I realized how much hockey is my joy and passion,” he said. “It was then that I made a decision to make a run and try to become the best coach that I can be.”
Following his Midget and Junior championship success in Toronto and the elevated success at the Major Junior level in Rouyn-Noranda came the opportunity during the past off-season to apply for the vacant associate coach position in Kitchener – and his subsequent quick hiring by new Rangers bench boss Jay McKee.
“It was hard to say good-bye to Rouyn but it was a goal of mine to return to Ontario and coach in the OHL,” Fortier explained. “And when you think about OHL franchises, the Kitchener Rangers are right up there.
“For me, right now, this is the place to be,” he said. “Not only are the Rangers a great organization but the Kitchener area is a great place to be. It’s a big OHL market, close to Toronto.
“Kitchener is like a little NHL,” said Fortier, noting that the Rangers routinely draw crowds of more than 7,000 to the stately Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.
As a player, Fortier was a fearless forward who skated in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Junior Hockey League, the OHL, overseas at the pro level in Germany and Holland – and at home with the Ontario Colleges Athletic Association champion Sault College Cougars.
Now as a coach, he’s in the OHL in Kitchener with a Rangers organization that is at the forefront of Canadian Hockey League franchises.
“It’s hard to imagine being in a better place than where I am now,” said Fortier. “Let’s face it, the Kitchener Rangers are an iconic franchise.”
Fortier said the Rangers hockey department, which includes general manager Murray Hiebert, assistant general manager/assistant coach Mike McKenzie, aforementioned head coach Jay McKee and assistant coach Matthew Barnaby, makes for an exceptional environment.
“As a GM, Murray oversees things and trusts the coaches to do their jobs,” Fortier pointed out.
“As far as the coaching staff, there is the sense that we all respect one another and the jobs that we do. And away from the rink, we do things together. We are a close-knit group.”
As players, the 39-year old McKee and the 43-year old Barnaby both played the game at the highest level. Both suited up for close to 900 National Hockey League games apiece.
Then there’s the 30-year old McKenzie, a former Division I, NCAA academic and playing standout who multi-tasks with the Rangers as assistant GM and assistant coach while carrying an OHL reputation as a hawk-eyed scout.
“He’s a very smart kid who is wise beyond his years,” Fortier said of McKenzie. “He’s very disciplined in the way he does his job and the way he leads his life while still being a fun guy to be around.”
As for this edition of the Rangers, who are near the top of a hotly-contested Western Conference that includes the Erie Otters, London Knights, Sarnia Sting, Windsor Spitfires and Soo Greyhounds, Fortier opined that “we have a team that can surprise. We have good, young players, our goaltending has been good. I wouldn’t want to face us in the playoffs.”
As for his future aspirations, Fortier said he set a goal a few years back of being a Major Junior head coach by age 45.
“If that happens, I will be ready for it,” he said. “But if it doesn’t, I can see myself being happy in my current position in Kitchener for a long time.”
Best of the U17s
The recent World Under-17 Hockey Challenge offered a glimpse at the best 2000 birth-year players on the planet, including 24 who are rookies in the OHL.
When the best 16-year olds from the OHL are not only up against the best from the rest of Canada but the best from the rest of the hockey world, it makes for keen viewing and intense focus – and input from those whose job it is to judge talent.
Among the OHL skaters who were a part of the three Team Canada squads at the WU17, those who were most-mentioned in very-flattering terms by a cross-section of National Hockey League and OHL scouts and analysts who were in attendance included defensemen Owen Lalonde of the Sudbury Wolves and Giovanni Vallati of the Kitchener Rangers and forwards Ty Dellandrea of the Flint Firebirds, Aidan Dudas of the Owen Sound Attack and Akil Thomas of the Niagara IceDogs.
All five were first-round picks at a 2016 OHL Draft, from which the Guelph Storm took offensive-minded defenseman Ryan Merkley with the first overall selection.
All possess considerable skill and what coaches, scouts and analysts commonly refer to as having a “high hockey IQ.”
Following Merkley in the first round of this year’s OHL draft, the aforementioned Lalonde went second, Vallati lasted until the 16th pick, Dellandrea was the fifth overall selection, Dudas went 10th and Thomas was chosen 12th.
Dellandrea, who many thought would be a late first-round pick at the 2016 draft, has certainly shown that he is worthy of having gone to Flint with the No. 5 selection.
In the department of intrigue, Dudas, who hails from Parry Sound – which is the birthplace of legendary defenseman Bobby Orr – stood tall at the WU17 despite being slight in stature at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds.
Meanwhile, no less than three blue-chip blue-liners from the Ottawa 67’s – Peter Stratis, Carter Robertson and Kevin Bahl – all earned honorable mention for their play at the WU17 that was held in Sault Ste. Marie.
Stratis went in the first round, 11th overall, of the 2016 OHL draft while Robertson were both second-round selections, 30th and 31st overall.
Looking ahead at when the above-mentioned are eligible for selection at the NHL draft, there are those who make a living from the business who are already drooling as they plan two years down the road for the 2018 lottery.
Buzz in Blind River
Blind River Beavers of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League have not only won more games this season than last but they have already surpassed the combined win total of the past two years.
Under first-year head coach Kyle Brick, the Beavers reeled off six successive victories and had a record of 13-9-0 as of Nov. 18.
This is in sharp contrast to 2015-2016, when the Beavers posted a 10-40-4 record and 2014-2015, when they went winless at 0-51-1.
The Beavers six-game win streak matches their longest such string of success dating back to the 2004-2005 season, when Jim Capy was the Blind River bench boss.