On the eve of another Winter Classic, I keep thinking back to past Winter Classics, to a player who excelled in two of those outdoor games, the first one being in Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day 2011, and the other in Washington, DC on New Year’s Day 2015. None other than Eric Fehr.
A Fan’s Perspective
It was the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and I will admit I was paying a little more attention to that draft than I normally would, as this was the draft that occurred the same year that my first child had graduated from High School, and the prospects being drafted were the same age as her. So, of course I would pay attention to the person my favorite team would draft as their first round pick and that guy was — Eric Fehr. He was the 18th pick overall, during a year that was deep in prospects, as many of the guys drafted in that round eventually made the NHL, including Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Marc-Andre Fleury, Zach Parise, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Tomas Vanek, among others. While Fehr did not become my favorite player, he was still a player I liked and to whom I paid special attention to throughout his career. As it turns out, he was the only draftee of the Caps from that year to stick in the NHL.
He did not play his first game in the NHL until December 18, 2005. He had spent his early post- draft years at his junior team, the Brandon Wheat Kings where he was one of their leading scorers. He played a few more games for the Capitals during the 2005-2006 season, but primarily spent his first professional season with the Caps’ AHL team, the Hershey Bears. He was off to a great start in Hershey the following year, earned a recall to the Caps, and scored the game winning goal against the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan 27, 2007. But less than a year later, he developed a herniated disk in his back which kept him out of action for most of the next year. After another brief stint in Hershey, he returned to the Caps in February 2008, scored 1 goal in 23 games, and played in five games in the playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The next season (2008-2009), was his first full year in the NHL. He spent it trying to earn a more permanent spot in the lineup. He ended up scoring 12 goals and had 13 assists while playing 61 games. He typically played on the third line but played on other lines as well. But there were plenty of times he would end up in Bruce Boudreau’s doghouse and get healthy scratched, as a result, on several occasions. But at least he was healthier and showed some promise as a scorer.
He played in all seven games of Round 1 in the playoffs against the New York Rangers but only two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2. Already having one bad shoulder, he injured his other shoulder during the playoffs and now needed surgery on both shoulders. The length of time needed to recover from surgery and for the needed rehabilitation meant that he missed all the pre-season games and the initial part of the regular season. While he had reported to Training Camp in 2009, due to still rehabilitating after surgery, he wore a “no contact” jersey and could not take part in contract drills.
In spite of the late start due to the surgery and rehabilitation, the 2009-2010 season appeared to be a breakout season for him. He had 21 goals with 18 assists, playing mostly on the third line but also occasionally appearing on either the first or second line. He even contributed 3 goals and 1 assist in the playoff series against Montreal where the Caps lost in 7 games. After the season, he was a restricted free agent but signed a two-year contract extension to remain with the Capitals.
The highlight of the 2010-2011 season for him was scoring two goals in the 2011 Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins, including the game winner.
However, as a whole, 2010-2011 was a more difficult season for him. Overall, he scored 10 goals and got 10 assists in 52 games, but missed 2 months with still another shoulder injury. He collided with center David Steckel in a game against Vancouver on January 14 that season, dislocated a shoulder joint, and ended up ripping the labrum cartilage from the bone. He still had problems with instability in the shoulder when he returned to the lineup. He then had surgery to repair the torn labrum in the off-season. When June 2011 rolled around, the Caps traded their first round pick to Chicago and acquired winger Troy Brouwer. With that acquisition, the Caps needed to shed salary and Fehr was considered expendable, especially given his continual health issues. He was traded to the Winnipeg Jets for a fourth round pick in the 2012 draft and a minor league forward named Danick Paquette. It was a move that made me sad, personally, seeing a player I liked get traded for basically nothing. Meanwhile, Paquette turned out to be an ECHL level player who seemed more interested in fighting than in playing productive hockey.
Between recovering from his off-season surgery and requiring even more surgery in 2011-2012, Fehr played in only 35 games for the Winnipeg Jets during that season and had only 2 goals and 1 assist. With his contract expiring and getting no qualifying offer from the Jets, this looked like the potential end of Fehr’s NHL career. With the NHL lockout in effect, he signed a contract with the HPK club, which was in the Finnish SM League. He scored 13 goals and had 12 assists for that club in 21 games. Once the lockout ended, Fehr signed a one year contract to return to the Washington Capitals. He did not get into the lineup for the opener under Coach Adam Oates, but eventually got into the lineup.
Oates wanted lineups where right-handed shooters would play right-wing and left-handed shooters would play left-wing. This caused Oates to move star left winger, Alex Ovechkin to right-wing and push other right wingers down the depth chart, including Troy Brouwer. In order to get and stay in the lineup, Fehr, a natural right-winger, found a new role under Oates – a center. He played center on the fourth line initially and eventually became the third line center, centering a line with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera. He ended up getting 9 goals and 8 assists in that short season of 2012-2013, which, in reality, only took place in 2013. He thrived in his new role as checking line center, getting 13 goals and 18 assists during 2013-2014. While there were many issues with Adam Oates’ coaching tenure with the Caps, Eric Fehr was one player whose career was positively affected by him by learning a new position of center. Even when Oates was fired and Coach Barry Trotz was hired in his place for the 2014-2015 season, Fehr did well as center, getting 19 goals and 14 assists. He got the first goal in the Winter Classic held in Washington, DC.
In addition to being a hockey player, Fehr wrote a children’s book called “The Bulliest Dozer” which was the story of a bulldozer named Bo who was somewhat of a bully and had to “turn things around” and save the holiday performance. However, the injury bug hit Fehr again. This time he injured his elbow in the first round playoff series against the New York Islanders and needed off-season surgery. With his current contract expiring, he became a free agent again and signed with the Caps’ arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was sad to see him go but, realistically, the Caps offseason priority was to upgrade their top 6 forward corps, and with his most recent surgery, the Caps felt they did not have the budget to retain him anymore.
I had met Fehr on a few occasions, the first time after a practice at Kettler. He also appeared at a Caps autographing event during the 2010 season, along with several other players. For the Caps Convention of 2014, he was one of the two current Caps at the autographing session I had chosen. At that session, I learned that he actually writes with his left hand, something I had never known, until then. It also turned out that he was born just 10 days before Alex Ovechkin, who was drafted as the first pick in the 2004 draft. Fehr was just barely eligible for the 2003 draft – age wise.
By Diane Doyle