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Paul Lefebvre - MP for SudburyGymZone - Home of the Sudbury Laurels
Fortier could be friendly and fierce, all at the same time

There may be folks who spin a more colourful yarn than old-time hockey pros. I just haven't met many of them.

Truth be told, if the lore of hot stove chatter lives on to this day, it lives on because of men like Dave Fortier.

As blue collar in his approach as the day is long, the Sudbury native and now retired fireman would suit up in just over two hundred NHL games - and another 54 in the WHA. All of this from a start, locally, that would mirror so many youngsters of the sixties and seventies.

"I would come home from school and my mom would tie my skates for me and send me out the door," said Fortier, who will celebrate his 70th birthday next summer. "I would skate down to the playground on that crust of ice on the side of the road and play until suppertime."

"Then, I would come home in my skates and my mom had an old piece of linoleum that she would drag across the floor so that I could eat supper with my skates on, and then go out and play more hockey. We just kept going until we got tired."

The first real signs of potential, however, would shine through when Fortier first attended St Charles College. As a grade nine blueliner, the 5'10 1/2" tough as nails customer ("I always said 6'0" 200 pounds - it looked good in the program") was one of three underagers called up to a senior team that was dealing with a string of injuries.

"When the guys that were hurt came back, Bepi (coach Bepi Polano), in his infinite wisdom, made a fourth line out of us and let us keep playing on the team. At the time, high school hockey in Sudbury was crazy. They would get 5000 people to Sudbury Arena on a Saturday night and play triple headers."

It was a scene that left the local product wanting more.

A year later, after an unsuccessful tryout with the powerful St Catharines Black Hawks, Fortier signed on locally with the Garson-Falconbridge Combines. Already, he was learning to differentiate between what he possessed quite naturally (physicality coupled with mental toughness) and the parts of his game that needed more work (raw skill).

"We had a guy, a real fast little frenchman, Norm Gratton," Fortier recalled. "He was the best skater on our team - and just a great guy. One of the guys you just love, until you have to play against him. I looked at his skating style. He wasn't Cournoyer (NHL Hall of Famer Yvan Cournoyer - aka, the "Roadrunner"), but he was really good."

"If you want to improve your skating, I thought, follow the best skater, follow his line path. I became a much better skater." And when the team's coach was forced to step away, for a short time, Fortier would be on the receiving end of even more top-notch guidance.

"We had Jerry Toppazzini as an interim coach," he said. "Jerry taught me more in a week than I had learned in all of my years of hockey. He gave me pro plays to help get us out of our end. It's hard to teach kids to do the disciplined stuff, but it made me so much better, because there was always a guy that was exactly where he was supposed to be."

"When I got to the NHL and Al Arbour was my coach, he did exactly the same thing."

In between Garson-Falconbridge and the New York Islanders came stops with the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, where Fortier was named the league's top defenceman despite suiting up with a non-playoff team, a memorable season in St Catharines, and a season and a half with the Tulsa Ice Oilers after being drafted in the second round by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Earning a late season call-up to the big team, the northern Ontario lad had carved out his niche in the market, racking up 365 minutes in penalties while in Oklahoma. "I was definitely meaner than some of the other defencemen," he stated with a smile. "If somebody does me wrong, I would stop the game and tell them."

"Now this is in the old days, when donnybrooks were still happening and there was no instigator rule. But, I never started a fight - well, except one, and that's a whole long story. The referees didn't catch everything, there was no video and just one referee, so I would step in and say, "don't do that again"."

"Well, I would say that in my own way and we would end up in the penalty box. I never did anything mean to anybody, except a couple of guys that deserved it."

Fortier considers himself extremely fortunate; fortunate for the coaching and advice that came by way of folks like Jerry Toppazzini, Danny O'Connor, Marcel Clements and Jack Porter. "Jack loved to talk hockey, but he talked it in a different way," said the man who enjoyed big league stops in Toronto, Long Island, Vancouver, and Indianapolis, of the WHA.

"He would ask me how I would turn and I said, "I don't know, I just do it". But now he got me thinking about what I was actually doing to make things happen on the ice. Jack was never my coach, but I was lucky to have him in my life."

With four children and three wives (well, two ex-wives and a long-time current one, to be exact), Fortier is a testament to the challenges of pro hockey, in that era, on family life. "For the players, it was easy - 18 like-minded individuals, all with the same goal," he said. "It's tough on the wives. They're a part of the team, but not part of the team."

Married to his high-school sweetheart while still at St Charles, Fortier would earn his first call-up with his wife eight months pregnant at the time, the couple living in the southwestern United States. "The Leafs told me to bring enough stuff for the weekend, but I looked at my wife and told her, "I've got to be honest, honey - I'm not coming back."

"I am not playing hockey to live in Oklahoma. If they (the Toronto Maple Leafs) let me in the door, I'm not leaving on my own. I'm staying."

To this day, Fortier insists that his two years spent with the NY Islanders most legitimized his pro hockey career. With a core that included Bryan Trottier, Chico Resch, Clark Gillies, Ed Westfall, Billy Harris and Billy Smith, the budding juggernauts were only a few years away from a run that included four straight Stanley Cup championships (1979-1983).

Fortier understood his role well.

"I know how I play, I know what I do - I'm not that good," he said, with his ever-present smile. "But I always played with the best defenceman on the team, the guy who was slick with the puck. He didn't have to be tough in the corners, because I was. I owned the front of the net. That was my mentality."

With the Isles, that would mean a pairing with the legendary Denis Potvin, his roommate on the road for the bulk of his time with the team. "We get to the bench one time and Denis is screaming at me," said Fortier. "He said I should just give him the puck. So I explained to him that you and I both know that the best play is to give the puck to the best player."

"But if I give you the puck 100% of the time, then pretty soon, they won't even come to me, they'll just go straight to you."

That's yet another honest take from an honest player with tales as colourful as they come.

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