Physical Fournier a plus for Bulldogs

by Justin Dickie || AHL On The Beat Archive

The past two hockey seasons have been a whirlwind for Stefan Fournier.

From being named captain of the best junior hockey team in Canada to signing his first professional contract with the team he idolized growing up, a lot has gone right lately for the Hamilton Bulldogs’ rookie forward.

“For me, to have capped off my junior career with the Memorial Cup, then signing with Montreal, it was certainly something special,” says Fournier, 21. “Even my pre-season game (in Montreal), for me, was something big. Now I guess it’s just trying to make it.”

The path toward his National Hockey League dream wasn’t always so clear for Fournier. Heading into his final season of junior eligibility without a professional affiliation, the Dorval, Que., native knew he’d have to step up his game to get noticed at the next level, but he never expected what was to come.

Fournier was acquired by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads in a 2012 draft-day trade with the Victoriaville Tigres for a couple of draft picks. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound forward went into training camp in Halifax, jelled with his new teammates right away and led by example on and off the ice, which led him to being named co-captain of his new team.

“When I got there, I had no idea (I’d be named captain), because I’d never had a letter on any other team,” Fournier says. “I came in in good shape, I was doing my job, I was scoring, then one thing led to another, the coaches had faith in what I was doing and I became captain.”

On a team loaded with talent — including forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, drafted first and third overall respectively in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, as well as fellow Montreal Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale — Fournier went into Halifax and performed exactly as billed: as a big, strong, grinding power forward with a nose for the net. He finished the regular season with 72 points (35 goals, 37 assists) and led the team with 100 penalty minutes as Halifax cruised to a QMJHL regular-season title.

The power forward upped his game to another level in the playoffs, leading the Mooseheads with 16 goals in 17 games as the club captured the league title with a 16-1 playoff record.

The QMJHL champions carried that dominance into the Memorial Cup tournament in Saskatoon, Sask., and took that title, too, as Fournier finished his amateur career as the captain of the best team in Canadian junior hockey. The experience was something Fournier never thought about realistically accomplishing, until he got to Halifax.

“What’s weird is that when I got to Halifax, I imagined that I would,” he says. “Right at the beginning of the year, we went on a hot stretch and I remember daydreaming in practice sometimes, imagining winning (the QMJHL championship) in the building, and it happened. It was pretty crazy.”

Going out as a leader of Canada’s best junior team helped earn Fournier an invite to Canadiens’ development camp this past July. For all the same reasons the Mooseheads wanted him for their run at a championship in 2012-13, the Canadiens saw a lot of potential in the physically dominant forward and signed him to an entry-level contract on July 6.

As a life-long Habs fan, Sept. 16, 2013, was a special night for Fournier. For the first time, he donned the bleu, blanc et rouge and skated on Bell Centre ice, the same place he idolized guys like Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu as a kid.

“It was wild,” Fournier recalls. “It was definitely a big thing for me. I remember having sat there in the stands as a little kid. I had gone to pre-season games as a kid and thought it was the greatest thing. For me to have gone and just skated on the ice one time wearing the crest, it was something awesome.”

Known as a guy who always plays with a physical edge and is ready and willing to stick up for teammates, Fournier dropped the gloves with Boston Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid among his 8:21 of ice time that night.

“It wasn’t much of a fight, though,” Fournier says with a chuckle.

While that one might not have been the most exciting tilt, it was a preview of things to come this season for fans in Hamilton. Halfway through his first American Hockey League season, Fournier has proven he can compete physically in the pros. He’s among the best hitters on the Bulldogs, he wins more battles than he loses on the boards, he’s shown an ability to protect the puck down low in the offensive zone and he has five fights among his team-leading 75 penalty minutes.

Fournier has produced modest offensive numbers so far in his first professional campaign with three points (one goal, two assists) through 24 games, but he’s found a way to be an asset to his team every night, even if the results don’t show on the scoresheet.

“At the end of the day, I just want to contribute, every night,” Fournier says. “If there’s a way I can contribute, whether that’s a fight, a hit… I’m a guy who likes to play with an edge.

“I think that part of hockey is really important — keeping everyone honest, even bringing energy to the team. There’s always certain ways you can kind of bring out a spark and sometimes doing those kinds of things and just being there for your teammates is big. It’s a way to get respect from the boys, too, especially when you’re a young guy.”

It’s the grunt work and little details in Fournier’s game that got him to where he is now. He was once discouraged by the fact he didn’t get drafted, but he never lost hope and the snubs just made him work that much harder to get to the pros.

“I just thought I’d have to take the long road and I guess I have so far,” Fournier says. “But it’s what, one year longer than everyone else? It wasn’t too long of a wait.”