Express look to build on last season’s gains

Nothing breeds success, the saying goes, like success.

Just ask Jason Fortier, head coach of the Coquitlam Express.

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In his first full season behind the bench of the BC Hockey League team, Fortier piloted the Express to third place in the Mainland division with 13 more wins than they racked up the season prior.

That has made Coquitlam a hot destination for young prospects looking to advance their hockey careers with an eye on scholarship opportunities at American universities.

Fortier had 68 players in training camp — enough to populate four teams. More importantly, many of them were getting their first taste of junior hockey after they led Express-supported teams to U16 and U18 championships in the springtime Junior Showcase Hockey League.

That not only bodes well for the Express’ immediate future, said Fortier, who expects one or two players might be ready to crack the big team’s lineup, but also for the long-term health of the team, which has struggled at times since it won the Fred Page Cup in 2014.

“That’s a good starting point,” Fortier said of the showcase teams’ successes.

Still, the burden of fulfilling expectations for the coming season will fall on the core of returning veterans, including goaltender Clay Stephenson and defenceman Drew Cooper as well as forwards Josh Wildauer, Connor Gregga and Danny Pearson.

Fortier said defenceman Kabir Gill and forward Cooper Connell are also poised to take big steps forward in their sophomore seasons with the Express.

“Every player coming back will bring some form of leadership,” Fortier said, adding he also has high expectations for veteran newcomer Massimo Rizzo, whom the Express acquired in the summer from the Penticton Vees to complete an earlier deal that sent Alex DiPaolo to the Okanagan team.

Rizzo, a third-year centre, was selected 216th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in last June’s NHL entry draft but Fortier said he would have gone higher had he not missed 21 games last season due to a back injury. Nevertheless, he still racked up 40 points in 37 games, then added another six in six playoff games.

And while Rizzo’s injury kept him from the Express training camp, Fortier said he expects him to have a major impact once he hits the ice.

Behind the veterans is a contingent of young up-and-comers, including Port Moody’s Ryan Tattle, who scored 48 points in 40 games last season with the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs of the BC Major Midget League; and Quebec’s Greg Lapointe, who comes to the Express from Stanstead College in the Midwest Prep Hockey League, where he tallied 27 points in 19 games last season.

Fortier said having such a wealth of talent on the ice for training camp has him champing at the bit for the season to start, even as it has made his job to select from those players more difficult.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he said. “We want guys to come in and fight for their opportunities.”

• The Express open their regular season on Saturday against the Langley Rivermen at George Preston Arena in Langley. The team’s first home game will be Saturday, Sept. 21, 7 p.m., against the Chilliwack Chiefs.

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