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Chris Murphy, Published February 14 2013

Ortega serves Force well

FARGO – When new Fargo Force forward Austin Ortega was traded from Indiana, he knew he would be changing his colors.

What he didn’t know was he would be adding job experience to his resume by waiting tables. Ortega has only been a member of the Force for a little over week, but he wasn’t getting out of serving dinner to couples at Scheels Arena on Valentine’s Day for the first Suits-N-Sticks dinner benefit for embrace – Sanford Health’s cancer survivorship program.

There was a benefit to being the new guy.

“I wasn’t here when they were fitting for tuxedos, so I just have to wear a suit,” Ortega said.

Ortega brings some more firepower to a Force squad that had found the back of the net eight times in the four games before the Ortega trade.

The Force went 1-3 during that stretch and in the Western Conference, there is no room for losing stretches. Sioux Falls leads the conference with 60 points, followed closely by Fargo (57), Omaha (56), Waterloo (55) and Lincoln (51).

So the Force got a guy with 24 goals – the third most in the United States Hockey League.

“With Nate Arentz breaking his leg and still needing two to three weeks and things being so close, we thought we might need a little more ammunition down the stretch,” Force coach John Marks said. “It felt like we needed another bullet in the gun barrel. Anytime you can strengthen your lineup with a player like Austin, you have to take advantage of it.”

Valentine’s Day puts an emphasis on commitment. There was one commitment that drew the eye of Marks.

“Austin is committed to play at the University of Nebraska-Omaha next season and, being a good friend of their coach Dean Blais, I knew we weren’t just getting a guy with good numbers, but good character,” Marks said.

The Force found their match with Ortega, an Escondido, Calif., native, who fell for hockey watching a game at an ice skating party when he was 5 years old. This is Ortega’s third team this season, so he’s had his share of breakups.

“It’s a huge upgrade,” Oretga said.

As for fitting in, the Force have scored nine goals in the last three games. Ortega hasn’t found the back of the net yet, but he’s dished out two assists.

“He’s fit in great,” Marks said. “The goal in any season is to win a championship. When you go from a team that most likely won’t make the playoffs to a team that can win the whole thing, you just want to contribute.”

Before opening a home doubleheader versus Waterloo tonight and Saturday – with benefits for embrace being held again Saturday – Marks celebrated Valentine’s Day with his wife at Scheels Arena, while his players served them dinner.

“I’ve been taking care of them all year, so it’s about time they take care of me,” Marks said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548