AHL Man of the Year Eric Neilson a soft-hearted enforcer

The Hockey News
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By Jared Clinton

The first thing you notice when talking to Eric Neilson is his presence – his voice booms. It makes sense that a man who makes his living playing as an enforcer would convey his 6-foot-2, 200-plus-pound frame just with his tenor. But even with his voice filtering through a phone, you can hear his cheeks pulled up in a smile.

All of this is to say that Neilson, contrary to his tough guy persona, is a gentle giant off the ice. So it’s no surprise that he received the 2013-14 Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which is given to the American League player who best exemplifies the spirit of community service. Neilson has been nominated six consecutive years – one for each of his full seasons in the AHL – but what makes his accomplishment more incredible is that he’s played those campaigns in five different AHL cities.

“I like to go where I get an opportunity,” said Neilson, who has played the past two seasons with the Syracuse Crunch. “That’s always my goal. I’ve been a journeyman throughout my career. I always try to go where my greatest opportunity is. I’m 29, but my goal is to one day play in the NHL.”

He hasn’t quite made an impact in the NHL, but what he has achieved during his time in the AHL is just as special. Earning Man of the Year nods in six straight seasons is a welcome acknowledgement for Neilson, though it’s not about getting kudos.

“In the ECHL the first couple of years of my career, I came to the understanding that these people in the community are supporting my job,” Neilson said. “So if I can give back in any way – helping out with practices, going to a school – I did it. And it snowballed, and I got pure enjoyment out of doing it.”

Neilson’s community achievements make it clear he has a soft spot for helping children. It stems from when he was a kid growing up in Fredericton, N.B. His father always encouraged him to meet people and enjoy new experiences. Visits to his classes by community leaders from the police or the hockey team from the University of New Brunswick always struck a chord.

Just this season, he introduced “Breakfast With A Champion” for elementary school children in Syracuse, teaching kids the importance of nutrition. The idea, which took shape under Neilson’s watch, saw him spend his spare time shopping for kids and pitching the program to local schools.

It goes beyond just the breakfast program, though. He helped New York’s Upstate University Hospital raise concussion awareness, showing off his acting chops in a “Safe Kids” public service announcement.

When he wasn’t defending his teammates, he was travelling throughout Syracuse to speak to schools about bullying, asking everyone to look out for their peers. Everywhere his career has taken him, Neilson has made a point of making sure management knew he wanted to get out and help: In San Antonio, he worked with the food bank and took part in a program called “Face-Off Against Kids Cancer.” In Peoria, he waited tables for the Children’s Hospital of Illinois. While playing for the Admirals in Norfolk, Neilson visited a fan that had been hospitalized following a motorcycle accident. And in Hamilton, he traded in his Bulldogs jersey for an apron to serve up meals at a nearby soup kitchen.

In earning his first of what could be many Yanick Dupre Awards, Neilson is simply honored to give back to those who cheer him on, especially his young fans.

“I’m not going to reach everybody,” he said. “But if one or two kids get the same enjoyment out of it that I did, then it makes me pretty happy and satisfied with what I have accomplished.”

This feature originally appeared in the May 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.