NZIHL

Justin Fuller’s French Connection

At just 25 years old, Justin Fuller is another of the Canterbury Red Devil players who can claim true veteran status – his first year in the Red Devils lineup was back in 2010. On top of that, Fuller has the added experience of playing in the Belgium and French leagues for a couple of seasons. But his French connection goes well beyond simply playing there.

Justin’s wife, Marine, is French and Justin has worked in the wine industry for many years, so it seems inevitable that he will eventually head back to France to further both his hockey career and his future in the international wine trade.

Fortunately for Canterbury fans, Justin has assured me he is here for a few more seasons yet. I recently interviewed Justin at Red Devils training.

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How and where did hockey start for you?
I started playing inline hockey when I was about 6 years old at the old Skate Zone over in Addington, near the Horncastle Arena. It was a great place – there was a skateboard park with a half-pipe and two rinks, one for public skating and one for hockey. When it was at its prime it was packed out for Saturday and Sunday public sessions, but that’s all gone now.

That’s a real shame because I think inline contributed a lot to hockey in Canterbury in the past.
Yeah, that’s where a lot of people started off.  I knew all those guys like Adam (Soffer) and Squeak (Anton Purver) and I used to play inline with Chris (Eaden) before I played ice hockey. After the rink got sold there was no place to skate and we used to train in basketball courts and gymnasiums – places like that. I did that for a few years but at that time I was already playing both ice and inline.

What do you think playing inline contributed to your game?
I think it’s good starting with inline when you are young because it helps you build up your hands, and puck movement, stuff like that. Inline skaters are good at puck handling but not so good at skating on ice – it took me a while to get used to it.

So when did you start ice hockey then?
My first year of ice hockey was in 2004 when I was 12 years old, in the last year of under-13s playing in the Pee Wee league. The first year was pretty positive and after a year I went up to under-16s playing contact hockey. I got into the under-13 rep team in my first years and have played for Canterbury age groups the whole way up.

There were a lot of changes in Canterbury as you were coming through, I guess the Junior contact league had already gone. What pathway was available to you after midgets?
I was in the Canterbury under-19 junior rep team and we played as one of the teams in the senior premier contact league. We would play a game a week against senior teams and we’d be training all year for the one national tournament. After my time, they (under-19s) went to a national under-20s league which is much better. I think it’s better for teams to travel around during the season playing regular games against each of the other provincial teams. My first year in the Devils was when I was 17 in the 2010 season when I was still playing juniors.

Have you played for the Devils every year since then?
No I’ve had some breaks – I played three seasons for the Devils and then had a couple of years off. In the first year I moved to Wellington and I met my wife who is French, so we went to France for a year, just travelling around and then we came back to Canterbury for the next season. I hadn’t played for those two seasons, so I was playing pretty much third or fourth line, just getting my legs back – I was a bit rusty. I wasn’t getting a lot of game time, but it was good training. Then we went back to Europe.

Did you go to play hockey there?
We went back to spend a year over there to be close to my wife’s family for a bit, and while we were there I started contacting a few teams. One of the import players (Gabe Yeung) from the Red Devils’ 2012 championship team had been a player-coach in Belgium and he put me in contact with the president of that team.

I wasn’t expecting much out of it, but after about a week he contacted me in France and asked me to play and coach their second-tier national league team (the Charleroi Red Roosters in the Belgian National League). I had never coached before and I told him that, but the guy they had lined up had pulled out.

So, for that season, I was playing and coaching the team as well as coaching the under-19 team and the hockey school for the kids.

Your player stats certainly look good for that year (21 points in 13 games). What was the level of hockey like?
It’s a little bit underneath the NZIHL because the league is sort of developing players for the top Netherlands/Belgium league. It’s still a good competitive league, travelling around the country all season.

I see you had your best season for the Devils when you came back, gaining almost a point a game. 
Yeah it definitely helped. I think it was just instead of having an off-season, I was training and playing all the way through, so when I came back I was ready to go – I was game ready.

When I was in Belgium, I was coaching or training Monday to Thursday probably three hours a night and then on Friday, Saturday or Sundays it was travelling to games or playing home games. They hooked me up with a salary and an apartment because hockey was my full-time job.

You mentioned earlier you played in France as well, when did that happen?
Yes, I played in Marseilles (Massilia Hockey Club) in the south of France in 2016-2017, they’re in Division 2, so that’s the third-tier league in France, which is a higher level than the NZIHL and it’s a lot more professional. I didn’t get paid, but there was free equipment and everything was paid for you.

How did you get involved with that team?
Well, I knew we were going to be living in Marseilles because Marine was studying there. We arrived late in their season; finishing up the season here and then having our wedding which the whole team attended.

We arrived literally a week before their season started. But I contacted the coach and he asked me to come down for a try-out and after a couple of weeks he offered me a spot on the team, and then we got the international transfer underway and I only missed the first few games.

How did you go in that league?
Well it was a higher level and I came in late and I was fighting for my spot and I found myself on the third or fourth line for most of the season but all the training and the professional environment helped. I didn’t get the same game time as I had in Belgium, but it was more professional.

The head coach (Luc Jr Tardif) was a 10-year veteran of the French National team which plays in the top international division and they normally rank about tenth to twelfth. His father is the president of the French Ice Hockey Association – I’d like to get back there in the future, but I’m not sure when yet. We’re back here for a few years now.

Were you back here for the season last year?
Last season I was contemplating coming back, I wasn’t going to make it for the full season, so in the end I decided to have a bit of time off – I had just finished four seasons in a row so I hadn’t had a summer in two years. So I took the season off and we went to Asia to travel around – we got back in December last year.

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Has your position and role in the Red Devils changed much over the years?
My position hasn’t changed much – I’ve always been a forward and I usually play on the left wing, but my role has definitely changed.

When I was younger, before I went overseas I was pretty consistently playing third line – I was getting good game time – I wasn’t on the bench. But now, since I came back, I’m looked at more as a veteran of the team so I can bring more to the game and give some advice, when they ask, to young players on the team.

How about your future?
When we go back to France I’m hoping to get back into a club there and hope to work my way up a little bit. But at the moment I have just started studying a business diploma, that will take a couple of years. I’ve worked in the wine industry for quite a while since I finished high school so I’m hoping to get a job in the international wine trade in France – I‘ve got a few contacts already.

Well it hasn’t been a great year if we look at results, but results are not the only thing to consider with a developing team.  What are the positives you see in the Devils camp this year?
Actually, for me it’s been a bit of a shock this year because previously I was part of a Devils team that was always winning. I was away last year and to come back this year and be in this situation is a new experience for me.

It’s a tough year, but now it’s time to focus on the youth in the team – bringing up some of the younger guys. Obviously imports help but it takes a few years to build up some good young talent and have a strong core to the team.

Is it difficult having new imports every year?
Yes and no. It’s not always easy to get imports to come back, but it’s good to freshen it up and have new faces – guys to look up to. Everyone gives different input so it’s just learning more about the game and they are the best guys to learn from because they come from professional leagues.

At the same time it is good when you get return players, like Robert Banks staying on, becoming residents and counting as local players.

Any thoughts on the future of hockey in Canterbury?
I think the future looks pretty bright. At the moment it’s sort of a difficult period for the Devils, but every team goes through it from time to time.

The pathways for young players are a lot better now – better than when I was in the junior program – because the midget and junior teams are travelling around the country playing very competitive games and they’re getting a lot more training time on the ice and Canterbury’s got very good coaches like Dean Tonks pushing pretty much every level and that’s good.

All photos by Josh Fraser