Fortunus finds satisfaction inspiring Black children to play hockey
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A weekly series in honour of Black History Month, Taylor Allen highlights the stories and incredible accomplishments of Black athletes and coaches in Manitoba.
What would Mike Keane do?
It’s a mindset former Manitoba Moose defenceman Maxime Fortunus — who was teammates with Keane from 2005-09 — carried with him throughout his 18-year playing career, no matter where the game took him, when challenging situations would arise. It’s a thought process the Montreal product still uses today as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Texas Stars.
“All the time,” Fortunus told the Free Press this week. Texas hired the 39-year-old prior to last season after he spent the previous three years playing in Germany.
“Mike Keane was a guy that I used to watch when I was younger and he played for the Montreal Canadiens. He was one of my favourite players growing up, too. So, when I got the chance to play with him, I got to see him not only as a player in the AHL, but as a person and as a leader in the room. He’s been my biggest role model as a pro.”
Now Fortunus, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Haiti in the 1970s, hopes he can be a role model as one of the few Black coaches in North American pro hockey.
There’s a lack of diversity in the sport with Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean and video coach Nigel Kirwan being the only Black coaches in the NHL.
Fortunus played for eight different teams across four professional leagues, but the only Black coach he had at any point was Winnipeg’s Paul Jerrard. After four seasons with the Moose, the Dallas Stars signed Fortunus, and he spent most of 2009-15 with their AHL affiliate. Jerrard, who lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday at the age of 57, was an assistant with Texas from 2009-11.
“Pauly was a big mentor of mine when I got here. I learned a lot from him, too. He was just a great person, had a great attitude, and was a great family man who I think was appreciated by everyone in the organization. It was awesome having someone you could relate to a little bit. He also played during a time where I think things for Black hockey players were even harder. To be able to have a guy who knew what you could be going through, it was good, but for us, we never really saw our relationship that way. We saw it as two guys who love hockey,” said Fortunus.
“But now I have an opportunity. Even as a player, one of the biggest compliments I’ve had was when a little Black kid and his parents came up to me and said the first time he saw me play, he decided he wanted to play hockey, too. For me, it was like all right, I’ve done my job. If I’ve done nothing else but that, bringing kids into the game is good enough for me. Now for me as a Black coach, it’s the same thing.”
Fortunus and Keane — a Winnipegger who won three Stanley Cups in 16 NHL seasons before suiting up for his hometown’s minor-league club for five years — helped the Moose to their best season in franchise history in 2009, when they reached the Calder Cup finals. Fortunus took his game to another level in the playoffs with three goals and seven assists in 22 contests. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Hershey Bears won the series 4-2.
Fortunus went on to play nine career NHL games for Dallas.
“He was the Dylan DeMelo of our team. He’s reliable, knows what his role is, hates to lose, loves to compete, and those are guys you can’t have enough of,” said Keane, now a player development co-ordinator for the Winnipeg Jets.
“We were on the penalty kill unit together and we were on the same page of doing anything that it takes to stop the other team from scoring. He had that mindset and I’m sure he’s passing it onto his players in Texas.
“His stops, his experiences, the players he played with, the different countries and different styles that he had a chance to play in, he’s gonna do awesome as a coach and I’m not just saying that because I know him and he was a teammate.”
Fortunus, who also had stints with the Houston Aeros, Iowa Wild, and Springfield Thunderbirds, played 882 career AHL games — which puts him in the Top 20 in league history — and finished with 286 points (76G, 210A). He would finally get a chance to hoist the Calder Cup in 2014 when Texas took down the St. John’s IceCaps — the Jets’ AHL affiliate at the time — in the final.
Longtime Moose general manager Craig Heisinger, who also held that title when the franchise was in St. John’s for four seasons between 2011-15, helped Fortunus break into the AHL after going undrafted. It came with a different organization, and at his expense, but Heisinger was there to see Fortunus enjoy the biggest victory of his career.
“Craig Heisinger was the one who showed a lot of confidence in me and knew what I could do. He believed in me, so I always say he’s the one who gave me my chance and I’ve always been really appreciative of that,” said Fortunus.
“Zinger actually came to see me after to congratulate me. For sure, it was a hard moment, but he was really happy for me with all the work that I put in to get to that point.”
Fortunus is now based in Austin, Texas, but Winnipeg will always have special meaning for reasons on and off the ice. He and his wife Marie-Josée Gagné had their first of three children, a boy named Malik, at St. Boniface Hospital.
“He always says he’s tough because he was born in Winnipeg and can endure the cold,” said Fortunus.
“For us, those four years were great. We loved our time over there.”
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of...
Updated on Friday, February 17, 2023 11:05 PM CST: Adds photos and related stories.