“Grit” is one of hockey’s intangible qualities, variously defined as mental toughness, willingness to mix it up physically and refusal to be outworked. It joins “compete”, another common hockey buzzword loosely short for “competitiveness”, as know-it-when-you-see-it characteristics that hockey coaches and talent evaluators use to measure things that might not show up directly on the statsheet.
When the Spokane Chiefs acquired Zach Fischer from Medicine Hat in early October, they knew they were getting a player with those qualities, but also one who has the ability to find the back of the net – 21 times in his first 39 games with the Chiefs, to be exact. Consider the 91 accompanying penalty minutes he’s accrued and the 20-year-old power forward has that rare combination of scoring touch and physicality that is tough to replicate.
Fischer’s scoring touch didn’t come as a surprise to Spokane’s front office, but two years ago, it may have. He had a breakout season a year ago with the Tigers, scoring 34 goals during the regular season and seven more in the playoffs, setting career highs in every offensive category. His efforts were rewarded as he became a fifth-round pick in last summer’s 2017 NHL Entry Draft, selected by the Calgary Flames.
But only three games into his fourth season in Medicine Hat, Fischer left the club and returned to his home in Lloydminster, Alberta, while he awaited a trade.
“I wasn’t worried about getting to play somewhere,” he said. “But after a while, every day started feeling like a week. I got tired of sitting around and every day I missed the game a little more.”
Fischer skated occasionally during the two weeks at home and worked out regularly, but after he got the call about the trade to Spokane on a Thursday night, he flew from Edmonton to Vancouver to Seattle to Spokane, arriving at 3:30 Friday afternoon. He suited up and played for his new team that night before immediately loading up for a bus trip headed back to where he started the day before, as the Chiefs embarked for a four-game road swing through the WHL’s Central Division.
“You get to know people pretty quickly when you’re on the bus,” he said. “When you’re new, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but you still need to find a way to be yourself.”
That didn’t take long, he said, because his teammates welcomed him quickly, appreciative of his work ethic and energy.
“I think of myself as an outgoing guy, kind of a jokester,” he said. “I get pretty excited in the dressing room to get the guys going. My job has always been to make things happen, to do whatever it takes to give my team the best chance to win. I do that by always working hard, stirring things up and never giving up.”
Despite his strong first half with the Chiefs, he sees plenty of room for improvement in his game.
“I need to skate faster to play at the next level,” he said, “and I need to improve my defensive skill set. I think my hands and ability to find my shot are my strengths, but I work every day to be a better two-way player. I need to move my feet better and be more efficient in the defensive end.”
Although his future after this season is uncertain, Fischer doesn’t spend time contemplating next year.
“My focus is on what I need to do day-to-day to get better. Not even next week. Just the next game.”
Once again, Fischer will rely on his “grit” and “compete” to push him forward to the next level, and that’s a tough thing to bet against.
Spokane Chiefs Education Advisor Joe Everson works with all Chiefs players, from those still in high school to those pursuing a post-secondary education or preparing to do so following their WHL career. He helped lead the Chiefs to the WHL’s Scholastic Team of the Year Award for the 2015-16 season. Throughout each season, Everson will profile individual Chiefs to provide insight into their lives, their mindset and their goals for the future.