by Stephen Meserve || AHL On The Beat Archive
Draft day came and went for Texas Stars captain Maxime Fortunus in 2001. The La Prairie, Que., native led his major junior squad in defenseman scoring that year and helped them to the second round of the QMJHL playoffs.
The fifth-year Texas Star, a member of the original squad back in 2009, has taken a step-by-step approach and gotten his chance at the NHL with the Dallas Stars organization, while leading his AHL club to the league’s best record.
“I tell guys, it doesn’t matter if you’re drafted or undrafted,” said Fortunus. “If you do your job on the ice, you’ll get your shot. You have to make people believe in you. I took the long road to the NHL, and it was all about little steps and getting better every year. If I get better every year, I’ll get my chance.”
Getting started in the pro game, thousands of miles from home
Fortunus’ long and winding road to where he is today started in 2003 in Lafayette, La., with the ECHL’s Louisiana IceGators.
“After my 19-year old season in the ‘Q’, I could have come back for another. We had a pretty good run in the playoffs, and we were pretty good. I decided it was time for me to leave the junior game and get to the pro game as fast as I could. That was the best way to get my game to where I could get a shot in the NHL. I got a chance to go to training camp with the Minnesota Wild. Then I went to camp with the Houston Aeros and they signed me on a two-way deal in the American League. I started the season in Louisiana.
“It was different for sure; I’m not going to lie to you,” said Fortunus, laughing. “For my first pro experience, the first thing I had to do was go on a map to find where it was. I had a good time. If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”
After two seasons split between the Aeros and the ECHL, Fortunus got a big chance with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Current New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault and the Moose organization put a lot of trust in the young blueliner.
“They believed in me and gave me a lot of ice time. It was good to have a team like that in Manitoba that all they wanted was to win. They didn’t care who was from where or drafted where. I call Vigneault every summer and thank him for what he did for me. He’s really the one who got my pro career started and gave me my shot.”
Scott White and the Texas Stars have had the same mentality over the past five years. The organization has seen many players make their way through Cedar Park on the way to the NHL despite being undrafted, including Brenden Dillon, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt. As the organization prepared to move its primary development affiliate to the Austin suburbs in 2008, they signed Fortunus as a free agent, his first NHL contract.
“I was so happy when I got that phone call from Dallas saying they wanted to sign me,” recalled Fortunus, who spent one more season in Manitoba while the Cedar Park Center was being finished.
It turned out to be a hugely important one for his development; the Moose won the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy as regular-season points champions and made it all the way to the Calder Cup Finals before losing to the Hershey Bears.
This year’s Texas Stars also won the Kilpatrick Trophy under his leadership, and are hoping to make it to the Finals with a different end result.
“There are a lot of similarities to that year in Manitoba, but each team is different,” Fortunus said.
The very next year, Fortunus would make an encore appearance at the Calder Cup Finals against the same Hershey Bears. This time, he would be wearing the crest of the newly-formed Texas Stars. He had two goals and seven assists playing in all 24 playoff games that spring.
Becoming a leader, keeping it light
After missing the playoffs in 2012, the Texas Stars hired head coach Willie Desjardins and assistant coach Doug Lidster and turned over their on-ice leadership as well. Fortunus was selected as the captain of the squad.
“It was a great honor for me,” Fortunus said. “I have been around some pretty good captains throughout my career. To get the chance to relay whatever they taught me is a way for me to give back to the guys around me. My role isn’t changing even with a letter on the sweater. If I didn’t have one, I’d still be the same way.”
That ‘same way’ is well-known among Texas Stars vets and rookies alike. Although he would never admit it, his fellow players agree that Fortunus is the locker room joker.
Admitting to none of it, Fortunus laughed, “You have to keep it light. We’re a group of guys in a city where all we have is each other. We don’t have extended families here. Keeping it light is always the way to go. We have to make sure guys come to the rink and have fun. For sure, we’ll have ups and downs like any family does, but keeping it light is something that is important in the locker room. But once we step on the ice, it’s all about work.”
Getting back to the NHL and working for the Cup
Fortunus has exemplified that work ethic for the Texas Stars on the ice, despite any off-ice antics. After last season, his NHL contract expired, leaving him unsure of his professional future.
“Last summer, I wasn’t sure if I was coming back here or testing the free agent market. When I decided to come here on an AHL deal, my goal was to come into training camp and keep the dream of playing in the NHL. They told me in [Dallas] training camp, ‘If you play your best down there, for sure we’ll give you a shot.’”
First-year Dallas general manager Jim Nill and long-time Texas GM Scott White kept that promise. When mid-season injuries left Dallas in a bind on the blue line, it was Fortunus that they called to fill the gap.
“To be able to be called up and get a game was unbelievable. Scott White has always been good to me, and I thank him a lot for pushing me to be better. It was a good feeling to be able to get to the NHL again.”
Fortunus tallied his first NHL point two days before Christmas in a 5-2 Dallas Stars win over the Los Angeles Kings. Also assisting on the Tyler Seguin goal was Dallas captain Jamie Benn, who helped fuel the 2010 Calder Cup run for the Texas Stars.
A huge part of Fortunus’s success this season has been his work on the league’s best power-play unit. Texas finished the season with the league’s best power play at 25.3 percent after hovering around 30 percent for long stretches of the season. Fortunus was the power-play quarterback for the unit that included rookie of the year Curtis McKenzie, league MVP Travis Morin and first team AHL All-Star Colton Sceviour.
“For me, it was simple. Being the only defenseman on the unit, we’re moving the puck a lot and getting our shots. For me, my main job is to make sure we can get pucks through and that guys are getting pucks through and getting traffic in front.
“We have so many options on our power play. We have a bunch of different looks. We had a really good mix this year of different plays we could use, and it paid off and helped us throughout the year. For me, I didn’t want to complicate things too much. I tried to let the forwards get complicated, but I’ll do the simple things and send it up to them.”
Now, Fortunus and the Texas Stars are gearing up for a run at the Calder Cup, which has been the team’s stated goal all year long.
“We have had a good team all year, and we’re expecting a lot. We have had one goal in mind all year and that’s to win the championship. We’re going to take it step-by-step.”
In a way, that mentality has permeated Fortunus’ career: step-by-step. Belief in himself and the acknowledgement that nothing is handed to you on a silver platter have made him a player built on his own self-reliance and confidence in his own abilities.
“If you want to play in the NHL, you have to believe in it. There’s no sense in playing if you don’t believe in that.”