Eric Boulton is the lone survivor of his draft class and among the last of a dying breed. For more than two decades, he has done everything to impress his teammates -- from fighting heavyweights to eating raw potatoes.
The stories are flowing now, and Chris Thorburn is really rolling. The Winnipeg right winger’s voice is rising, picking up pace, cresting every dozen-odd seconds with a hearty chuckle. In places, he sighs in disbelief, a wonder in his voice. The laughter is as genuine as it gets.
Thorburn is talking about Eric Boulton, sharing tales of his former linemate in Atlanta, the bruising enforcer who has carved for himself an unlikely pro career that’s stretched 20 years and counting. Boulton, 40, has crossed paths with all manner of players and coaches during his time in the Rangers, Sabres, Thrashers, Devils and now Islanders organizations, even skating on the same line as Wayne Gretzky in an intrasquad game during one of The Great One’s pre-seasons in New York. But none speak of the pugilist’s goofy side with more reverence than old teammate Thorburn.
He takes us on a trip to Philadelphia, back in Thorburn’s Thrashers days on the road with Boulton in the late 2000s. They’re at a steakhouse, a fancy one with the boys from Atlanta, and the game is called Stupid Money. Its rules are easy to follow – pick a dare, however bold or ill-advised, and whoever has the stones to go ahead with it wins a bit of cash. Boulton is up, and he’s got a good one. On the table in front of the players is a display of spud potatoes. They’re raw, meant only for decoration, but Boulton has an idea. He spies a big one, 12 inches long or so, and turns to his teammates. How much, he’d like to know, if I eat it?
“ ‘Bolty,’ ” Thorburn pleads. “That thing’s not even washed. Who knows how long it’s been sitting there?”
Boulton is unfazed.
“How much?” he repeats.
Thorburn, a little beside himself, confers with his teammates. They come up with a dollar figure pooled from their per diem cash, the exact number now lost to Thorburn, but, he recalls, “It wasn’t a small amount, because there’s no way (we thought) this guy is going to eat a foot-long potato that’s been in the basket forever.”
With his prize confirmed, Boulton goes to work. In front of his stunned dining party, the six-foot, 227-pound left winger, who once earned his stripes in the NHL by engaging Bob Probert on the ice and giving the legendary grappler more punches than he could handle, wolfs down the entire potato. Only then does he really start to show off.
“And then,” Thorburn remembers, “he ate his 40 oz. ribeye.”
It was classic Boulton, and what else can Thorburn do but crack up at the memory? “I got stories of Bolty,” he confirms. “I could write a book on him.”
Eric Boulton scrapping with Chris Neil.Image by: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Long and winding though it may have been, there seems to be one uniform truth to the career of Eric Boulton. For as brutal a fighter as he is on the ice, he is as treasured a teammate as you’re likely to find off it.
Boulton was born in Halifax, in 1976, reaching the NHL via the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. He was picked by the Rangers 234th overall in the 1994 draft, one selection after Steve Sullivan, and if that seems like a long time ago, here’s why: Boulton, who wouldn’t make his NHL debut until many years later, is the last remaining player from his draft class still on a big league contract. Ed Jovanovski, that year’s No. 1 pick? Retired in 2014. Ryan Smyth, taken at No. 6? Out of the league in ’14, too. Eleventh overall pick Jeff Friesen had a pretty good career that lasted 893 games and produced 516 points. He’s been out of the NHL almost a decade. No matter how unlikely it seemed then to pro hockey evaluators, only Boulton remains.
Over his first four pro seasons, he cut his teeth with seven teams in the minor leagues, proving his mettle, fighting the toughest guys in the ECHL, International League and AHL. Then in 1999, Buffalo signed him, and Boulton finally reached the NHL in 2000.
At 24, he was old for a rookie then, but still young for a man, and what better way than a tussle with Probert during an exhibition game against the Blackhawks to show his new coaches and teammates what he was about?
“I actually did well against him,” says Boulton, who fought him to a draw for nearly two minutes before the late Probert collapsed underneath Boulton to the ice.
“I proved I can step up and handle myself in this league.”
What followed was a journey through pro hockey that is common among enforcers. Boulton bounced to a few different teams, was among league leaders in penalty minutes a few seasons (top 10 in 2002-03 and 2008-09), played sparingly, and clashed fists when he did. But Boulton’s career is different for how long it has continued, among the longest runs for a so-called fighter in NHL history, even longer than that of Probert, who retired at 36.
Boulton himself never thought he’d get here.
“My goal was to play till I was 34. Then 36. Then 38. Then I thought, I might as well try till I’m 40,” he says. “You can never go back, so you might as well try to play till your legs fall off.”
His stats, especially in recent seasons, have never turned heads (31 goals and 79 points in 654 games). And yet teams keep bringing him back, signing him for one more year, as the Isles did last July, despite Boulton only playing six games for them the previous season. The reason is clear: his value extends beyond what he can bring when his stick hits the ice.
No matter if he is asked to play every 10 games or every 20, he has learned to keep a level head, to be there for his teammates, to mentor younger guys as Adam Graves and Dave Andreychuk once did for him. That he is a famous jokester – gobbling up pineapple skins, or straight-razoring his head bald during other notorious stunts on the road – only adds to his appeal as a dressing room hero.
“Over a long season, the grind can get pretty tough,” Thorburn says. “Bolty always had a way to lighten the mood, make it fun to go to the rink.”
Boulton knows he cannot play forever, and perhaps this season will be his last (in October, the Islanders assigned him to the AHL). Whether he turns to coaching, or joins the media, or simply retreats to a quiet life with his wife, Ryan, and their four young children upon retirement, he is sure to remain the same old beloved Bolty.
The usual suspects -- Bergeron, Kopitar, and Toews -- appear to be out of the discussion for the Selke Trophy. Here are five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
When it comes to handing out hardware at the NHL Awards, the Selke hasn't been all that tough to figure out in recent seasons. For the last five years, the same three players have dominated the voting. Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews have accounted for all five wins, as well as eleven of the fifteen finalist spots.
But this year is shaping up like it could be different, with all three players slumping offensively. Maybe that shouldn't matter, since the Selke is supposed to be a defensive award. But over the years, it's morphed into a trophy that recognizes two-way play, which means you need to be scoring to get much consideration. If you pro-rate the lockout year, nobody has won the Selke with fewer than 55 points in the salary cap era. None of the Big Three are on pace to get there this year.
With half a season left to play, that could still change. And it's always possible that in the absence of a slam dunk candidate emerging somewhere else, voters could opt to play it safe and go back to one of the old familiars. But for the first time in years, the Selke really does seem up for grabs.
So who has a shot? Assuming that Bergeron, Toews or Kopitar don't take the trophy home this time, here are the five names that seem to have the best chance at stepping in.
Ryan Kesler, Ducks
The case for: The veteran is having his best season since 2011, and is on pace for about 65 points while playing tough minutes for a first-place Ducks team. His advanced stats won't blow anyone away, but they're good enough that the analytics guys shouldn't push back too hard, and everyone loves a good comeback narrative.
The case against: While it wouldn't be held against him by voters, Kesler doesn't really fit our "new blood" theme; he was the last player to win the award before the Bergeron/Toews/Kopitar trinity took over, and he finished third in the voting last year.
More importantly, there's at least an argument to be made that linemate Andrew Cogliano deserves the award, too. If that line of thinking catches on, the two could end up splitting votes and knocking each other out of the running.
Mikko Koivu, Wild
The case for: While it's meant as a single-season award, voters tend to like to treat the Selke as more of a career achievement; it's rare for somebody to win the award without having built up a resume over the years. That works in Koivu's favor, as he's been considered a strong defensive forward for a decade now, finishing as high as fourth in the Selke voting back in 2009. He hasn't come especially close since, but he's had votes every year.
New coach Bruce Boudreau has leaned heavily on Koivu in the defensive zone, and his ability to handle the duties has been a big part of Minnesota's unexpected success. With the Wild emerging as one of the one of the year's best surprises, voters will be paying attention.
The case against: Koivu's all-around numbers are good but not great, and he's benefitting from a sky-high on-ice save percentage and PDO that's unlikely to continue. With Devan Dubnyk looking like the Vezina favorite and Boudreau having a shot at the Jack Adams, voters might figure that their ballots are already getting crowded with Wild names.
The case for: Backlund seems to have emerged as a trendy dark horse pick in recent weeks. It's well-deserved: his numbers are excellent, and he's posting them in tough minutes for a young Flames team that asks a lot of him. His offensive numbers aren't jaw-dropping, but he's leading the team in scoring, and that should be enough to satisfy those "two-way" demands if he can keep it up.
The case against: While Backlund's been an underrated defensive player for a while now, he's never received a Selke vote. Again, you can argue that that shouldn't matter, but history has shown that it does. That could make it tough for him to get enough votes to win outright.
Aleksander Barkov, Panthers
The case for: At 21, Barkov would fit the new blood narrative perfectly. And he's already on voters' radars after finishing sixth in last year's balloting. He checks most of the boxes that voters tend to look for, posting solid offensive stats and strong possession numbers. And in a season where the biggest story has been the emergence of the next generation of star players, you could see the voters turning to one of the best young two-way forwards in the game.
The case against: Barkov is hurt right now and has already missed two weeks, so if he's not back soon he probably falls out of the running. He's also been playing a more offensive role this year under new coach Tom Rowe, which may be good for the Panthers, but probably not for his Selke chances. And given how things are turning out in Florida this year, voters may not be interested in having many Panther names on their ballot.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals
The case for: If building up enough support to win the award is a long-term process, this could be your guy. Backstrom generated plenty of Selke buzz last year, but finished just outside the top ten for the second straight year. It helps that he's putting up the sort of big offensive number that voters like to see. And after years of largely playing in Alex Ovechkin's shadow, he seems to be settling in as one of those guys that everyone in the hockey world decides has been underrated for too long. What better way to make it up to him than with some awards ballot love?
The case against: In terms of pure numbers, you could make a good case that Backstrom's defensive game was better last year than it is now. That won't necessarily hurt him with voters who feel like he's finally due, but it could keep him from getting the kind of widespread groundswell of support that would help push him past a strong candidate like Kesler.
Honorable mentions (and why they won't win):
- Brad Marchand (Bruins): He's getting some buzz, and has earned votes in the past. But has he really become a better option than Bergeron right now? And if not, how can you win the Selke when you're not the best defensive forward on your own team?
- Nazem Kadri (Maple Leafs): He's a relatively new candidate who'll face the same uphill climb as Backlund, with the added disadvantage that plenty of people don't seem to like him.
- Sidney Crosby (Penguins): He's been underrated in his own end for years, and you could see him getting some consolation ballots if voters decided to break for Connor McDavid for the Hart. But right now, the Crosby focus is still on the MVP race.
- Joe Thornton (Sharks): He gets votes every year and finally had his first top five finish last season, so the timing seems right. But his offensive numbers are down this year.
- Ryan O'Reilly (Sabres): He's been in the mix before. But the Sabres' disappointing season may doom him; there's never been a first-time Selke winner from a team that didn't make the playoffs.
- Jordan Staal (Hurricanes): He'd face the same hurdle as O'Reilly if the Hurricanes miss the playoffs, although these days that seem less and less likely. He may have the best case of anyone in this section.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
In applications to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, the CHL describes itself as "professional." That might prove crucial in deciding if a class-action lawsuit can proceed.
When the Canadian Hockey League tries to convince the courts that its players are amateur athletes and not paid professionals, and therefore don’t deserve minimum wage, it may want to consult its own application for trademark with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.
First, the news. None of this will be decided for another couple of weeks, Feb. 7 to be exact. That’s the day a Calgary judge will make a couple of crucial decisions. The first one will be whether the CHL will be granted a sealing order over all financial records, some of which the CHL made public media last week. The hearing for that was supposed to be held Tuesday, but has been pushed to Feb. 7, the same day the judge will decided if the plaintiffs have grounds to proceed with a class-action lawsuit.
Now, the context. The crucial question here is whether junior hockey players are amateurs or pros. Part of that answer might be contained in the CHL’s trademark application to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, a document that is being used as part of another lawsuit in which the CHL is involved involving a trademark issue. The trademark was last renewed in 2014.
Here’s a list of all the goods to which the CHL applied to be able to trademark: Coffee mugs, shot glasses, drinking glasses, flat glass, water bottles, bubble gum, bubble gum cards, trading cards, hockey cards, buttons, caps, hats, gloves, hockey pucks, sponge pucks, picture pucks, jackets, mitts, pennants, scarves, shirts, jerseys, sleep wear, stickers, bumper stickers, toques, vests, running shoes, jean shirts, t-shirts, neon t-shirts, shirts, muscle shirts, crew neck shirts, cut off sleeve shirts, sweat pants, sweat shorts, bunny jackets, v-neck sweaters, shorts, hockey t-shirts, sweaters, pants, jackets, tank tops, badges, sew-on crests, stick-on crests, hockey sticks, goalie sticks, hockey uniforms, hockey jerseys, hockey pants, hockey gloves, socks, dolls, toy figures, cardboard collector board, board games, opera glasses (binoculars), sunglasses, paper weight holders, cartoon comic books, magazines, greeting cards, autograph sets, lithographs, posters, sports bags, wallets, rod hockey games, towels, adhesive bandages, first aid kits, bulletin boards, calculators, clocks, lamp shades, calendars, embroidered picture frames, magnets, neck warmers, oil dip stick cleaners, playing cards, stained glass window ornaments, sun visor radios, sweat bands, vinyl stickers, wood plaques, wristbands, infants’ and children’s short sets, leisure suits, shots, sweat shirts, turtlenecks, belts, buckles, coasters, ear muffs, flags, inexpensive jewelry, namely lapel pins, stick pins, pendants, charms, earrings, rings, tie racks, cuff links, leather bracelets, key fobs/key chains, foam fingers, noise makers, place mats, towels, watches, phone cards, hip pouches, knapsacks, license plate frames, miniature bells, money clips, spoons, pens, pencils, bottle cap openers, soap (namely deodorant soap, skin soap, toilet soap and liquid soaps for hand, face and body), game of hockey played with cards, radio earphones, videos, video games, arcade and pinball machines, snack foods (namely ice cream, hot dogs, soft drinks, hamburgers, candy and popcorn).
Wow, that’s thorough. Because you never know when every man in the world is going to lose his mind and begin using leisure suits as a fashion statement. As thorough as it was, though, under the Services portion of the application, the CHL is responsible for, “(1) Operation of a hockey league and entertainment services through participation in professional and amateur ice hockey contests, and promotion and benefit thereof…”
Hmmm. Professional and amateur ice hockey contests? Not exactly sure what that means, but you’d have to think the word professional gives you an idea of what the CHL thinks of its players. I mean, the word is right there, isn’t it? Professionals are not amateurs.
Another area that would go a long way to making a distinction would be whether or not the players receive earning statements such as T4 slips. Well, there’s where the picture gets murky. It seems players did receive them in the past, but in the past few years the standard player contract has been altered to reflect that players are being “reimbursed” or paid an “allowance” to offset their expenses of playing junior hockey. But according to one agent who is also a lawyer, the semantics might not matter.
“This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised,” said Anton Thun, who has represented OHL players for about 25 years. “The definition is something that is relevant, but I would say it would go by however it would be defined by the Employee Standards Act. And part of the problem is, the employment laws might be different if you play for the Erie Otters or the Flint Firebirds than they would be if you play in Ontario.”
The good thing is, there’s only two more weeks of sleeps before we might start getting some answers to these questions.
Thomas Vanek is having a career resurgence in Detroit and as a free agent in July, he could be an attractive option for contenders looking for forward depth.
Left winger Thomas Vanek was a hot property in 2013-14. In a significant (and nowadays, rare) early-season trade, he was shipped on Oct. 29, 2013 by the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders. At the March 5, 2014 trade deadline, Vanek was dealt by the Islanders to the Montreal Canadiens.
Vanek's stock has tumbled since then. Following two disappointing seasons with the Minnesota Wild, he was bought out of his contract last summer and inked a one-year, $2.6-million deal with the Detroit Red Wings.
With the Red Wings falling further out of playoff contention this season, Ted Kulfan of The Detroit Newsspeculates they could become sellers by the March 1 trade deadline. He believes Vanek could once again attract interest in the trade market.
Despite missing 11 games earlier this season with hip and groin injuries, the 32-year-old is putting up good offensive numbers. With 12 goals and 30 points in 33 games, he's on pace for 25 goals and 65 points. The last time he saw those numbers was during his well-travelled 2013-14 campaign.
Vanek does have a reputation for inconsistency, especially in the post-season. But with his solid play thus far, his affordable contract and eligibility for unrestricted free agency in July, he could be an affordable rental player for teams seeking scoring depth at the deadline.
If the Wings decide to put Vanek on the trade block, perhaps the Ottawa Senators will express some interest. The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch reported last Thursday that Senators GM Pierre Dorion continues his search for forward depth. He's seeking someone who can have an immediate impact under coach Guy Boucher.
Dorion's finding the pickings slim so far in the trade market. Garrioch claims only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche can be considered sellers right now.
While Dorion said he's not fussy over the type of forward he gets, a scoring left winger likely tops his list. The Sens are among the bottom third in goals-for per game (2.49). That lack of production is jeopardizing their chances of securing a playoff berth.
TSN's Frank Seravalli believes the Senators lack sufficient assets to land a top-line left winger. He speculates once-promising forwards Curtis Lazar and Nick Paul could be trade bait. With this year's draft considered a shallow one for talent, Seravalli wonders if Dorion might consider shopping his first-round pick.
Oft-concussed left winger Clarke MacArthur is expected to return to the Senators' lineup by the end of January. He could provide them with an offensive boost, though concerns over his health will linger over the rest of the season.
COULD JETS SHOP A GOALIE?
The Winnipeg Jets are once again struggling to remain in playoff contention in the Western Conference. Goaltending continues to be their Achilles heel. The tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson have allowed 3.06 goals-against per game, ranking among the league's worst.
Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos observes the Jets current goalie setup isn't working. On Tuesday, they recalled former starter Ondrej Pavelec from their AHL affiliate. Kypreos speculates they could move Hutchinson. He said the San Jose Sharks had some interest in the 26-year-old earlier this season.
The Sharks, however, seem to be making do thus far with Aaron Dell as their backup. He's won four of his six starts, with a 1.96 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Hutchinson may have more experience than Dell, but his performance this season (4-10-3 record, 3.23 GAA, .894 SP) won't tempt the Sharks.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).