Photo credit: Jack Murray
Eric Linell played pretty close to home for most of his minor hockey career. After four years with the P.A.L. Junior Islanders program in Hauppauge, New York, ranging from U16 to the USPHL Premier League, Linell was looking to branch out. He found a landing spot far from home, with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders of the USHL in November of 2016.
“I knew the USHL was a great league so I figured I would be able to go and develop there,” Linell said. “It was definitely a bit of a change where there’s so many great players. I was a bottom-six forward there and really had to work on my defensive game.”
Linell was a prolific scorer with the Islanders before heading West, recording 15 goals and 28 points in just 21 games, but couldn’t find offensive success in the USHL as he had just two assists in 35 games. To be fair, the Roughriders as a team didn’t have much success, winning just 12 of 60 games and scoring only 109 goals as a team.
While there was a bit of back and forth on whether Linell wanted to return to the USHL for another shot, he and his family advisor decided the BCHL might fit his style of game better. He needed to convince his mother to let him leave New York first.
“There was a lot of hesitation because my mom was freaking out,” Linell laughed. “She said there was no way she was going to let me go so far from home. Coquitlam contacted me with only a week left in August and we finally talked her into it. I thought going to the BCHL was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Growing up in New York and moving to Vancouver made it a bit of an easier transition for Linell as he was able to enjoy the same big-city lifestyle he did back home. The transition to on-ice success took a little longer than he would have liked, however.
“I thought I was going to come in and be a top scorer right away,” Linell admitted. “It took seven games until a shot went off my shoulder and into the net. That was our first win of the year and the game-winning goal, so I think that ignited my scoring touch.”
He was right. After getting the first goal he rattled off nine goals over the next 15 games to turn into the offensive threat he had planned on being.
While he put pressure on himself to perform, Linell was quick to mention how much his older brother, Daniel, helped him throughout the process. Daniel played four seasons at Boston College from 2011-15, playing alongside future NHL players like Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Alex Tuch. He scored seven goals and 25 assists in 138 games.
While the Express may not receive the same level of fan support as other franchises in the BCHL, Linell didn’t need a throng of fans to motivate him each night.
“When I got there, I was still seeking an NCAA scholarship so I wanted to go out there every night and prove to myself and everyone that I belonged there,” he said.
Linell was enjoy individual success, but the Express were derailing quickly. The team won just three of their first 26 games, signalling a coaching change as Jason Fortier was brought in from out East to turn the team around. He did just that as he led them to the playoffs where they were eventually swept by the Vees.
Linell had an impressive first season in Canada, scoring 28 goals and adding 18 assists to lead the Express in scoring. His 48 points meant he directly contributed to over a third of the Express’s total offence from that season. He also achieved his goal of obtaining an NCAA scholarship, committing to the University of Connecticut in January.
Shortly before training camp, Linell was traded to his Mainland-Division rival Surrey Eagles. At first he was excited for the opportunity, but things quickly changed.
“I thought they were supposed to have a really strong team, but after the first few games I thought I needed a change of scenery,” Linell said. “Both on and off the ice I wanted to go a more serious environment.”
Linell suited up for just nine games with the Eagles, getting off to a great start with five goals and six assists, but it was a road trip to the Interior Division that stands as the most memorable moment with the Eagles.
“We were on the bus and our coach told us we had a situation and that there was a fire on the bus,” Linell recalled. “It was scary, we were all freaking out. We got to the rink with like 10 minutes until puck drop.”
The bus started to fill with smoke and was forced to pull over on the highway to Merritt, stranding the team until another bus could pick them up. Despite the delay, the Eagles nearly won the game, losing 7-6. Linell scored a goal in the loss.
Admitting he wanted a change of scenery, Linell got his wish as he was traded to the Vees October 10.
“I actually heard there were some discussions with Penticton in the summer, but a deal wasn’t able to be made,” Linell said. “When I asked for a trade out of Surrey I knew where I wanted to go, and that was Penticton.”
He was ecstatic to be with a program like the Vees, stating the structure of the organization both at the rink and away from it felt extremely professional.
It took Linell just four games to find the back of the net with his new team, and all told he would score 21 goals with 24 assists in 51 games in Penticton.
“I performed the way I wanted to until the end of January or so, but then I started to drop off,” Linell admitted. “I think I developed as a two-way player as well.”
The offence was much harder to come by for Linell down the stretch as he scored just once over the final 15 games of the regular season. He wasn’t the only one who struggled, aside from an eight-goal outburst against Vernon February 9, the Vees as a team were hard-pressed to generate offence in the month of February leading into the playoffs.
It was unfortunately a sign of things to come as Penticton would score just 12 goals in six playoff games, bowing out to the Cowichan Valley Capitals in round one.
“We had a hard time finding offence for the last 12 games or so of the regular season,” Linell said. “That game one loss was a huge wake up call for us, but they definitely didn’t play like a last-place seed. They had a great team and a great coach. We felt like we dominated zone time and puck control, but we just couldn’t score.”
The disappointment for Linell and his teammates was immeasurable after the loss, having to stomach a first-round exit after such an emotional high on the final night of the regular season after clinching the Interior Division.
“Coming to Penticton, all you think about is winning a championship for the city and the team,” Linell said. “That’s what I went there for. I wanted to win my last year of junior and it’s unfortunate the way it ended.”
It’s been long enough since the loss that Linell has been able to step back and look at his time in Penticton as a whole and says the impression the city made on him will last a lifetime.
“The way the fans treat us, it makes you feel like you’re famous,” Linell said. “They support us so much and we’re happy to support them with things like the school visits. I can’t thank Fred and the rest of the coaching staff for everything they did. My billets, Eric and Shauna, were amazing. They made me feel at home in a new city when I first got there. The SOEC is the best junior hockey arena I’ve ever played in. I’ll never forget my time in Penticton.”
Linell has had some time off at home in New York before he heads to the University of Connecticut to begin classes in July.