St. Stephen – A quick Google search for Eric Neilson will tell anyone that during his time in
professional hockey, he was an enforcer.
What’s interesting about the search – it also shows he’s come to be known
as a “soft-hearted enforcer”.
Neilson, 32, who was just hired as the St. Stephen Aces newest assistant coach, laughs about the tag, but agrees with it.
“I’ve always separated the two. Obviously the job on the ice is sticking up for your teammates, and having that physical presence, and doing the fighting and hitting and all that stuff, but away from the rink, you leave it there,” he explains matter-of-factly during a recent telephone interview.
“That’s your job. And then you just treat everyone with respect. I had really good parents growing up and they taught me pretty good morals, and how to treat other people, and I like to live my life like that.”
As a Fredericton native, Neilson comes to the Aces with a wealth of hockey experience. He spent four seasons with the Rimouski Océanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (from 2001 to 2005). In 2004, he was drafted 143rd overall by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings in the fifth round.
He made his pro debut with the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) in 2005, and went on to spend two seasons with the league (with the Bakersfield Condors and Long Beach Ice Dogs), and was called up to the American Hockey League (AHL) in his third season while playing for the Alaska Aces.
Neilson spent nine seasons with the AHL (with the Peoria Rivermen, Hamilton Bulldogs, San Antonio Rampage, Norfolk Admirals, Syracuse Crunch, and St. John’s Ice Caps).
In his time with the AHL, Neilson was nominated for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award six consecutive times, and received the honour in the 2013-2014 season while playing for the Syracuse Crunch. The award is bestowed upon a player who demonstrates involvement in the community.
“If I can put a smile on somebody else’s face, then I’m smiling on the inside and life is good” – Eric Neilson
“[It’s] an award that you don’t expect to get; what you’re rewarded for is stuff that you do that you don’t want acknowledgement for.
“Personally, I absolutely love getting out in the community, whether it be volunteering time for the food bank, or helping someone in need at the hospital, just doing all those great things.
“If I can put a smile on somebody else’s face, then I’m smiling on the inside and life is good. That’s a nice gesture, but you definitely don’t do that sort of thing for an award, but it was a very nice honour.”
In 2015, Neilson returned to the ECHL for one season. In 2016, Neilson moved to the U.K. to play for the Manchester Storm of the Elite Ice HockeyLeague where he acted as a player and assistant coach before making the decision to hang up his skates and make the move into the coaching world.
The decision was not an easy one, but something he had begun to think about, and unfortunately expedited after a garbage burning incident gone wrong this summer.
Neilson suffered second degree burns to his legs, hands, and forearms.
“That definitely led me to, ‘I can’t play hockey in a pro way now’, and the doctor said six months to full year recovery, so that helped my decision retiring.”
Neilson says Justin Bowers, Aces assistant coach, and assistant GM, reached out to him, after discussions with Josh Hepditch, the Aces former head coach.
“[Bowers] told me if I did retire, there’s a job open in St. Stephen. That was there, so that made the retiring, and hanging the skates up easier knowing that.
“I definitely thought long and hard about it, and came to the conclusion that it was time to step away from the playing, and open chapter two in the new coaching experience, and St. Stephen seemed like the perfect fit because it’s close to home. I’ve been away for 16 years, so I’ve always wanted to come back to New Brunswick and the Maritimes.”
Neilson tells of the “hard work and blood, sweat, and tears” he put in before being drafted to the L.A. Kings, but true to character, it’s something he downplays.
“I was never a skilled player, I just love the game. My parents…I don’t come from a hockey background. A lot of the kids you see now, they have dads who play, but I didn’t have that. I just love to play the game, I just love to be on the ice all the time,” Neilson says, his voice personifying a smile.
On a slight deviation, Neilson tells of his early days in the sport (he started playing organized hockey at the age of seven), playing novice as a youngster.
“I remember Mom telling me when I was in novice and young that I was the worst player on the ice, and she would cry she felt so bad for me,” Neilson jokes, provoking laughter.
“I was just this little boy who couldn’t stand up on his skates, but would come off the ice with the biggest smile on his face, but just loved it so much. That’s how I started, and through my career it was never a matter of skill, I always just made sure that I was always the hardest working guy.”
“If you come to the rink everyday and you’ve got work ethic and enthusiasm and you’ve got a smile on your face, you’re winning. You’re winning at life; you’re in pretty good shape.” – Eric Neilson
The nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic Neilson demonstrated throughout his career is something he says will translate to his new position, and something Aces fans can expect.
“It’s going to be a lot of prep first. Before we even hit the ice, we’re going to be going over systems, and I’m going to be taking a lot of what I’ve learned in my years in pro and bringing it to Phil [Richer, Aces head coach] and then letting him decide what he wants, and what he thinks will work best on the ice.
“The big thing for me with the guys that I expect out of them every day is going to be work ethic and enthusiasm. If you come to the rink everyday and you’ve got work ethic and enthusiasm and you’ve got a smile on your face, you’re winning. You’re winning at life; you’re in pretty good shape.”
John Hyslop, Aces president, says the organization is looking forward to his addition to the franchise.
“We’re very pleased that Eric is joining the organization. He’s got such a wealth of experience, along with his experience as an assistant coach, as well as a player.
“He’s got a great personality; but he brings more to the team than just being a coach,” Hyslop says, referencing his longtime community involvement.
From what Neilson says, he’s just as excited to join the franchise, and refers to last season’s success of the squad, making playoffs for the first time in the team’s young existence.
“Last year was a huge step forward in making the playoffs, now it’s up to me, Phil, and JB [Bowers] to raise the bar even more. We’re not happy to settle it there, we want to bring this franchise to winning a championship and in junior hockey that’s anywhere from four to five years building a team.
“Obviously with the changing of the guards it’s going to change things a little bit, but there’s no reason why we can’t be a contender team here in the next two to three years,” Neilson says.
“I’m super, super thrilled and grateful that St. Stephen’s going to give me the opportunity and I’m really looking forward to getting things going in the next couple of weeks. I can’t wait to meet everybody and make St. Stephen my home for the year.”
The Aces training camp is slated to begin on Aug. 27. The squad is scheduled to host its first preseason game Sept. 1 in a tilt with the Woodstock Slammers.