By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Not too many Florida Everblades players have felt the intense heat and glare of a microscope quite like veteran defenseman Corey Neilson, who came over from Pensacola on Jan. 8 in a still often-discussed trade.
Whenever an organization gives up two quality young players like rookie forward Jonathan Lehun and rookie defenseman Nick Vukovic, it’s only natural that whoever the team gets in return is going to come under a high amount of scrutiny.
Neilson, 29, has handled it well but he’s definitely ready to move on and hopefully be accepted by Everblades fans as one of their own.
“I’ve turned the page and I’m here now,” said Neilson, who has faced his former team three times since the trade and will face them three more times before the regular season ends.
“I’m excited about winning a championship, practice is fun again and I’m so glad I’ve turned that page and got out of that situation. It was turning into just a sinking shape, so I’m excited about this new situation and I’m glad I’ve been a part of it.”
When Florida traveled to Pensacola for back-to-back games against the Ice Pilots on Feb. 10 and 11, it marked the first time Neilson was on the ice at the Pensacola Civic Center as a member of the visiting team. The Everblades swept the two games, 3-1 and 6-0.
Oddly enough, Neilson did not receive the expected round of boos, but rather he was treated to applause and some heartwarming signs from the Pensacola fans. This was the city in which he and his wife, Joanne, basically raised their two kids, 5-year-old Cade and 3-year-old Logan.
“I played three years there and I did a lot of work in the community, so I knew a lot of people there and made a decent name for myself,” Neilson said. “I was pretty thankful, and there were some signs up there saying, ‘Welcome Home.’
“There were a lot of cheers when my name was announced. I scored a goal in that second game and it was kind of funny, it was almost the first time you heard the audience all game. It’s one of those moments in hockey that you’re kind of proud to be a part of, especially to get that kind of reception inside a road rink.”
It didn’t hurt that Neilson can be held in higher regard on the surface since the trade because, unlike Lehun and Vukovic, he reported to his new team and stuck it out.
Lehun played two games for the Ice Pilots then left, was released and has been claimed off waivers twice, once by Phoenix and once by Stockton. The Thunder have him currently listed as being suspended. Vukovic never reported and had his rights traded to the Reading Royals, where he has played in eight games but has yet to score a point.
But Neilson is bonding with his new teammates now, and with 22 games left he hopes to advance further than he did last year with Pensacola.
The Ice Pilots got upset by Greenville in the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs after compiling the best record in the regular season, and this year he already has 11 points (5 goals, 6 assists) in 16 games with Florida.
“It’s surprisingly easy as a player here to blend in because you have so many guys surround you,” Neilson said. “In this kind of situation, you have teammates that see you working hard with them and for them and fighting for them at the same time. Now getting everyone to meet the wife and kids is the next logical step.”