Express coach hopes success a close shave away

The playoff beard is one of hockey’s enduring traditions. Jason Fortier is growing a reverse playoff beard.

Instead of leaving his facial hair untended during a run in the BC Hockey League playoffs, the head coach of the Coquitlam Express shaved his summer stubble just before the team opened training camp on Monday and he won’t shave again unless they make it to the post-season.

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Fortier’s optimistic he won’t end up looking like Rip Van Winkle.

That’s because his just-departed stubble was accumulated during a busy summer of travel across North America, from California to Massachusetts to Ontario to every corner of British Columbia,  looking for players who share his same sense of commitment and dedication to success.

Changing the culture of a team that missed the playoffs two years ago and was well on its way to missing them again last season was one of Fortier’s primary missions when he took over behind Express’ bench last November, following the dismissal of former head coach Barry Wolff.

It took a lot of tricky manoeuvering, Fortier said. The kid glove approach paid off, as the Express won 12 of their last 31 games and eked into the post season where they were swept in four straight games by the Penticton Vees.

But as Fortier puts the 64 kids in camp through their daily paces, he’s got a firm grip on the team. It’s time to go all-in on building that new culture from the get-go.

“We’re able to start with a plan and set expectations from Day One,” Fortier said. “We want to become a competitive, strong team every night.”

There’s likely not a coach anywhere who hasn’t said those words at the beginning of the season, no matter the sport. But Fortier’s been putting in the work over the summer to give them weight. He spent days and weeks at a time on the road attending hockey camps and tournaments, chatting up coaches and prospective players about the benefits of playing in the BCHL and, in particular, for the Express. Some of those days went from 8:30 in the morning until 2 the next morning.

“You’re building relationships, putting a face to the name,” Fortier said. “You’ve got to hope you do something that resonates with a player.”

And while a losing record every season since the Express won the Fred Paige Cup as BCHL champions in 2014 may not seem alluring, Fortier said the promise of better things to come and the opportunity to be a part of that change can catch a prospect’s attention.

Heck, that’s what drew him to the job in the first place.

Fortier was helping out with a AAA Major Midget team in Toronto as he waited for a head coaching opportunity to come along after serving as an assistant for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. After speaking with Express president Mark Pettie, he reached out to some former players from the BCHL to find out more about the team and some of its challenges.

“When there’s failure, there’s a lot of negativity,” Fortier said.

But Pettie assured him failure was no longer an option and Fortier had full reign to make sure it doesn’t happen.

“The recognized they wanted to change,” Fortier said. “They needed a reset.”

It won’t happen overnight, though.

In addition to recruiting new players as well as coaches, putting up new signs and banners in the dressing room to remind players of the team’s accomplishments and its goals for the future, Fortier’s also been working to establish stronger links between the Express and Coquitlam’s minor hockey system by helping out with summer hockey camps.

“We’re not just building a team, we’re also building a foundation,” Fortier said. “We’re changing everything around.”

* The Express play their first pre-season game tonight (Wednesday), against the Langley Rivermen. Game time is 7 p.m. at the Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex.

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