Eric Boulton is a fighter. That seems like a pretty obvious fact to point out considering he has 119 NHL fights to his credit, but it's really a metaphor for his entire hockey career. Known mainly as an enforcer, Boulton has been challenging perceptions and proving critics wrong from the day he took up hockey at the unusually late age of eight-years-old in the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
|Boulton with his two sons, ages six and four, during the national anthem prior to the March 11 Thrashers home game. |
As a late starter, Boulton spent the early years of his youth hockey career moving from town to town and program to program as coaches overlooked him and cut him from competitive teams. After fighting smalltown hockey politics and perceptions for four years Boulton's father moved the family to the larger city of Halifax where 12-year-old Eric flourished and made every team he tried out. By the time he was 16 he was getting noticed by OHL scouts and in the summer of 1993 he was drafted by the Oshawa Generals. One summer later the New York Rangers saw enough in him to make Boulton their ninth-round draft pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft- quite the accomplishment for a late bloomer who was passed over by his youth hockey coaches.
Boulton had grown up idolizing Bob Probert, Wendell Clark, and Mark Messier- players who combined toughness with skill and played the game honestly- so it's no surprise that he did his best to incorporate those traits into his game. It was his penchant for dropping the gloves though that got him noticed by the Rangers .
"They liked me for the physical side of the hockey," said Boulton recently as he looked back on his career." That's pretty much all I did my first year of junior. I didn't play much and when I did the fisticuffs were a big part of my game, and they still are. But that's how I got noticed I think."
After spending two more years in the OHL playing junior hockey with both Oshawa and Sarnia where he piled up 17 goals and 53 points to go with 377 penalty minutes in a combined 90 games, Boulton began his pro career, and his path to the NHL reads like a travel guide of smalltown America.
"I got sent down my first year and played in the East Coast League in Charlotte and finished up the end of the year in Binghamton (NY) in the AHL," recalls Boulton. "I finished the playoffs strong so I was pretty confident going into the next year. That next year immediately in camp I got sent back down to Charlotte in the ECHL again. That was pretty frustrating. I didn't know what to do, but I ended up getting my release from the New York Rangers, so I went down to the East Coast as a free agent and played the year out in Charlotte. I got called over to Fort Wayne (in the IHL) where John Torchetti was the coach for seven games. Then the next year I got traded to Fort Myers and had a great opportunity to play there. I played a lot and got called up a few different places- Houston and Kentucky. I stuck with Kentucky, but it was definitely frustrating to keep going up and down. I was fortunate to have a great agent who was really working hard and calling teams every day to get me called up lots. The next year I ended up signing in Rochester (in the AHL)."
By then it was 1999, five years after Boulton had been drafted, and his NHL debut would still be a year away. Did he ever think about giving up during that time?
"It was definitely frustrating getting sent back down a lot," says Boulton. "But I kept working hard and kept getting called back up."
After playing a full season with the Rochester Americans in the 1999-2000 season where he earned four points and 276 penalty minutes in 76 games the minor-league veteran found himself in the Buffalo Sabres training camp playing preseason hockey. It was there, on September 20, 2000, that he first dropped the gloves with one of the legends of the game and a player he had looked up to growing up in Nova Scotia- Bob Probert. Boulton still looks back on that preseason fight as his all-time favorite and calls going toe-to-toe with the legendary enforcer one of the highlights of his career. It was a turning point for Boulton, who made the Sabres that season and hasn't played in the minors since (aside from when he voluntarily played for the ECHL's Columbia Inferno during the NHL lockout).
10 seasons and more than 540 NHL games later Boulton is still dropping the gloves on a regular basis as one of the League's most experienced and respected fighters. He also finds himself in elite company as one of just four players with over 500 NHL games played who has fought nine or more times this season (the others being Jody Shelley (Flyers), Jamal Meyers (Sharks) and Chris Neil (Senators)).
But despite all of the bruised knuckles and more than 2,000 penalty minutes amassed at the pro level (1136 in the NHL alone), the 34-year-old Boulton is more than a brawler. With the role of designated fighter becoming less and less common in the NHL Boulton has adapted and worked on his overall game to turn himself into a valuable everyday player.
"I think being able to skate and play in today's game is a big reason I'm still playing," Boulton says. "If you can't skate in this game you can't play. I take pride in working on my skating and being a strong skater and taking care of the details on the ice. Being sound defensively is the main thing. Being able to be relied on to be put out there."
His dedication to improving his overall game hasn't gone unnoticed by his teammates.
|Boulton poses with the pucks and hats from his first career hat trick, scored Dec. 18 vs the Devils. |
"The beginning of this season I heard he was tough- really tough," said Alex Burmistrov when asked about his frequent linemate. "I thought he was just a tough guy who fights a lot, but when I saw him play he was good. Seriously, he has good skills with his stick- he had a hat trick (on Dec. 18 versus the New Jersey Devils). And he skates fast. He's good at everything. He's an important player on the team- he can do everything. Maybe some people don't see it but he's a pretty skilled player."
Chris Thorburn agrees with the young rookie's assessment of Boulton's game.
"I've been playing with him for the last four years for the most part and he's a guy that can make plays and open up ice for his linemates. I enjoy playing with him and he's fun to have around."
"It's crazy if you watch him," Thorburn added. "He's one of the faster guys on the team and he's what? 40 years old? He came into the league dropping his gloves and nobody knew what kind of skill he had. Now the game has changed so much and he's been able to transform into an everyday player while still being able to stick up for his teammates. That's something the guys really appreciate. He's definitely a guy that's been around the block. He knows what it takes to survive in this league and he's done it the hard way. Some people label him as just being a fighter but he's a guy that brings a lot of character to the dressing room. You definitely miss that element of his game when he's not in the lineup."
Those times when he's not in the lineup have been frustrating for the Thrashers' all-time leader in penalty minutes, but less frequent later in his career as he has rounded out his game and proved himself to be an invaluable teammate.
"No one is happy not playing," says Boulton, who found himself a regular scratch early this season when the Thrashers seemed to have a surplus of third and fourth line players. "It was frustrating at the beginning of the year but I knew that if I did my job when I did get in the lineup I'd be okay. I just kept trying to work hard and keep a positive attitude and that's what happened."
That positive approach to the game has gotten Boulton to where he is today, and he has become a valued leader on a young Thrashers team because of it. Although he is known to pipe up in the locker room he thinks his actions speak louder than his words.
"Basically, I've tried to do it on the ice. I'm pretty vocal in the room but I try to go out there every shift and give it my all. I like to think I lead by example and do the right thing on the ice. I try to show up every night."
Learning how to do that isn't always an easy process for young NHL players, but Boulton had the opportunity to play with some of the most respected players in the game during his formative years as a professional, and they made an impression on him.
"There are lots of guys when you first start out that help you along the way. When I was in Rochester Doug Houda and Randy Cunneyworth were veterans there and they were great leaders. The next year I went to Buffalo and there was Rob Ray and Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk- guys you watch and learn from as you learn to be a good pro."
Now Boulton is trying to pass those lessons on to teammates while serving as an example of the way the game should be played.
The message is sinking in for young players like Burmistrov, who may look back on his time playing with Boulton the same way Boulton looks back on his time with Houda, Cunneyworth, Ray, Gilmour, and Andreychuk.
|Boulton strikes a familiar pose as he squares off with Boston's Shawn Thornton. |
"He thinks a lot," says Burmistrov of Boulton. "He knows how to play the game. He's always helping me, talking to me on the ice, telling me 'Go this way, go that way.' "
"I think he would be a good coach," adds the rookie. "In the dressing room all the time he keeps the guys going. He's like having another coach on the team."
That's high praise coming from the youngster who is closer in age to Boulton's two sons (who are six and four) than he is to Boulton himself.
Boulton could very well end up as a coach at some point, but for now he's focused on getting the job done as a player. As one of just two Thrashers (along with Jim Slater) who were on the team for the 2006-07 playoff appearance he remembers what it was like to have the city of Atlanta excited about playoff hockey and he hopes to experience it again with the Thrashers, even if the odds of it happening this season make that dream all but out of reach.
"It would be great for the city and great for the fans," he says. "Lots of people still talk about that. The year we made it, it was crazy. The rink was loud and pumping. It was a lot of fun. This city will definitely put the support behind the team when we win and that's what we're looking to do. We have to get that winning attitude here and keep it here for years to come."
A winning attitude when it comes to hockey in Atlanta? That would truly defy outside expectations, but Eric Boulton knows all about that. He's been defying them for his whole career.
Author: Ben Wright | Thrashers senior web site coordinator