Everyone has fond memories of watching Sid “The Kid” during his days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Sidney Crosby single handliy changed the landscape of hockey in this country and arguably the world.
The shy humble kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia filled every rink in the QMJHL for two seasons straight.
Ahead of Crosby’s number being retired by the Rimouski Oceanic during their twenty-fifth year anniversary celebrations and home opener this Friday night, it’s only fitting to reflect on #87’s incredible journey in the QMJHL.
After two full seasons in QMJHL as an enforcer with the Rimouski Oceanic, Eric Neilson had thought he had seen it all.
Before the start of the 2003-2004 season, the Oceanic front office asked the veteran forward if he was willing to live with and mentor a talented Maritime kid from Cole Harbour.
“I had no idea who Sidney Crosby was at that time.”
“I knew that he was suppose to be a great hockey player from Nova Scotia, and that he was suppose to be Drafted 1stoverall,” Neilson recalled.
“Right from the get go, he wasn’t anything special to me, he was a rookie and a Maritimer.”
“I was going to treat him like anybody else, and I wasn’t going to treat him any different,” stressed Neilson. The first night Crosby moved in with Neilson they talked for three hours. “We talked about everything like a bunch of teenage boys would,” remembered Neilson.
“We talked about girls and hockey, everything really, but at the end of the conversation that night right before we went to bed, he looked at me and said; ‘I’m going to be best hockey player in the world.’”
“I looked at him and said ok, good luck man.”
“I’m here to support you and help in anyway,” Neilson explained.
Neilson and Crosby’s friendship and bond runs deep to this very day.
“I consider Sidney to be my little brother and part of my family,” confessed Neilson.
“The level of care for one another, it all stems from back to the days in Rimouski, when he was sixteen and I was nineteen.”
“I don’t treat him like a superstar hockey player, I still chirp him about people asking him for his autograph, it’s like why do they want your autograph,” joked Neilson.
“It’s just a really cool relationship.”
Neilson would spend his entire junior career with the Rimouski Oceanic, and finished his career on top winning the President Cup Championship as an overager in 2004-2005. He amassed 58 points in 229 career games and finished his tour in the QMJHL with 917 PIMS.
Neilson was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in 5th Round 143rd overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.
From enforcer to big brother, Eric Neilson wasn’t just a prototypical tough guy, he was a leader, a mentor and above all a great teammate.
Neilson’s junior career had come to an end, however the dream to play professional hockey was within reach.
The Pro Game
From Lincoln, New Brunswick to Rimouski, Quebec, Eric Neilson always dreamed of playing professional hockey.
The enforcer’s dream came true in 2005-06 when he joined the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL.
The beloved enforcer and fan favourite would apply his craft in the East Coast Hockey League for three seasons before signing on with the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League.
‘I fought guys that played the majority of the careers in the ECHL and guys that fought in the NHL as well, I can tell you right now the guys are a lot tougher when you get up to the three letter leagues,” Neilson stated.
“I think the transition from major junior to the ECHL and the west coast where typically guys weren’t has tough as the east coast teams, they all had three or four tough guys at that point,” Neilson said.
Neilson made the transition to the pro game look seamless, however it didn’t come without sacrifice, dedication and hard work. “It’s like anything you see kids going from the ECHL, AHL and NHL, you just adapt, you learn and you make mistakes and hopefully as a fighter its not as much as turning the puck over right or getting knocked out,” joked Neilson.
Neilson made the jump to the AHL in 2007-2008 and would spend the following eight seasons there. “You just have to adapt and change, you take it as you go,” Neilson said of making the jump to the American Hockey League.
“Sooner than later you make to the American league, unfortunately I didn’t make it to the NHL, but even the jump from the ECHL to the AHL was a big one.”
“I don’t think you let yourself think about, oh these guys are bigger, tougher stronger, you know it, but you don’t address it, you just have to train and prepare that much harder knowing your competition is doing the same,” explained Neilson.
Neilson would play 165 games in the ECHL amassing 18 pts. and 447 PIMs. Neilson totalled 253 career AHL games amassing 14 pts. and 772 PIMs. Neilson won the Calder Cup with Norfolk Admirals in 2011-12Neilson was nominated six consecutive years for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which is given to the American League player who best exemplifies the spirit of community service. The Yanick Dupre Memorial Award is also known as the AHL’s Man of the Year Award, Neilson won the prestige award in 2014.
The beloved enforcer finished his career playing for the Manchester Storm of the EIHL in 2016-17.
The hard working kid from New Brunswick would finish his professional career with 451 games spanning twelve seasons.
You see through it all, Neilson, Crosby and many other Oceanic teammates have always stayed connected. Crosby’s inner circle of friends and Oceanic teammates has remained in tact all these years. With all the fame, all the notoriety, all the success and Stanley Cup Championships, Sidney Crosby still remembers who he is and has never lost sight on who his friends are as well.
What do you do when all you know is hockey?
After twelve professional seasons, Eric Neilson wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to hang up his skates and call it a career. “It was Canada Day week so I was thinking in my mind that ok, maybe this might be it,” said Neilson.
“My body wasn’t doing to great at that time, it wasn’t out of the question, I didn’t commit fully to hundred percent retiring.”
Neilson joined his family at their cottage in the northern part of New Brunswick for the long weekend. “I had mentioned it to my family at that time, that I was thinking about retiring and going on to chapter two, but I still had it in mind and I wasn’t totally convinced and I still had it my heart that I wanted to play professional hockey,” confessed Neilson.
The love and passion for the game was still in his heart and soul.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Everything can change in a blink of an eye. “I get choked up just thinking about it now, obviously it was pretty emotional part of my life,” said Neilson of the accident.
Neilson was burning some brush, the pile exploded; Neilson sustained second-degree burns to both shins, burns to his hands, forearms and face.
His family had left earlier in the day and Neilson stayed behind, all alone he managed to use his cell phone and call for help. He was rushed to a near by hospital in Edmundston.
A short time after the accident a lot of former teammates reached out to check on their beloved friend. “I was talking back and forth with Daryl (AKA Sidney Crosby, a nickname that Neilson gave the young phenom back in their junior days, which #87 hated), just asking him how he was doing and everything, he was asking those little tiny questions to see how I was doing that everything was lined up,” said Neilson.
The Sunday following the accident Erik Tremblay (AKA “Tremmer”) a former Rimouski Oceanic teammate told Neilson he was making the eight-hour trek to see his teammate and friend. “Tremmer texted me saying he was right outside, so there I am laying in my hospital bed and I see “Tremmer” and his big face coming in and right behind him, Daryl.”
“It just goes to show what kind of person he is,” Neilson said of Crosby.
“He’s so busy, he has a schedule like a rock star, he’s non-stop on the go, but for him to take the time and fly up and even spend the afternoon with me when I was down and not in good shape, it really meant a lot to me,” said an emotional Neilson.
“I just go back to the friendship and bond we had back in Rimouski, I think that just speaks volumes for it.”
When a player is all heart and soul, everyone rallies around them. Neilson had always had their backs, on and off the ice, it was time for them to step up and be there for friend and former teammate.
The bonds shared amongst players and teammates in the game are truly awe-inspiring.
From the long bus rides in the QMJHL, to talking about life and dreaming of playing pro hockey, Neilson and Crosby’s bond truly transcends the game.
As #87, is set to enter his 15th season in the National Hockey League, Eric Neilson’s journey in the game has ironically come full circle.
The former enforcer, leader and heart and soul of every team he’s ever played on is entering his second full season as an Asst. Coach with the rebuilding Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
Scouting the Next One
Long time educator and Rimouski Oceanic Scout Rick Melanson will never forget watching Sidney Crosby at fourteen-years-old in amazement.
“Sid was a second year Bantam, playing Midget AAA with the Dartmouth Subways, that’s where I saw him the most,” Melanson recalls.
“At fourteen, he was the best player by far in that league, it wasn’t even close, there wasn’t even a close second, he was the best.”
Melanson along with hordes of other scouts filled the rinks across the Maritimes to get a look at hockey’s future superstar.
At fifteen years old and during his QMJHL Draft year, Crosby elected to pursue his career south of the border at famed prep school Shattuck St. Mary’s.
Melanson would enviably see the hockey prodigy compete at the Canada Games that year being held in Bathurst, New Brunswick. It would be another memorable moment for Melanson.
“Even at the Canada Games that year Sidney was a year younger than everyone else.”
The age limit has since dropped at that competition to fifteen, but Melanson yet again was amazed at the Crosby’s skill, talent and relentless work ethic.
“I remember seeing Sid play a game against Ontario, their team was stacked with first round picks from the O.”
“Sidney was by far the best player on the ice during that game.”
“Don’t quote me on the numbers, but I think he got two goals and two assists that game. Nova Scotia lost that game 6 to 4, he was the best player on the ice.”
Melanson and the Rimouski Oceanic had seen enough.
At that time, there wasn’t a guarantee that Crosby would even commit to playing in the QMJHL and some uncertainty that the Oceanic would finish in last place overall.
“It wasn’t until our season was nearing the end and that we knew we were in last place that, so we knew we were going to have the first overall pick, because back then there wasn’t a lottery.”
“That’s when organization started working on him,” confessed Melanson.
“US College was a legitimate option for him, because he was already down there in Minnesota at the time.”
“It wasn’t a slam dunk that he was going to come to Rimouski or the Q in general.”
Uncertainty turned into Championship aspirations for the Rimouski Oceanic, Sidney Crosby chose the Q. The rest as they say is history.
Over the next two seasons Melanson would get to know Sidney Crosby on and off the ice.
Center of Attention
Given Melanson’s educational background in cooperative learning at the high school level, the veteran teacher, scout and coach would be in charge of the Oceanic star forwards education portfolio.
Crosby communicated with Melanson through correspondence and then at the end of the season #87 would come to Harrison Trimble High School to complete his high school exams, in turn becoming one of HTHS’ most famous graduates.
“People don’t understand that Sidney is the hardest working guy.”
“If I just talk about hockey skill, you know what he’s a really good player, a really smart player, you could see that at fourteen years old, but he just went about and did his business,” explained Melanson.
Melanson has a plethora of personal stories that over the years he’s only chosen to tell a select few.
“Sidney was always so down to earth, even back then,” admitted Melanson.
Melanson remembers having the then sixteen-year-old Crosby over for supper.
“My son Chris would have been eight or nine years old at the time, and they wanted to get a ball hockey game going, Crosby replied, ‘sure no problem.’”
Melanson looked at Crosby and told him that he would get him a left-handed stick, #87 didn’t want no part of it. If Crosby was going to play he was going between the pipes.
‘Do you have some pads for me,’ Crosby said.
“I looked at Sid and said are you sure?”
‘No I want to put the pads on,’ stressed Crosby.
“Sidney had a great time, he was sweating making saves on the kids and tapping them on the head when they scored on him.”
“Sidney was just a great kid, you saw that in him back then,” Melanson said proudly.
Melanson may have looked on in amazement with Crosby on the ice, but the veteran teacher and scout had even more admiration for the youngster off the ice.
Melanson recalls running into a local garage for a few minutes after work was being done on the families other car. An employee recognized Melanson’s passenger and ran out asking for an autograph. Crosby was only sixteen.
“I remember asking him, ‘how do you deal with all that stuff?’”
Crosby calmy replied, ‘I’m just use to it now.’
Sixteen years of age, the center of attention of the hockey world, on and off the ice. There was no escaping the inevitable, Sidney Crosby was a superstar, but to this day you wouldn’t know it by the way he handles all the attention and fame.
“That’s always been his life, that’s just who he’s been,” Melanson said.
Melanson describes Sidney Crosby’s ability to handle all the attention in his time with Rimouski with simply one word. “Amazing”
“After every game in Rimouski, there was a line up of people wanting autographs.
We sat up a table for him, he would come off the ice, take his stuff off, he wouldn’t even shower and would sit there in his Under Armour and sign autographs fifteen or twenty minutes, meeting everyone.”
“Back then not a lot of people had phones and he didn’t have to worry about whole selfie issue, so it was just sign the autograph, but that happened at every game,” Melanson said.
The Oceanic hired a full time employee just to oversee Crosby and all of his requests.
The attention surrounding “Sid The Kid” was starting to get out of hand.
Melanson remembers Crosby getting ten to fifteen requests a week from all over the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“I’ve never seen anything like,” Melanson said of the attention surrounding the young phenom at the time.
“The Moncton Coliseum had six thousand people just for warm-up. They had sell-out crowds every time he played, but I’ve never seen that many people in for a warm-up and I haven’t seen it since.”
“Sid would just roll with the flow, that’s how he handled it.”
Every week during his days in Rimouski, Crosby would receive a package from Frameworth, a Canadian memorabilia company that had signed the young superstars exclusive rights to his autograph.
“Sidney would spend an entire afternoon signing that stuff, put it back in the box and Purolator it back to them. That’s when he was sixteen and seventeen years old,” Melanson recalls.
Rick Melanson has been in the scouting business for almost three decades, he’s seen some of the games brightest stars none brighter than Sidney Crosby.
So what is Sidney Crosby’s greatest attribute? Work ethic? Skill? Talent?
“Work ethic,” Melanson said.
“On the ice and even off the ice, Sidney was always so focused at a younger age.”
Melanson remembers Crosby turning down one of his wife’s famous brownies after supper one night after the season had ended while he was attending school at HTHS. “No thank you, Mrs. Melanson, I can’t have those,’ Crosby said.
“It was like the first part of June that year, after the season, and he was a sixteen year old kid, I said Sid it’s ok you can have one.”
‘I’m in training,’ Crosby said.
After school every day Melanson would drop Crosby off at the gym.
“The focus was always there,” Melanson said of Crosby and his offseason workout regime.
“Whatever needed to get done for him to get better he was willing to do that. He was the first guy on the ice and the last one off.”
Melanson recalls former Oceanic coach and former NHL bench boss Guy Boucher telling him that they used to design drills in order to challenge Crosby and work on his weakness. Crosby and Boucher would sit together all the time on the bus talking about the drills. Crosby would always be willing to try something different.
“Nobody does that, at sixteen years old,” Melanson explained.
“To me his work ethic is number one, that and his humility,” Melanson said proudly.
“Sid is not about the fame, or the bright lights, he gets it all the time, but he’s not about that and even back when he was with Rimouski, he was just a regular person.”
Crosby may very well be HTHS’ famous graduate, but he certainty hasn’t forgotten his time at the school.
“Sid didn’t come to his graduation at Trimble, because he didn’t want the attention being taken away from all of the other students on their big day and night,” Melanson said.
A class act on and off the ice, Crosby even sent a very unexpected message.
Several years’ back HTHS was dealing with an unthinkable tragedy.
Four students lost their lives in a motor vehicle accident. The horrible news went nation wide. A day after the tragedy, Melanson received an email from his former student and friend.
“Hey Rick, my mother let me know about the accident, please send my condolences to the school and to everybody there.”
That’s who Sidney Crosby really is.
Everyone may have a Sidney Crosby story, because in many ways he has touched so many people’s lives on and off the ice. From signing autographs and taking pictures with young hockey players and fans, Melanson has a simple response.
“That’s a part of who he is,” Melanson said proudly.
“He’s ready to give to everybody.”
So what does it mean to Melanson personally to see Crosby get recognized by the organization.
“Obviously, it’s very cool.”
“We have been waiting for this for a long time, because it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary, but they have been asking him for years to retire his number.”
Crosby has suggested that he would be up for the number retirement only after his career was over. That’s what makes Friday so special.
“The last time the Penguins won the Cup, he brought it to Rimouski and had a parade in the city, he didn’t have to do that,” Melanson said.
“He was the one that contacted the organization and Donald Dufresne. Sidney had the Cup for two days, and he wanted to share it with the city for one of those days.”
Crosby is no stranger to the city that started his amazing journey in the game.“Sidney goes back to Rimouski all the time,” Melanson said.
“He went back this summer, he doesn’t forget how important Rimouski was in where he is.”
“He hasn’t forgotten the junior guys that he spent two years with. Some people would have said oh yeah those are my junior guys, almost like the high school people you kind of hung out with, and sometimes you kind of forget about them a little bit and everyone kind of drifts apart and everyone has families, he hasn’t forgotten those guys” Melanson said.
“I’ve always told people, even when he was playing with us in Rimouski, that Sidney was a better person off the ice than he is on it, you see what he does on the ice, he’s a better person off of the ice.”
That’s high praise for the best player in the world.
“Sidney is just a great guy,” Melanson said proudly.
In the Shadows
Just imagine going head to head with hockey’s next superstar.
Now imagine going head to head shadowing hockey’s next superstar for an entire playoff series when the stakes are at the highest.
That’s what confronted former Moncton Wildcat forward and current Wildcats Assistant Coach Ryan Salvis.
Oh yeah he wouldn’t change it for the world.
“It was a great experience, something that I still remember vividly to this day,” said Salvis.
“It was a great challenge going up against one of the best in the world.”
“Sid was only sixteen-years-old at the time so to get under his skin was a little bit easier than it would be now.”
So what was said between the two during their epic battles during that President Cup Playoff Series.
“I tried not to talk too much and just let my play annoy him,” admitted Salvis.
“But, I do remember one game, I think I had a goal and assist, and he only had an assist that game so I let him know that a third liner had outscored him that game.”
So just how nerve racking was it to shut down a superstar.
“To be honest, I didn’t have a lot nerves there because of the job I had.”
“Being so far in the playoffs at that stage created some nerves and I just tried my best to help the team.”
“I knew I had to be focused and skating my hardest every shift. If you take a shift off against him he would make you pay so I took it shift by shift and made sure to be moving my feet out there the entire time.”
“It was a big personal challenge and I knew if I could do my best every game it would give us a very good chance to advance to the league finals.”
The Wildcats defeated the Oceanic and Crosby in an epic playoff series.
“One thing that stands out from that series was how stiff my neck got from constantly checking over my shoulder to see where Sid was,” said Salvis with a smile.
They say hockey players have long memories well that could be said about Eric Neilson and Sidney Crosby.
“Another little jab that Sid gave me was last summer he was in Europe with a few buddies and I got a call from Eric Nielson,” confessed Salvis.
“Eric wanted to relay a message from Sid, “I wasn’t the reason we won that series; Corey Crawford was.”
“Which is very true,” admitted Salvis.
“Corey was outstanding that entire playoffs, along with a lot of other players, and I just did my best to contribute to the team success,” explained Salvis.
Salvis went on to have a very solid eight year pro career finishing up in 2014-2015.
Salvis and Neilson will go head to head behind the bench Friday night, when the Acadie-Bathurst Titan take on the Moncton Wildcats, nevertheless, the big story in the QMJHL that night will be #87 heading to its rightful place the rafters of the Colisee Financiere Sun Life.