by Amy Johnson, Lead Correspondent, IceCaps Hockey Report
MONTREAL, QC — “I don’t need to take any vitamin D pills that I was taking in St. John’s, ’cause you get lots of it from the sun!” quipped Eric Neilson shortly after our call connected, describing the beautiful weather he was quickly getting accustomed to in Missouri. Neilson recently took some time out of his busy afternoon to chat about his move from the St. John’s IceCaps to the ECHL’s Missouri Mavericks.
“Hockey-wise, it’s been awesome,” he said. “I’m actually playing more hockey – I’m actually playing more now with the Mavericks, ice time, then I have in the last three or four years.”
At time of writing, Neilson had tallied 17 games with the Mavericks in the short time he’s been with the team – compared to just six games played with St. John’s in the first half of the season. “We’re first in the league, we’ve got really good teammates here, and we’ve got something special going. So I’m having fun going to the rink every day,” he added.
Eric said it didn’t take long for the die-hard hockey fans in Missouri to welcome him as one of their own. “They love their hard-hitting, hard-working, you know – they don’t mind a scrap or two every now and then. They enjoy that part of the game, too. So obviously me doing what I do and my role, I fit right in right away and I’ve met a lot of nice people, a lot of great people down here so far.”
A 6-foot-2-inch, 205 pound right-winger, Neilson was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2004 after playing a few seasons in the QMJHL with Rimouski Oceanic. He made his pro debut with the Bakersfield Condors (ECHL) in 2005 before playing with the Long Beach Ice Dogs (ECHL) in 2006 and the Alaska Aces (ECHL) in 2007.
During that season with the Aces, Neilson got called up to the AHL to play for the Peoria Rivermen. He stayed with the Rivermen the following season, then went on to play with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2009. Neilson played 38 games for the Bulldogs, scoring one goal and two assists. After bouncing between a couple of other AHL teams, he found a home with the Syracuse Crunch in 2012 where he became a fan-favorite and team mainstay for three seasons.
Making trips to St. John’s with the Crunch prompted a new dream for Neilson to chase: playing hockey in Newfoundland. “Every time we came into St. John’s it just felt like home to me,” said the Fredericton, NB native. “Being from the Maritimes, being from Atlantic Canada, I love the feel. I love the people.”
It didn’t take long for that dream to become reality. Early in the 2015-16 season, Neilson was signed to a PTO by the IceCaps after being sent down to the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs. The IceCaps Hockey Report team interviewed Eric after a road trip game against the Hershey Bears not long afterward – watch the video HERE.
From what we observed, it was apparent that Neilson not only made an impact on the ice, but also left a remarkable impression on his teammates, coaches, and surrounding staff members off the ice. He says evolving into an upbeat team player was never an intentional choice, but rather a product of learning how to prove himself to new teammates ever since his days in junior. “I learned the importance of being a good teammate and the communication wasn’t there, so you had to show other ways to express the way you’re gonna bring what you do for the team.”
For Neilson, getting the opportunity to play for the IceCaps, even if only for a few months, was everything he hoped it would be. “I was so fortunate and so blessed to be able to go back and actually
fulfill my dream of playing there,” he said sincerely. “The people that I met there – Danny Williams and Glenn Stanford and the organization and the ownership, right down through the whole kit and caboodle, the staff. It’s just something special.”
On January 16, 2016, just one month after signing Neilson to his second PTO, the IceCaps released him early after the Montreal Canadiens traded Jarred Tinordi and Stefan Fournier to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Victor Bartley and John Scott. Neilson returned to the Manchester Monarchs who then traded him a few days later to the Missouri Mavericks for future considerations.
Now, he says, getting so much ice time in the ECHL allows Neilson to play more confidently and doesn’t require him to adjust his style of play. “It’s a little bit slower than the American league, gives me a little bit more time to make a play with the puck or to react.”
In fact, Neilson has already lit the lamp twice for the Mavericks this season. He laughed while recalling his first goal which came in his second game with Missouri. “The puck was a rebound, I fanned on it. The goalie made another save, I got the puck back again and I just fanned on it, actually, for the second time but this time it fooled the goalie, trickled through his legs and it was almost like it was a soft putt coming into the hole. It just barely crossed the goal line.”
Within the past couple of years, Neilson has realized that his hockey-playing goals have changed as he’s gotten older. In a serious moment, he says he’s accepted that it’s possible he might not reach his “ultimate goal” of playing in the NHL but believes his role now serves a very important purpose.
“Now, for me, the goal and the motivation to come to the rink now is just to pass on what I’ve learned the last 10 years of my professional career to possibly a rookie or a second-year guy. A younger kid who’s coming up through.”
He fondly recalls former teammates as an example. “The smile on my face when I see a guy like Morgan Ellis get called up for the first time or when Dustin Tokarski got called up with Tampa Bay. …Young guys that I’ve played with.”
For a seasoned veteran like Nielson, it’s moments like that which make all of the sacrifice and hard work worthwhile. “I try to be a motivator and be a positive influence, have a positive attitude, and come to the rink every day with a smile on my face.”