Succession plan: Fischer could be Coyotes’ next great power forward
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Mike Fischer tried to give his four-year-old son a gentle nudge into the game he played as a kid.
Christian Fischer needed more incentive.
“I brought him to the rink and he wanted nothing to do with hockey,” Mike Fischer said. “He just dropped to the ice so we thought, ‘maybe we’ll wait another year.’
“When we brought him back, we coaxed him with video games. To get him on the ice, the deal was I would give him some quarters to play Pac-Man afterward.”
Fischer doesn’t need those carrots any more. Ever since he worked his way onto the Triple-A Chicago Mission, the Coyotes forward has supplied his own fuel. He won a Midget national championship in his last season with the Mission. He played for the United States National Team Development Program’s U17 and U18 teams. He scored 40 goals and had 90 points in one season with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League, and he had 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games with the Tucson Roadrunners of the American Hockey League last season.
Fischer’s rise through the system was complete when he made the Coyotes roster out of training camp this season. In 44 games, he is second on the team with 12 goals. Five of those have come in the past 11 games.
“Progress is a good way to describe it,” Fischer, 20, said. “From Day 1 to now, I think I’ve gone upward. You can go one of two ways. You can have a long adjustment period or you can focus on making sure you’re playing the right way.
“I know what I’m good at, what I bring to this team, so it’s not so much adding to my repertoire as perfecting what I do.”
What Fischer does is something familiar to coach Rick Tocchet. Tocchet had 440 goals and 952 points in 1,144 career games. He did it by getting dirty.
“I’m probably harder on Christian than most guys on our team because I was that player,” Tocchet said. “He’s not pretty, but he works hard.
“He’s starting to understand what I want from a per se power forward. He’s grasping the importance of holding onto pucks, going to the net, being a net-front presence, being a better wall guy. There’s not a lot of guys like that in the league that can also skate. If he can perfect those things, he can be a hell of hockey player in the NHL.”
Fischer adopted a competitive drive and a willingness to go to the hard areas a couple years into his sports career as a baseball and hockey player. It took a little longer to harness those tools.
“It was probably in his second year of travel baseball and we were beating up on a team pretty good down at Burlington Central,” said his Bartlett Silver Hawks baseball coach, Dan Koss. “When you’re up on a team 10, 11, 12, 13 runs, you back off.
“It’s late in the game, I’m coaching at third and he’s on third base so I tell him, ‘no passed balls, we’re not stealing, we’re going to get in and out of this game.’ He says, ‘OK, coach.’
“Well, there’s a passed ball and Christian goes home. It was his first reaction as a competitor. The catcher comes back to the plate and instead of avoiding the tag, Christian just steamrolls the guy and gets ejected. He didn’t even try to go around him. He was just a rhinoceros. He went right through him.”
Mike Fischer was angry with his son and took Christian home while Koss apologized profusely to the opposing coach. A decade later, the story brings a smile to Christian’s face.
“Killed him,” Fischer said, joking. “Highlight of my career.”
While Fischer was learning to regulate his adrenaline, he was also rounding into a bona fide prospect. He played six seasons with the Mission, which meant traveling for better competition to Canada, Detroit, Wisconsin and St. Louis, where he faced off repeatedly against Clayton Keller and Matthew Tkachuk.
While Mission regularly won Illinois state championships, it was always a goal short of the nation’s elite teams, falling in the late rounds of the Bauer Tournament, Silver Sticks or Nationals.
Mission finally broke through in Fischer’s final season by winning the Bauer and national championships. His coach remembers a critical Fischer goal in the semifinals of the Bauer tournament against Team Wisconsin.
“It was a 2-on-2 and he was coming down his off-side,” said Chris Michael, a Mission assistant in Fischer’s first two seasons and the head coach for his final four. “His support was coming and the defense allowed the zone entry, but the support was behind him so once he got over the blue line there was a lane and he allowed his support to split the D on a net drive.
“His support took a good route that forced the strong-side D back and took the weak side D with him. Christian made a lateral cut to the middle and it was explosive. All of the sudden, he’s in the middle of the ice. He froze the goalie and continued laterally to where the arc begins at the bottom of the right circle. He held it, held it, and two guys slid into the net trying to block it but he roofed it like he had done it a million times before.
“There was such a high level of hockey IQ and skill on that play that you just thought, ‘wow.'”
That skill attracted the USNDTP, which brought Fischer aboard the same year as Matthew Tkachuk. The Tkachuks’ and Fischer’s friendship had grown naturally out of previous encounters. It went to another level when the boys became teammates.
The two families rented a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the boys lived under the supervision of one set of parents or the other on a rotating basis while the other returned home to suburban Chicago or St. Louis. The sacrifice still astounds Christian, but Mike and Sheryl Fischer both work from home and their other kids were older so they had the flexibility. Keith Tkachuk was just beginning a scouting stint with the St. Louis Blues so he could also travel with his wife, Chantal, to help raise a couple of growing boys.
“They ate a lot of food. I can tell you that much,” Tkachuk said.
Fischer said he often consults Tkachuk for advice on a position the former Jet, Coyote and Blue perfected, but Tkachuk called it a “huge plus” that Fischer is learning from another power forward and former teammate in Tocchet.
“Not everybody can be Clayton Keller or Patrick Kane,” Tkachuk said. “Christian has really tried to make his own niche. Back when I first started, you could beat a goalie coming down the wing but it’s not going to happen like that any more. In the NHL now, you have to be able to produce goals around the net.
“You see him around the net or taking the D wide and scoring around the paint. He’s learning that ‘if I get to those areas and if I am strong around the net, I’m going to score goals. If I use my body, I’m going to give myself more room.’ Every team needs that.”
Fischer turned sheepish when the topic arose, but it is difficult to ignore his potential place in the succession of Coyotes power forwards. Tkachuk is the standard with 323 goals and 623 points in 640 games with the franchise. Shane Doan just retired with 402 goals and 972 points in 1,540 games. Now comes Fischer, who calls both men, as well as his coach, his mentors.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to replace Shane Doan, but it’s a focus of mine to be that next power forward,” Fischer said. “I’ve had a pretty good scenario where I’ve had Keith, Shane and now Toc to learn from. Hopefully, I can grow into that type of player they were one day.”
Coyotes at Predators
When: 6 p.m., Thursday
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
Radio: 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station
TV: FOX Sports Arizona