We’ve all heard the term “gradual progression” when referring to junior hockey players and former Prince George Spruce Kings star blueliner Brad Fast is no exception.
After starring for two years at the U18 B level with the Fort St. John Flyers where he amassed 140 points in a little over 100 games, Fast made the jump to the BCHL with the Spruce Kings.
“Coming out of Fort St. John, it was a bit of a strange year because the Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League was disbanding a little bit up in the north. The Spruce Kings had just joined the BCHL and in my hometown, we had the Fort St. John Huskies who were a part of the Rocky Mountain league but were taking a step down (to junior B) at that time.”
“During the spring, (Spruce Kings general manager) Len McNamara came and visited me and my family and talked about the prospects of playing (for them). I worked out all summer, went to camp with no expectations, and really it was my first junior camp. I ended up surprising myself and made the team,” Fast added.
Like any player who graduated from playing at a lower level, the now 41-year-old took his lumps and battled through the growing pains in the 1996-97 regular season, amassing 10 points in 49 games.
“I remember my rookie year very vividly. It was such a learning experience and for most of the season, we had great leaders. Dennis Ladouceur was on the team, Chris Martin was on the team and David Keough ended up coming back (from the Western Hockey League). We had a good coach in Larry Bernard and all these factors are integral in helping everybody out,” said Fast.
Sophomore break out
However, Fast’s play blossomed his sophomore year, exploding for 43 points in 59 games, showcasing the offensive repertoire that got him noticed by the junior scouts.
“I probably made more touches my second year. I was making more of my opportunities. In my first year, I wasn’t even six feet and probably 135 pounds to begin the season, so when you are that size, you can get knocked and pushed off the puck a little bit easier. But in my second year, I put on about 15 pounds and had a lot more strength, which helped out a ton.”
Fast played in an era where smaller players faced a much more daunting task to survive the game due to increased physical play as well as the clutching and grabbing that often went with it.
But, he didn’t give the extra hurdles too much thought while competing on the ice.
“There was no light at the end of the tunnel. We didn’t know rule changes were looming ahead in another six or seven years. But, in my time, that is just how you played and you adapted and adjusted.”
Even to this day, Fast has a great appreciation for the legendary Rolling Mix Concrete Arena in downtown PG, which is often one of the toughest places to play for opposing BCHL teams.
“I love that place. Right from the high boards to the unique size of it to just a little bit different shape than some of the other rinks in the league. But the fans are awesome, you have the super fan up there with the drum beating between whistles, getting everybody going, and (it’s) such a knowledgeable fanbase.”
“You couldn’t get away with anything and (the fans) held you accountable. They would support you as much as any fanbase out there but they also know if you are not giving it your best, or are having a bad game too, which is great because they are not fair weather.”
Eye of the storm
In 1998-99, his final season with the Spruce Kings, Fast and his teammates took a quantum leap in the BCHL’s Interior Division, going 37-20-0-3, good enough for 2nd place.
“We had a really close team. I remember that first and foremost about that group of guys. It was awesome (but) we ran into a tough team at the end (and lost to Vernon Vipers in the Division Final). We were preparing to go a long way and felt so confident in the group we had together. (It) is one of the closest groups I have ever been a part of.”
“You spend a lot of time on the bus leaving places like Quesnel, and our next closest place would be Merritt. We had some good players. Stutzel was in the top-10 for league scoring, if not higher, we had David Keough on the back end, and had a lot of fun.”
(Editor’s note: Stutzel finished 12th in BCHL scoring in 1998-99)
To cap off his tenure with the Spruce Kings, Fast saw his childhood dream come true as he was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round, 84th overall in the 1999 NHL Draft.
“I remember during the year, our head coach Dale Marquette said after a game there was an NHL scout at the game and he was there to watch (me) and I was like ‘Holy smokes!’ At that time there weren’t too many guys in our league getting drafted at all. I remember the scout after one of my games from Carolina was Sheldon Ferguson. “
“I ended up getting a call from him on draft day and I was very, very surprised. I was hitting the refresh button on my computer and I saw my name come up.”
Thriving with the Spartans
After his selection to the Hurricanes, Fast headed east to play for the vaunted Michigan State University Spartans – a place he would call home for four years.
The Fort St. John product was an early contributor on a star-studded team coached by Ron Mason that included future NHLers like Shawn Horcoff, Adam Hall, Andrew Hutchinson, Mike Weaver, and Ryan Miller.
“There are some major steps that occur during a hockey player’s career and that first year was probably my biggest one. Going from playing against guys who were 20-years-old to playing (with) some guys on our team turning 25 in college. That is a huge jump maturity-wise.”
“College life is different. You’ve got your normal class schedule and on top of that, you are at the rink, you are on the road, and you are adjusting to a different culture moving across the continent to play hockey. I was a really good student growing up and (that first semester) I remember getting a tutor to help out at Michigan State because the demands were high and the classes were hard but after that, you just fly with it,” said Fast.
In the 1999-2000 CCHA season, Michigan State went 18-8-2 and plowed through the competition at playoff time. After winning their quarterfinal series against the Miami RedHawks, the Spartans easily dispatched Notre Dame in the semis.
Michigan State then steamrolled Nebraska-Omaha by a whopping 6-0 margin to claim the championship. Its season ended at the NCAA’s national tournament regional quarterfinal – a 6-5 overtime loss to Boston College.
In the 2000-01 season, Fast took another step offensively, doubling his point production to 28 points on a Spartans team that was once again loaded for another championship run. Michigan State went 21-4-3 during the regular season and claimed the top spot in the CCHA.
Much like the year prior, the Spartans came through at crunch time, disposing of Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green before claiming back-to-back titles against the rival Michigan Wolverines.
Rivalry with the Wolverines
College rivalries south of the border are pretty intense at the best of times, but not a lot of them come with the same level of passion and intensity as Michigan-Michigan State.
The Spartans waged war in the CCHA Finals on a pair of occasions with both schools claiming one title each. Michigan State got the upper hand in 2001 while the Wolverines exacted their revenge in 2002. Fast is quick to point out his favourite road place to play was the University of Michigan. “We loved going into their barn and winning there, we did that a lot during my college career.
“The rivalry is amplified, people try to describe it, and coming in as a freshman, the older guys told me, ‘You are going to see hatred, and you are going to see a bloodbath every time you go out there.’ and (we) eventually had full line brawls against those guys. Nobody cared what the sport was, people were focused on (the rivalry) all the time and we even had to protect our mascot.”
Fast’s final two years at the college level were arguably his best ones. In his junior year, he became alternate captain on a team that went 18-6-4 during the 2001-02 regular season but fell just short of a CCHA three-peat.
Michigan State then underwent a coaching change in 2002-03 where Rick Comley became bench boss. The Spartans slid to a 17-10-1 mark in their conference before bowing out to Northern Michigan in the playoffs.
In part two of “Crowning Moments with Brad Fast”, I’ll look at his jump from college to the professional ranks.