Everything has a label; whether it be a can of corn, a bottle of soda, or the hood of your car. Every person has an identity; a name, a social status, a social media profile. Yet, it’s what is in the can, the bottle, under the hood, or behind the identity that proves more valuable. Hockey players are labeled too and it would be easy to label him as an “enforcer” or a “fighter”, but when the cold steel of Eric Neilson’s skates meet the ice, the only label appropriate is “Hard worker”.
When you come from a small community on the Atlantic Ocean where if the temperature was at freezing it would be considered a warm day, skating becomes a mode of transportation as much as a sport. To be a big kid from that small community makes hockey your sport of choice. The story of Eric Neilson is a long journey that began by moving away from his family at the age of 17 to play junior hockey with Rimouski Oceanic, to where he is now with the Missouri Mavericks. There have been numerous stops along the way with each of them bringing about new teammates, new coaches, and new fans as the long-haired and bearded Tarzan brings his unique style of play to the ice.
A seven year veteran of the American Hockey League, Neilson brings the unteachable gift of being labeled a “Locker Room Guy.” An engaging individual, Neilson embraces the family atmosphere of the locker room and as the veteran of the Mavericks locker room, he is the mentor to these young players looking for their shot in the years to come. When asked if this Mavs team reminds him of any of his previous stops, he immediately recalls his American Hockey League championship team of 2012. “My best year professionally was with the Norfolk Admirals when we won the Calder Cup in 2012. You can definitely see some similarities between that team and this team. Defining teams are games like tonight (a 2-1 comeback OT victory against Evansville in which the Mavericks scored with only 18 seconds left in regulation to tie the game) when we’re down with less than a minute and we can score and get the win. We have character and the group in that locker room to be able to do that; we proved it tonight. It takes a special group to win championships at any level and the management has done a great job of bringing the right group of guys in here and I feel really strongly that we’ve got something special here.”
It’s easy to see the fire, passion and desire in Neilson’s eyes as he talks about his brothers in orange and the undeniable chemistry in the Mavs locker room. That passion and his personality hearkens the label of “Fan Favorite;” which was clearly evidenced when he scored his first Mavericks goal and immediately pulled on the emblem on the front of the jersey instead of concerning himself with the nameplate on the back. In a culture defined by “me,” the grizzled veteran is much more obsessed with “us.” In a blue collar town like Kansas City, that mentality will ignite a passionate fan base and bolster one’s fame (see the 2015 Kansas City Royals for reference). He goes on to say, “I’ve been blessed to play in the minors. In the NHL compared to the minor hockey programs, you just don’t get the interaction with the fans and I love that. I love to meet people in the city I’m living; to get to hear their story, why they love hockey. I always say this, but fans could spend their money on anything, but they choose to spend their money to come watch us play. So, my gratitude for that is through the roof. I can’t fathom that they would do that.”
A man with many amicable gifts would obviously need the label of “Game Changer.” Neilson brings a physical play that Mavericks fans were very familiar with in the old Central Hockey League days, but may have assumed were gone with the move to the much more finesse style of play in the ECHL. However, when you look at great teams at any level they all have a player that can change the atmosphere instantly. The man that Neilson credits as being one of his best friends, Sidney Crosby, can change it with an electrifying goal. But, nothing in hockey can change the atmosphere quicker than two bearded combatants dropping the gloves and having a scrap. For Eric Neilson, it is a gift of knowing when and where to participate in such activities that has made him a legend at each stop of his journey. It has never been something he had to do, but when it’s something you enjoy, how can you pass up the opportunity to swing momentum in your favor? First and foremost though, he is looking out for those around him and protecting his teammates. Again, team first, me second (I’m sensing a theme there).
There are unwritten rules and a code when doing these sorts of things and Neilson is well-versed in those rules. Need a pick me up for your team? Ask the other team’s tough guy to give you one. Someday, you’ll have the chance to return the favor, but for now it’s a flurry of fists and hair until separated. I tried to get in the head of a fighter as I sat down with Neilson, but in his words, “It’ll be awfully hard to get in this brain.” However, when asked about what goes through his mind as a fight begins, I found it interesting when he responded with, “In my best fights I would actually black out and not know what was happening. I would have to go back and watch the fight afterwards. I would just not think about it and go into a different place and give it my all until one of us fell down.” Once again, team first.
As Neilson answers my questions it becomes easier to see that this is a guy that loves every minute of his life right now. In a league where everyone seems to be trying to make it to the next level, he knows exactly where he is in his career and he knows that this won’t be his lifestyle forever. But, it is obvious he still has a ton to offer his teammates and fans that will take the time to listen to the knowledge he desperately wants to share. Need to teach your youth team about the value of hard work? Introduce them to Eric Neilson. “When I was playing mites hockey, my cousin who was a goaltender and the reason I got into hockey, used to come help with practices. He would put a bottle of Gatorade on the dash of the vehicle and I knew it was there. It was a 15 to 20 minute drive from the rink to the house and depending on how hard I worked at practice determined whether I could have the Gatorade and get rewarded. If not, I had to look at that ice cold Gatorade on the dash, but it instilled in me that hard work is going to get you to where you want to be.”
At 31 years old, Neilson knows that his time is coming to a close. With the exception of Jaromir Jagr, hockey is a young man’s sport. As a guy who sees himself settling down with a wife and kids in the next five years, it would be easy to think that a man who has given so much to hockey would sit back and let hockey give back to him. But, for a passionate person sometimes a clean break is needed and that is exactly what Neilson intends to do when his playing days are behind him. The weekends away and all the sacrifices that have been made over the years will repay him with weekends hunting and doing the things he has put aside over the last 10 years. Neilson will leave the hockey world in a few years still championing two ideas though: work ethic and attention to detail. As an educator, I can tell you that these two thoughts will not only carry Eric Neilson far in life, but they could carry us all far in life. And for that, I label Eric Neilson… “Inspirational”