To some, AHL enforcer and selfless dedication to community programs don’t belong in the same sentence. To Syracuse Crunch’s (AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lighting), Eric Neilson, it is all in a day’s work. Recently Neilson was named the team’s recipient of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the Syracuse community during the 2014-15 season. Receiving this honor is not unknown to Neilson as he has been Syracuse’s man of the year the last three seasons, and honored seven times in his career for his respective team. For the 2013-14 season, he won the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award for his commitment to community programs in Central New York. Recently I had the chance to catch up with Neilson and reflect on why connecting with the communities that he has lived in has been important to him, the legacy he hopes to leave and what has stood out to him through the years.
Being involved in the community where Neilson is spending his hockey season in is important to him since that is where he is living the majority of the year. “I’m from Fredericton, New Brunswick, (Canada), a small east coast town. I’ve been away from home since I was 16 (years old), and I’ve found myself living in other places and I gotta get to know where I live. I’m a small town guy, so its important to me to get to know the city that I live in.”
A favorite amongst Syracuse Crunch fans since 2012-13, his first season spent in Central New York, Neilson is happy to call Syracuse his second home. It’s been important to become comfortable with the community he is living in and to get out and learn his surroundings. “I’ve got to know Syracuse the past three years very well. There are a lot of great people here and it’s a beautiful city”.
Neilson’s efforts in the community have had a strong focus around children. Though 30-years-old, his playful personality has always forged a strong connection with kids. There are several moments that have stood out to him through the years of his community service, however a notable one to Neilson took place last season when he launched his “Breakfast with a Champion” program in local schools. The program designed, developed and executed by Neilson, was his initiative to teach elementary school students the importance of nutrition and healthy eating. “The satisfaction when I left there (the elementary school), the smiles on the kids’ faces. That really touched me. That was something special”.
This season along with Syracuse Crunch captain Mike Angelidis, Neilson helped launch “Change for Change,” a non-profit initiative that aims to raise money for pediatric cancer research. The team has been collecting spare change from fans and donating all proceeds to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital. Neilson and his teammates were touched last season when they met 7-year old Griffin Engle, who was fighting Glioblastoma Multiforme, a rare type of brain cancer. Griffin ultimately lost his fight to cancer last summer and Neilson and his teammates looked for a way to honor him and to help make a difference for the future, which they did with “Change for Change.”
Neilson has spent time in the AHL for the past eight seasons. Educating children in his communities through the years and acting as the Syracuse Crunch’s primary speaker at the team’s anti-bullying events, he notes that the increased use of social media for kids is something that stands out to him. “I go to classes now, kindergarten through grade-6 kids, and ask for a show of hands who has a cell phone. Ninety percent of them are sticking their hands up. That’s the thing that stands out in my mind, is how social media affects younger kids and how its a part of their everyday lives. Kids are introduced to cell phones and computers and the world wide web at such a young age.”
As an exempt veteran by AHL standards, Neilson is part of the Syracuse Crunch’s core leadership group and it’s important to him that he has had a positive effect on some of the new generation of players coming through the ranks. “When I retire, I just hope that there is a rookie or a kid that I played with that saw how I treated and interacted with fans. I want to show that these people (fans in the AHL), the 5,000 that come every night, they spend their hard earned money to come watch us play. I want them to understand that and appreciate that they (the fans) are taking their time and their hard earned money to come watch us perform. It’s important that they take the time to sign an autograph, give a kid a high-five, shake a hand, give a hug – just little things like that. When I’m done playing I hope that some of the kids see what I do and act on that”.
Looking back on his professional hockey career and what he plans to take away from it, Neilson has advice that can be used across any genre. “Team. Nothing gets accomplished if you work by yourself. I’ve learned that together we’re better. As a group, as an individual, that’s what I understand. I know that when you have somebody who has your back and you’ve got their back, that creates success. We proved that in Norfolk (with the Norfolk Admirals) and won a championship (Calder Cup Champions 2011-12) and I’ve learned a lot from that”. Neilson and his teammates on the Syracuse Crunch will be putting this mantra to work as they head into round one of the Calder Cup Playoffs this weekend in Wilkes-Barre Scranton.
Eric Neilson and the Syracuse Crunch are still collecting donations for their “Change for Change” initiative to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. It may sound like a big goal…but it all starts with just a little change. You can help at www.gofundme.com/SyrChangeForChange