By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
The darling of the 2004-05 ECHL season may have been Scott Gomez, but he wasn’t the only NHL player to come over during the lockout year.
After spending parts of his first three professional seasons in the ECHL on his way to an NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, Eric Boulton came back to the league after four seasons at the game’s highest level.
A ninth round draft pick of the New York Rangers in 1994, Boulton played in 97 games with the Charlotte Checkers between the 1996-97 and
1997-98 seasons, and an additional 26 games with the Florida Everblades in 1998-99 before graduating to the AHL full-time the following season as a member of the Sabres organization.
One of the league’s most-respected enforcers, Boulton played four seasons for the Sabres before joining the Columbia Inferno for the
2004-05 season. After a career year (23-16-39 in 48 games), Boulton signed with the Atlanta Thrashers, where he’s been ever since.
Boulton recently sat down with ECHL.com prior to a recent Thrashers-Islanders game and answered a few questions about his time in the league.
ECHL.com: After coming out of juniors, you split your first professional season with Binghamton in the AHL and Charlotte in the ECHL. What do you remember about that first pro year?
Eric Boulton: "I remember wanting to be sent to Charlotte from Binghamton. There were a lot of good players down there and we had a lot of guys under contract down there. I realized what pro hockey was all about when I was down there. I worked hard and I got back in a relatively short time. I had a couple more stints back down there throughout the years, I could have gave up when I was down there. But it was good hockey and I knew I was there was a chance if I kept working that I could get called back up, and things worked out."
ECHL.com: Did you ever think about giving up while you were down there?
Boulton: "No, I didn’t. I had good coaches down there, and we had good teams. I just kept working at it. I was lucky that I had a good agent that was working the phones for me constantly to get me called up. That was a big help."
ECHL.com: With so many players going straight to the NHL after the draft, there’s no doubt that having to come through the ECHL to get there is taking the long road. Did that make it all the more gratifying to finally get there in 2003?
Boulton: "I think anyone who reaches their goals and dreams to play in the NHL…everyone’s thrilled to be here, but the hard road that I took, it feels a little more special, I think. I didn’t just walk on to a team, I had to earn every step that I took. It makes me a lot more thankful and makes me appreciate everything a lot more.
ECHL.com: You came back to the ECHL during the lockout year. How did that all come about?
Boulton: "My wife has family in South Carolina, in Lexington, and we had a little rental house down there. I wasn’t going to spend the winter in Buffalo, and I knew the season was pretty much over, so I went down there and called Scott White, the coach of the Columbia Inferno, and asked if I could play with them. He let me play with the team, and it turned out to be a great experience for me. I got a lot of ice time, put up a lot of points. We had a great team, so it was a lot of fun."
ECHL.com: Was it as easy as you made it look? Those were some numbers you put up…
Boulton: "(Laughs) No. The first seven games, I didn’t get a point.
I was getting kind of worried, like ‘Oh, what did I do here?’ But I kept with it and kind of figured out the game down there again. I got a lot of power play time from the coach, so that helped."
ECHL.com: Seems like the Thrashers are on the right track on the ice this season, but you guys have struggled from an attendance aspect.
The ECHL has some successful teams down south as you know, but how important is the team’s play to getting the fans back in Atlanta?
Boulton: "I think it’s very important. The fans are fed up with losing teams, and we’ve got a great chance to send a message here to our fans that we’re here to play and we’re going to take a good run at this thing this year. Hopefully the fans jump on board."