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Tampa Bay Lightning's Eric Neilson 'chucks the knuckles'

Eric Neilson, sent to the AHL by the Lightning on Sunday, fights the Blues’ Anthony Peluso.

Associated Press

Eric Neilson, sent to the AHL by the Lightning on Sunday, fights the Blues’ Anthony Peluso.

BRANDON — Right after Eric Neilson dropped his gloves to fight Anthony Peluso in the Lightning's first preseason game, Neilson clapped his hands in anticipation.

This was not just a player looking to impress the coaches with his willingness to, as he said, "chuck the knuckles," though that certainly was part of it.

Neilson, 27, a tough guy who has spent his entire career in the minors, actually likes to fight.

"I don't know what it is," he said recently at the Ice Sports Forum. "I love it. I'm not an aggressive person off the ice, but when I'm on the ice and fight, there's this different mode or whatever, and it kind of gets away from me. The adrenaline rush, the fans, I love a good fight."

Neilson did not play again before being assigned Sunday to AHL Norfolk, one of 27 cuts that reduced Tampa Bay's training camp roster to 26. But he wasn't just one of those depth players on whom teams take a chance and generally leave as anonymously as they came.

Neilson is colorful, speaks without a filter, with a smile and a throwback vibe.

"That's the entertainment," he said of fighting in a game.

The 6-foot-1, 201-pounder from Fredericton, New Brunswick, has been an enforcer since his days with Rimouski of the junior Quebec league, where he protected Sidney Crosby.

Neilson in 2002-03 had 341 penalty minutes in 53 games for Rimouski. In 33 games last season for AHL San Antonio, he had 103 minutes. According to hockeyfights.com, Neilson, in 11 seasons, has 164 fights.

Neilson said he scans opposing rosters to size up potential adversaries and fans like what he does "as much as when someone scores a big goal."

And whereas the talk over the summer after the deaths of enforcers Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak was about the role fighting might play in causing depression, Neilson said he sees no reason to stop doing what he does best.

"I took two steps back, and I evaluated," he said. "I'm in a good state of mind, and I love the game. I love my job, and I guess that's all I have to say about that."

Neilson is not blind to the changes in the enforcer role. Given the salary cap and the speed of the game, NHL teams cannot afford one-dimensional players who get a minute of ice time then sit for five in the penalty box.

"You have to know how to play the game, too," said Neilson, who had 13 goals in 2003-04 for Rimouski but not more than four in a season since.

"I strive every day to get better and be effective on that fourth line and maybe do some penalty killing to help the team out, not just go out there and chuck the knuckles. That's huge motivation for me to get better and try to get a spot somewhere."

Still, sometimes it comes down to a fight, as it did Tuesday against the Blues' Peluso.

It was a heavyweight bout with both players throwing and getting hit with big punches.

"Whenever a guy does that for his team, you respect a guy for that," Lightning center Nate Thompson said.

"It was good to get the first one out of the way," Neilson said. "Shake the cobwebs off a little bit. I felt pretty good in there."

Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Lightning's Eric Neilson 'chucks the knuckles' 09/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 25, 2011 9:13pm]
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