The stories are flowing now, and Chris Thorburn is really rolling. The Winnipeg right winger’s voice is rising, picking up pace, cresting every dozen-odd seconds with a hearty chuckle. In places, he sighs in disbelief, a wonder in his voice. The laughter is as genuine as it gets.
Thorburn is talking about Eric Boulton, sharing tales of his former linemate in Atlanta, the bruising enforcer who has carved for himself an unlikely pro career that’s stretched 20 years and counting. Boulton, 40, has crossed paths with all manner of players and coaches during his time in the Rangers, Sabres, Thrashers, Devils and now Islanders organizations, even skating on the same line as Wayne Gretzky in an intrasquad game during one of The Great One’s pre-seasons in New York. But none speak of the pugilist’s goofy side with more reverence than old teammate Thorburn.
He takes us on a trip to Philadelphia, back in Thorburn’s Thrashers days on the road with Boulton in the late 2000s. They’re at a steakhouse, a fancy one with the boys from Atlanta, and the game is called Stupid Money. Its rules are easy to follow – pick a dare, however bold or ill-advised, and whoever has the stones to go ahead with it wins a bit of cash. Boulton is up, and he’s got a good one.
On the table in front of the players is a display of spud potatoes. They’re raw, meant only for decoration, but Boulton has an idea. He spies a big one, 12 inches long or so, and turns to his teammates. How much, he’d like to know, if I eat it?
“ ‘Bolty,’ ” Thorburn pleads. “That thing’s not even washed. Who knows how long it’s been sitting there?”
Boulton is unfazed.
“How much?” he repeats.
Thorburn, a little beside himself, confers with his teammates. They come up with a dollar figure pooled from their per diem cash, the exact number now lost to Thorburn, but, he recalls, “It wasn’t a small amount, because there’s no way (we thought) this guy is going to eat a foot-long potato that’s been in the basket forever.”
With his prize confirmed, Boulton goes to work. In front of his stunned dining party, the six-foot, 227-pound left winger, who once earned his stripes in the NHL by engaging Bob Probert on the ice and giving the legendary grappler more punches than he could handle, wolfs down the entire potato. Only then does he really start to show off.
“And then,” Thorburn remembers, “he ate his 40 oz. ribeye.”
It was classic Boulton, and what else can Thorburn do but crack up at the memory? “I got stories of Bolty,” he confirms. “I could write a book on him.”
Eric Boulton scrapping with Chris Neil. Image by: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Long and winding though it may have been, there seems to be one uniform truth to the career of Eric Boulton. For as brutal a fighter as he is on the ice, he is as treasured a teammate as you’re likely to find off it.
Boulton was born in Halifax, in 1976, reaching the NHL via the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. He was picked by the Rangers 234th overall in the 1994 draft, one selection after Steve Sullivan, and if that seems like a long time ago, here’s why: Boulton, who wouldn’t make his NHL debut until many years later, is the last remaining player from his draft class still on a big league contract. Ed Jovanovski, that year’s No. 1 pick? Retired in 2014. Ryan Smyth, taken at No. 6? Out of the league in ’14, too. Eleventh overall pick Jeff Friesen had a pretty good career that lasted 893 games and produced 516 points. He’s been out of the NHL almost a decade. No matter how unlikely it seemed then to pro hockey evaluators, only Boulton remains.
Over his first four pro seasons, he cut his teeth with seven teams in the minor leagues, proving his mettle, fighting the toughest guys in the ECHL, International League and AHL. Then in 1999, Buffalo signed him, and Boulton finally reached the NHL in 2000.
At 24, he was old for a rookie then, but still young for a man, and what better way than a tussle with Probert during an exhibition game against the Blackhawks to show his new coaches and teammates what he was about?
“I actually did well against him,” says Boulton, who fought him to a draw for nearly two minutes before the late Probert collapsed underneath Boulton to the ice.
“I proved I can step up and handle myself in this league.”
What followed was a journey through pro hockey that is common among enforcers. Boulton bounced to a few different teams, was among league leaders in penalty minutes a few seasons (top 10 in 2002-03 and 2008-09), played sparingly, and clashed fists when he did. But Boulton’s career is different for how long it has continued, among the longest runs for a so-called fighter in NHL history, even longer than that of Probert, who retired at 36.
Boulton himself never thought he’d get here.
“My goal was to play till I was 34. Then 36. Then 38. Then I thought, I might as well try till I’m 40,” he says. “You can never go back, so you might as well try to play till your legs fall off.”
His stats, especially in recent seasons, have never turned heads (31 goals and 79 points in 654 games). And yet teams keep bringing him back, signing him for one more year, as the Isles did last July, despite Boulton only playing six games for them the previous season. The reason is clear: his value extends beyond what he can bring when his stick hits the ice.
No matter if he is asked to play every 10 games or every 20, he has learned to keep a level head, to be there for his teammates, to mentor younger guys as Adam Graves and Dave Andreychuk once did for him. That he is a famous jokester – gobbling up pineapple skins, or straight-razoring his head bald during other notorious stunts on the road – only adds to his appeal as a dressing room hero.
“Over a long season, the grind can get pretty tough,” Thorburn says. “Bolty always had a way to lighten the mood, make it fun to go to the rink.”
Boulton knows he cannot play forever, and perhaps this season will be his last (in October, the Islanders assigned him to the AHL). Whether he turns to coaching, or joins the media, or simply retreats to a quiet life with his wife, Ryan, and their four young children upon retirement, he is sure to remain the same old beloved Bolty.
The Stupid Money would be to bet otherwise.