One Stanley Cup ring. Three teams. Three hundred and thirty-five games. Six goals. Eighteen points. One hundred and nineteen fights.
At 32, newly married and healthy, Vernon’s Eric Godard has ended his NHL career with a full set of teeth, a warm smile and some wonderful memories.
One of the most feared enforcers since making his NHL debut with the New York Islanders in 2002-03, Godard will especially cherish his last three seasons with the starry Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Pittsburgh, you can’t beat it, the greatest thing ever,” said the 6-foot-4, 212-pounder. “It was such a good team with so many good players and then (Dan) Bylsma came in to coach. (Michel) Therrien was good, but he was one of those coaches who was real hard on guys. You would see those guys do well for a short period of time and he would just keep on them. That (type of coaching) seems to run its course.
“Bylsma came in and he just put the challenge to the guys. The guys wanna play and the guys wanna work and he’s positive. Everybody wants the same results, to win, and he just challenges the guys and guys are gonna respond to that.”
Asked how it felt skating with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin every day, Godard deadpanned: “Deflating. It’s fun to watch them. They’re so good. Just to see the guys at that level, especially those two guys because they do work. You see what they do, even coming back from injuries, at practice. The game comes at them in a different way. Hockey to them is different than hockey to me. They want you (role players) around. They’re team guys and that makes them even much better.”
Godard never got in any playoff games with the Pens, but was on the ice when the Cup was passed around. He was made to feel like a worthy player.
“Absolutely. I went to work every day, went to practice every day. That’s what teams need to win. Everyone’s going to feel part of it and I felt part of it. I felt I was doing my part, whether that was practising hard or talking to guys, encouraging them, patting them on the back. I wanna win it too so I gotta help.”
His ring put away in a safety deposit box, Godard and his wife, Myrika (nee Schipfel) have no firm plans for their future after hockey. Fondest memories?
“Going to the rink every day. Obviously, Pittsburgh was such a good team and the city was awesome. I remember my first games with the Islanders and Calgary, being close, and the friends I made over the years. Right now, guys are kind of playing right now. I’m just trying to figure out what to do next. I wanna do something. I’m excited.
“Going to the rink every day and playing hockey is fun. It’s a just a privilege to do. To not do it anymore is gonna be different.”
Godard had his $700,000 NHL contract bought out this summer by the Dallas Stars. He did consider playing for the AHL Connecticut Whale in Hartford, and while he hasn’t filed retirement papers, he’s definitely moving on, with his beloved French bulldog, Tonka, by his side.
He will be best remembered for scraps against monsters like Derek Boogaard and Steve McIntyre which became big YouTube hits. Godard stunned Boogaard while playing for Calgary and broke McIntrye’s orbital bone as a Penguin, in two of his more rousing tilts.
On dropyourgloves.com, Godard is listed as having 81 fights in two seasons with the Major Junior Lethbridge Hurricanes, and another 111 in the AHL with Louisville Panthers, Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Omaha Ak-Sar Knights. He is counted as the winner of most fights.
He credits wrestling with his three older brothers, some trial and error, and some tips from Lethbridge strength coach and kickboxing champion Trevor Hardy turning him into a powerful and respected fighter.
Reads the HockeyFights.com details of a Godard-Dan LaCouture tilt from Feb. 26, 2004: “Perhaps avenging LaCouture’s running of Kvasha in the last meeting, he asks Dan to go off the draw. Long squareoff. Godard throws an early right and Lacouture counters with a couple of his own. Then Godard lands two big rights and Dan goes down to a knee. Godard lets up and allows Dan to get back up. The fight continues with Godard pelting Dan with right after right and the linesmen, seeing how the fight is one-sided, decide to break it up.”
Godard says Matt Carkner broke his orbital bone and others busted his nose “a couple times, but nothing too bad.” He traded blows with every tough guy from Tie Domi to Donald Brashear and Georges Laraque. The toughest?
“Laraque….I did pretty good against him. Brashear and I had some good ones. Laraque, they weren’t the best fights. He was so strong though. He’d just throw you down. I tried going toe to toe once. It was pretty good, but he then he just pulled me down. I remember him pulling me down. I was trying to do a full squat just to push out and he was just all arms.”
From Pensburgh, the Penguins community website, in 2010: “There’s no such thing as a ‘company man’ in the NHL, but if there was, Godard might just fit the bill. He dressed in just 45 of the 93 total games, and played just 188 minutes in the games (4:11 per game) he did get into…Godard (who was voted ‘Player’s Player’ by his teammates in 2008-09) has never complained, never makes a fuss, just buckles down and does his best when he gets the chance. Which is fight and protect his boys.”
Laraque, in his 2011 book entitled Georges Laraque: The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy, talks about how the Pens tried to sign him for less money and then signed Godard when he balked at the offer.
“Maybe he (GM Ray Shero) scratched out my name and wrote Eric’s instead. Godard was quite a different player from me, but I knew he could do the job he’d be paid for. He was the one who would win the Stanley Cup. Life is strange sometimes. Congratulations to him. And to Shero too.”
In the WHL, when multiple-fight games were the norm, Godard took on the likes of Todd Fedoruk, Stephen Peat, Mitch Fritz, Kris Mallette and Craig Brunel. His head coach in Lethbridge was former NHLer Bryan Maxwell.
“Godard was tough,” recalls Mallette, now head coach of the Junior B North Okanagan Knights. “He was a big kid with long arms. I remember fighting him in front of the net and we both got our shots in.”
Godard had finished a solid year of Midget AAA under Bill Higgins and Joe Oliver and was excited about playing lock for the B.C. Under 17 rugby team. He was listed and played in nine games with the Canes.
“The coaches and the guys were really good. It was definitely an eye opener. You had to adjust quickly or you just weren’t going to make it. You saw guys come in and didn’t really feel comfortable. I was 18 too, so when (Sean) Ovington and those guys went away when they were 16, that must have been tough. At 16, if that opportunity came for me, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. I just matured later.”
He scored his first goal in the Dub on a deflection in the Canes’ home opener, in front of family and friends. Godard gives props to Maxwell for jumpstarting his progression.
”He wanted you to show up everyday. He wanted to turn guys into pros. This is what the pro game is like; you’ve gotta show up every night or you’re not gonna make it, you’re not gonna go anywhere. At that level, in that league, those are the type of coaches you want. They’re going to try and get you to the next level.”
Undrafted, Godard was signed as a free agent by the Florida Panthers on Sept. 24, 1999. Godard never played for Florida and on June 22, 2002 was traded to the Islanders for a third-round selection. His first pro game would make a great scene in Slap Shot.
“It was in Louisville..I couldn’t believe it was happening. It’s funny because I went there and all I took were my skates. Because it happened so quick, I couldn’t even get into the rink to get my gear. All I had was these old skates. So I went down there and I was so nervous, I forgot them at the apartment in the morning. The coach went up to me and said, ‘You’re going to practise and play tonight.’ I was thinking, ‘Oh God.’ I ended up lying and told him I was told I was here just to watch. So, a guy that was hurt took me back to the place, got my stuff, came back and got on the ice in time. I had all brand new gear and they didn’t have any shoulder pads so I was skating around my first practice, no shoulder pads. They must be thinking, ‘Who’s this clown, he’s got no shoulder pads and he’s playing tonight?’ Brent Thompson was the captain. He’s a funny guy and he was just carving into me.”
Godard made his NHL debut with the Islanders on Oct. 17, 2002 against Philadelphia. His WHL sparring partner, Fedoruk, made it a night to remember and forget.
“I got a couple of shifts, got scored on my first shift. No fights. I remember Fedoruk was out there so I skated on the ice and I didn’t know what to do. His back was turned to me so I tried to give him a little crosscheck but I wasn’t even watching the play and the rebound came out right to him and right as I pushed him, he shot the puck into the empty net. And that was my first shift.”
A charter member of the big bicep brotherhood, Godard treated every opponent with class. And he admits he didn’t always look forward to fight night.
“Obviously, there’s gonna be some guys you don’t like because you’re kind of forced into it. We’re all kind of the same; we’re trying to stick around so you do respect the guys because you’re doing the same thing. Some nights, you’re definitely beat up, your hands are sore. But, you get pretty ready for it because you know it’s gonna happen. Some games, it’s kind of different. You’re not quite into it just because you’re banged up.”
His first NHL snipe?
“My first goal was against Ed Belfour. I don’t know if I wanna tell ya. It was off my skate. They had to review it.”
“I never had a breakaway. I should. All I wanted to do was try and go in one of the shootouts. I was pretty good. I would score on (Marc-André) Fleury all the time. I had his number. It (shootout) got close a couple of times with the Islanders. I remember getting nervous, thinking ‘I might actually get to go.’”
Godard, who still has the Ford F150 truck he bought after cashing his first pro hockey check, began investing his money with a financial advisor recommended by Flames’ teammate Rhett Warrener. His life coach and huge inspiration for the past several years has been Myrika, who went to school with Eric (VSS grads). She oozes of confidence and optimism, even laughing through their summer wedding despite wearing a walking cast and holding crutches.
“She probably kept me in Pittsburgh a little longer. The GM there loved her. She’s been awesome. When I was in Calgary, she was kind of back and forth on weekends because she was working. It was tough when we first went to Pittsburgh. She went through some tough times with her family stuff, but once she was down there, she really helped me a ton. I’m a knucklehead.
“She helped so much with the team. She’s so outgoing. She helped with Christopher’s Guests (Penguin wives foundation which helps families when medical emergencies bring them to the Pittsburgh area for a short or long term stay) and she did awesome. I think one year, she raised fourty-six grand. She really helped a lot, and she would go there twice a week and just set things up. She inspired me. She‘s really good putting herself out there. She’d be the first person to introduce herself to others. I guess she hates those awkward silences so she’s just friendly; she talks to everybody.”
Godard, who has had epilepsy since he was 17 so doesn’t drink, hardly ended his hockey career with a Field of Dreams ending as he scored once and racked up 58 penalty minutes in 46 games with the AHL Texas Stars last season. He rarely suited up the second half of a season which saw the Stars bungle their way to second-last in the 30-team league. They used 44 different players, including five goalies.