Alexandre Fortin bought the hype.
Two years ago, he came out of nowhere as a 19-year-old, undrafted, unaffiliated invitee and became the breakout star of prospect camp, flashing NHL-caliber speed and scoring in bunches against the best young players the Blackhawks had to offer. He then had two goals and an assist in the preseason against NHL talent and seemed on the cusp of making the team.
But this week at MB Ice Arena, at his third prospect camp, Fortin is just another guy. He still has the speed and the skill, but he has been passed up on the organizational depth chart by several other forwards. He still hasn’t gotten that call-up. And he scored a measly four goals in 53 games last year during an injury-interrupted season with the Rockford IceHogs, his first pro season.
“With the training camp he had two years ago and the media narrative, it wasn’t what he expected,” IceHogs coach Jeremy Colliton said.
So you’d expect Fortin — so full of confidence and optimism two years ago — to be down about it. To be sullen, frustrated, even bitter.
But you’d be wrong. Fortin is as confident as ever, but now there’s an evident maturity behind his words, a perspective that only comes with struggle.
“If I would look at the stats, I would say, ‘Oh, it’s a bad year for me,’ ” Fortin said. “But at the same time, it was probably the best year for my future, because I learned so much and I know exactly what I have to do to get to the next level. It really helped me. I can’t ask for more.”
Colliton wasn’t surprised when a reporter mentioned Fortin’s maturity in discussing what can only be described as a disappointing season — “The fact that he can have that kind of conversation with you shows it,” Colliton said — and still believes Fortin’s best hockey is ahead of him. The explosiveness and the speed that turned so many heads at Johnny’s IceHouse two years ago is still there. It’s just a matter of controlling that speed and knowing when to use it. It’s the same thing Vinnie Hinostroza had to learn during his second and third stints in Rockford.
“It’s a great weapon he has, and he makes it uncomfortable for teams to defend,” Colliton said. “I just think you have to realize he’s , he’s a kid. It’s going to come.”
Patience and perspective aren’t the only things Fortin learned during his first season in the AHL. Like the vast majority of skilled forwards, it’s the little things that he has had to focus on — how to play without the puck, where to position himself defensively, when to simply dump the puck into the offensive zone. In the QMJHL, where he scored 52 goals over three seasons, it’s all about playmaking and scoring. The AHL is a tougher league, a better and more physical league with a grind-it-out, dump-and-chase style.
“The biggest thing for me is the small details,” Fortin said. “Learning all the things that you can’t do too often because the guys are too good. [In juniors], when you have a bad shift, you can get past it. But in the NHL or even the AHL, you can’t do those bad things. If you do those bad things, you get caught pretty quickly, and if you don’t do the job, someone will do it for you. You have to have good habits every time.”
That’s another thing Fortin learned — how to move on. After all, “development” isn’t just about edge work and systems and fine-tuning a shot. It’s about toughening up, handling adversity and learning just how difficult it is to crack the best hockey league in the world.
“At my first camp, I was a little bit overconfident, and when you’ve never tasted the pro game, you don’t know what to expect,” Fortin said. “Now I know where I’m going, and I’m going in the right direction. And hopefully, I’ll play soon with the Blackhawks.”