JOCK TALK with Joel Charron — Time heals all wounds

Paul Bortignon has had his fair share of ups and downs during his hockey career.

He began playing hockey in Amherstburg before making the jump to AAA hockey to play for the Sun County Panthers. Bortignon, or other wise known as “Borts” by his friends, won an OMHA championship in 1997-98 with the Pee Wee Minors followed by his second OMHA championship in 1998-99 with the Pee Wee Majors.

He’s felt the sting of defeat, losing in overtime in the final game of what was his third straight OMHA final and following his Bantam Major season he watched a computer screen for what seemed like an eternity as the OHL draft came and went without his name being called.

“That was probably the first big hit I took as a hockey player,” Borts said.

“At that point I thought because I didn’t get drafted, I wasn’t good enough to play hockey.”

After an admitted “rough summer,” Borts got back on the ice and played the season in Jr. C and Jr. B hockey and once again entered the OHL draft and unlike the year before his name was called. With scholarship offers waiting in the wings, Borts attended the Sarnia Sting rookie camp, impressed the brass, and was asked to attend their main camp. Borts made the Sting as a walk-on.

In two seasons with the Sting, he earned his way into the top four defense, however when a coaching change saw his ice time decrease, Borts requested a trade. He was traded to the Windsor Spitfires, where he finished out the season.

The following season, Borts was shipped down to the Jr. B Leamington Flyers but was given a confidence boost once the Flyers were eliminated from playoffs.

“D.J. Smith contacted me and basically brought me up to start the playoff rounds against Sault Sault Marie,” he said. The Spitfires won the series in Game 7 after being down three games to none. After his OHL career concluded, he played in Aurora for the 2005-06 season, then returned home.

“It was great, it was fun,” explained Borts. “I was having fun again. With no politics I didn’t have to worry about the business of the OHL.”

Borts enrolled in the University of Windsor and began playing hockey for the Lancers. However, years of being bounced around the hockey landscape began to take its toll on the young defenseman.

“In 2007, I remember in university we were playing Lakehead in front of 3,000 people and I went out for warm-ups and I had no emotion, no drive to skate,” he recalled.

Just like that, Borts walked away from hockey.

“Some people leave the game because they are not happy with their ice time but for me, my heart and passion was wiped out. I was drained from all the lies and politics. It was tough to walk away from it but it was the best thing at the time.”

He just simply walked away and went on with his life like hockey never existed. He declined all invitations to play in beer league tournaments, weekend pick-up games and men’s leagues. He stopped watching his beloved Boston Bruins on TV and didn’t even know where his old equipment was being stored. Hockey was all but dead… until a chance e-mail years later.

In 2012, hockey started creeping, ever so slowly, back into Borts’ life. He received an e-mail from his friend Wes Ewer, recruiting people for a tournament. Borts reluctantly accepted the invitation after knowing his brother Peter was also playing. It was his first time putting equipment on in five-and-a-half years. The tournament didn’t thrust him back into playing but it did spark an interest. Borts contacted Ewer about his plans for the upcoming year and after some detailed conversation they decided to take their chance at coaching.

“We just thought we’d get into coaching and teach kids something about hockey, we had no idea what was to come,” said Borts. Borts and Ewer applied to coach with Amherstburg Minor Hockey and were given the Bantam Major travel team. Ewer even asked Borts to lend a hand with the Extra Mile Hockey Academy he and Matt Fox were getting off the ground.

It was just what Borts needed.

“They basically said this is your show, you run the power skating,” he said. “I found myself up until two in the morning working on a plan for the power skating. I felt myself getting back into this.”

Borts once again found his fire, not so much for playing the game but for teaching the game. With a renewed zest in hockey, Borts and Ewer latched onto the Bantam Majors and pouring every ounce of hockey they knew into the players and they soaked it right up. They developed not only into a well-rounded hockey team but a family.

During a hockey tournament in Fort Erie in early December 2012, Borts coined the phrase “17 Strong” during a pre game speech. The team adopted “17 Strong” as their motto and embodied its meaning.

“If we play by ourselves we’ll lose, every time, but if we play together, if we have each other’s back, if we are there to pick each other up, if we play 17 strong, we are one hell of a team to beat,” stated Borts.

He started implementing different systems, strengthening the team’s bond and made them believe they can win every game they play. Borts help lead the Bantam Majors to the OMHA semi-finals, where they fell to the eventual champions Brampton. Although they lost on home ice, Borts said he walked off the bench with a smile on his face.

“To have a smile on my face at that point, I felt like this past year was the best year of my life in a long, long time and it has a lot to do with all those kids,” said Borts. With his hockey fire burning bright and fierce, Borts and Ewer will work with the players as they move up to Midget Minor.

“Parents and players are thanking me for the year and I’m like you guys made me love the game again,” he said. “I really can’t wait for next year’s hockey season… and I never thought I’d say that again.”

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