Wild, without former UMD star, return to Duluth’s Amsoil Arena for open practice

By Matt Wellens Forum News Service DULUTH -- Entering the final year of a two-year, $2-million contract with the Minnesota Wild, former Minnesota Duluth forward Justin Fontaine knows he's facing a critical season in his professional hockey career...

(Bob King | Forum News Service) Members of the Wild sprint back and forth on the ice during a practice drill Tuesday at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.

By Matt Wellens

Forum News Service

DULUTH - Entering the final year of a two-year, $2-million contract with the Minnesota Wild, former Minnesota Duluth forward Justin Fontaine knows he’s facing a critical season in his professional hockey career.

And so does Wild coach Mike Yeo.

Unfortunately for Fontaine, his third full season in the NHL already has suffered a setback thanks to an oblique-muscle injury he suffered last week in a preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Fontaine is expected to miss the first couple weeks of the season. It’s the second year in a row Fontaine starts on the injured list after hurting a glute muscle last season.


“It’s definitely not the way you want to start the season coming into camp,” Fontaine said Tuesday after watching his Wild teammates practice on the Amsoil Arena ice he played on from 2010-2011. “You feel ready, you feel healthy and unfortunately that’s what happens. I’m staying positive and working off the ice, trying to get back as soon as possible.”

Fontaine injured his oblique after taking a hit along the boards. He said he tried to go back out onto the ice that night in Columbus, but learned that like the glute injury a year ago, his oblique is a necessary muscle in the game of hockey that needs to be healthy.

Fontaine said the rehabilitation is a slow process, but he’s getting better every day.

“The most important thing for him is to get healthy,” Yeo said Tuesday after his team’s first of two practices in Duluth. “He’s got to get on the ice and get into a groove. The rest of the guys are putting in a lot of work right now, so he’s going to have some catching up to do when he gets back.”

The good thing for the Wild is the injury came early in the season, so the team has plenty of bodies to make up for Fontaine’s absence. The Wild trimmed their roster from 44 to 27 players on Sunday.

But Fontaine, who helped lead UMD to an NCAA Division I title in 2011, was a key role player a year ago on a team that was bounced in four games in the Western Conference semifinals by eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago. He not only saw time on the penalty kill, but moved up on the line chart, playing alongside veteran Thomas Vanek.

In his second full season with the Wild since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2011, Fontaine posted a career-high 33 points on 10 goals and 23 assists in 77 games. He scored 14 goals and had nine assists as a rookie.

“He’s a smart player and we know he has the ability to continue to grow here,” Yeo said. “I think it’s a big year here. I’d like to see him push and show he’s a lot more than just a third-fourth line guy. I’d like to see him demand a little bit more and his play will do that.”



Like the eight National Collegiate Hockey Conference teams that begin practicing in full Saturday, NHL teams also are learning how to handle the new 3-on-3 overtime periods that were instituted this season.

The NCHC is the only league in NCAA hockey that will use 3-on-3 OT periods this year and it will only take place in conference games after a five-minute 5-on-5 OT.

In the NHL, five minutes of 4-on-4 overtime has been replaced by five minutes of 3-on-3. Teams have been given the opportunity to try out the format in preseason play, with the Wild playing in three 3-on-3 overtimes thus far.

Yeo said one thing he’s learned early on is just how important line changes are, from their timing to the execution. Possessing the puck is key and it helps to get your goalie involved, he said.

Thankfully the Wild have goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has a reputation of handling the puck quite well.

“There are certain situations when you need to get off the ice. Especially with the long change, it’s hard,” Yeo said. “If you are giving the puck to a goalie and he’s going to be under heavy pressure, that’s going to be a tough situation. But there were a couple times we used it in a longer play, almost like a D regroup. Your goalie allows some guys to get off the ice.

“It’s hard for that other team to forecheck because they don’t want to come flying in at your goalie and you get a guy like (Dubnyk), who can move the puck. He makes one long play and it’s an odd-man rush.”



The team arrived in Duluth on Sunday night following its preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Wild are staying at a location outside of town they prefer to keep quiet. The team has held a pig roast - which Yeo quipped required a heavy skate after the off day Monday - and had a golf outing planned for Tuesday afternoon.

Yeo and his players agreed the trip to Duluth - last made prior to the start of the 2013 season - is a nice chance to get away from the cities and bond as a team.

“I love this place. I have a lot of great memories here, such a great hockey place,” said Fontaine, who played at UMD from 2007-11. “It’s definitely a great place to play. It’s beautiful around here.

“We’re playing some golf together, having good practices, just bonding and get away from the cities, getting away from everyone’s family. It’s kind of a guy’s trip. It’s a lot of fun and I think everyone enjoys the few days we come up here.”


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