It is said mothers know best. West Haven’s Eric Boguniecki can attest to that.
At an early age, playing in the West Haven Youth Hockey league, Boguniecki was something special on the ice. And don’t for a minute think his mother, Marylou, failed to tell him that.
In fact, Marylou Boguniecki made her feelings known quite often, stating Eric had all the talent in the world and would one day be playing in the National Hockey League. Mom knew best.
When Eric Boguniecki stepped foot on the ice of Madison Square Garden for the Florida Panthers in 1999, he became the first player ever from the West Haven Youth Hockey program to play in the NHL.
“I remember getting called into the office and told I was being called up,” Boguniecki said. “I was in shock. I thought they were joking. Even now (as an assistant coach for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers), there is no greater feeling than calling in a player and telling them they are going to the NHL. You see the shock in their faces. You give a big hug and you make your phone calls.
“The team figures out how they are getting your mom and dad to the game and for me, to play my first NHL game at Madison Square Garden was nuts. You lie in bed at night and you think of the journey, and what it took to get here. No doubt, you think of where it started. You go through every step and every level starting in West Haven Youth Hockey and skating there and just progressing forward. There are so many emotions.”
Boguniecki will be honored with a banner and jersey ceremony, Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Edward L. Bennett Rink in West Haven, immediately following the West Haven Peewee youth hockey game which begins at 9:15 a.m.
“Eric had a very accomplished hockey career, both at the collegiate and professional level,” legendary goaltender and four-time Stanley Cup champion Billy Smith of the Islanders said. “He is hard working and very deserving of this acknowledgement.”
Marylou Boguniecki recalled the ride her son took to the NHL.
“Most of the people around me told me he could play there (NHL),” Marylou Boguniecki said. “He had that ability to score at an early age. He actually got yelled at because he always wanted to score, and he scored into the wrong net at an early age. But, he also understood the game. He had an older brother (Billy) who played. He would sit and watch the game whether his brother was out there or not.”
Part of those emotions of going to the NHL took Eric Boguniecki back to an early age as he tried to do everything his older brother Billy did. That included hockey, where the elder Boguniecki was a standout player himself.
“I probably annoyed him, but he always welcomed me,” Boguniecki said of Billy. “He always protected me and helped me. Even in college and when I was in the pros, he was always there to talk to and support me. He helped me any way he possibly could. I could not ask for anything better as far as an older brother. He was so happy and proud.”
Boguniecki started playing organized hockey at a very young age, coming out of the West Haven Youth Hockey program, “pushing a chair around the ice before everything snowballed” according to Boguniecki.
“My mom always said she always knew I was going to make it,” Boguniecki said of the NHL. “I had the ability to score and the hands. The skating was not always the best as opposed to my brother who could always skate well. It was something noticeable early on.”
Boguniecki’s performances at the youth levels turned heads quickly as he was the player to watch in the rink, seemingly always the best player on the ice.
“We won the state championship as Squirts,” West Haven youth hockey coach Bill Austin said. “I saw him at nine (years old), and I can tell you at nine, when things were not going well, he took things over. That was not just in practice. When the team needed someone, he was there. You could tell he was going to be special. It was not just his legs, but it was his heart.”
As Boguniecki got older, tougher decisions loomed. One of those decisions was the task of leaving West Haven to play for an ultra-talented team in Bridgeport, which was designed to play for a National Championship at the Peewee level.
When his parents decided it was time for Eric to get exposure, the jump was made to the Greater Bridgeport Youth Hockey where he would play on a team which also included future Little League World series star and NHL star Chris Drury. All that team did was go all the way to Chicago and win a national title against the heavily favored Chicago Young Americans.
“When Eric played, he was the best player on the ice, but that didn’t stop him from giving 110% effort while trying to make himself better,” former West Haven Youth Hockey teammate Jimmy Heffernan said. “He was one of the hardest working players. His attitude and drive carried over to his teammates resulting in many West Haven victories.”
Boguniecki was drafted 193rd overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft by the St. Louis Blues. While property of the Blues, he attended the University of New Hampshire, where he finished with 173 career points.
“He could skate like the wind at a very early age,” former West Haven Youth Hockey parent Vin Morrissey said. “When he hit you, you went down. He had excellent vision all over the ice. He was a leader by example. He gave 150% effort in practice to make himself a better hockey player.
At tournaments, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him play.”
After stints in the ECHL and the IHL, Boguniecki was signed as a free agent by the Florida Panthers in 1999. He played just four games for the Panthers, before being traded back to the Blues.
Boguniecki once again put up solid offensive numbers for the Dayton Bombers (ECHL), Fort Wayne Comets (IHL), and Louisville Panthers (AHL) over the course of four years and was called up by the Blues. He then went back down to the minors and enjoyed career years for the Worcester Icecats during the 2000-2001, and 2001-2002 seasons.
After scoring 17 goals and adding 28 assists in his first season with the Icecats, Boguniecki went on to have an MVP season the following year in 2001-2002, scoring 38 goals and adding 46 assists for 84 points and a league most valuable player honor. Boguniecki was just the second American born player ever to win that award since Eddie Olson (1952-1953).
“I look back at that year and I had wrist surgery after getting hurt in the playoffs the year before,” Boguniecki said. “I was not ready for training camp, and I just worked out at Holy Cross with trainer Jeff Oliver. I got my strength back. I think back to that year, and so many years before you put in all the hard work and get sent down. It takes a while to overcome that. It’s a huge blow. I didn’t experience that blow, and I was excited to get going. I felt great and I took that into the season.”
Called up to play for the Blues in the 2002-2003 season, he enjoyed his finest campaign in the National Hockey League, scoring 22 goals and adding 27 assists for 49 points.
Boguniecki, known as a tough grinding forward at just 5 feet, 8 inches, was leaving an impression around the league despite his small frame by NHL standards.
“I think it (size) definitely made me a better player, but it also hurt me,” Boguniecki said. “I had a way about me, an edge. I wanted to consistently prove people wrong. Sometimes, I did not always do the right thing. My mind was set to always proving people wrong. It definitely gave me fire and desire. I was just trying to tell everyone they were all wrong and I was going to make it.
“Once I made it, now it was now I have to stay. When I got there, it was all timing and I finally had the opportunity to play. I had one good year, then we had the lockout and I’m like are you kidding me? We missed a whole year of hockey. When I look back, what we did set up the NHL to be where it is today. Financially, the NHL is in a great place.”
A league-wide lockout altered the course of Boguniecki’s career as play stopped during the 2004-2005 season. That cancelled season was the first time the Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919.
It was also the first time a major professional sports league in North America cancelled a complete season because of a labor dispute, and it also marked the second time playoffs of a major professional sports league in North America were cancelled, joining the 1994-1995 major league baseball postseason.
The lockout resulted in 1,230 unplayed games, and forced players to travel all over the world to seek competitive play to keep in hockey shape.
Boguniecki suffered a big blow as he had a shoulder injury which never seemed to respond. That injury lingered after Boguniecki played in Switzerland and Germany, and it was determined he had a torn labrum and rotator cuff.
“The next season got going and I missed training camp because I was recovering from the surgery,” Boguniecki said. “It was just bad timing. I had finally gotten there, but after the injury, I felt like I never got going after that. My body started to deteriorate after that. It was one thing after another. I could never get myself going again. I got traded to Pittsburgh and then the Islanders. I had another surgery and I never got back to that.”
The injury forced Boguniecki back to the AHL with Iowa, then the ECHL with the Alaska Aces. It was in Alaska where Boguniecki cemented the connection he will always remember, playing for Brent Thompson, now the head coach of the Sound Tigers.
“My relationship with Eric goes all the way back to our playing days,” Thompson said. “We played together in the Florida Panthers system in Louisville. I was the captain and he was a young player trying to find his way. He was a great teammate. His commitment to the game and to his teammates was awesome to see.”
The two developed a chemistry for the game, and Boguniecki would eventually land on the staff of Thompson in Bridgeport, where he has now been an assistant for seven years, overseeing everything.
“I would rather be playing obviously, but this is the next best thing,” Boguniecki said. “I am involved in the game and I get to share my experiences and my story. I understand their feelings and the process it takes to get to the NHL. I try to hit home with the guys. I remember talking with my coaches. You have to trust them and believe what they are saying. You have to break down the barriers of player and coach and earn their trust. They have to know you are doing what is best for them to get them to the NHL.”
Thompson cannot speak highly enough about the job Boguniecki has done as an assistant coach in Bridgeport.
“I completely trust him,” Thompson said. “He has sole responsibilities in game. He does the in-game decisions with the defense and he has sole responsibility of the power play. I think his best attributes are his honesty and the way he communicates with the guys. That shows well as a coach and a leader.”
Boguniecki played 13 years of professional hockey, appearing in 739 games between Europe, the ECHL, IHL, AHL, and NHL. He accumulated 601 career points with 273 goals and 328 assists, along with 1,013 penalty minutes. He had 76 points in 178 games of his NHL career.
He was a three-time AHL All-star (2000, 2001, 2002), and AHL first All-star team selection in 2002. In 2000, Boguniecki played for Team USA at the World Championships in St. Petersburgh, Russia, and he also had the privilege of representing his country playing for the Select 16 and 17 teams while growing up.