David M Singer
Dec 3, 2004
Eric Cairns is the model of an improved hockey player. He has climbed through the ranks of the professional leagues, starting in the ECHL and eventually making it all the way up to the NHL because of his hard work.
Cairns has become a solid NHL defenseman. Last season, he earned around 12 minutes a game as part of the New York Islanders defense core which includes Janne Niinimaa, Kenny Jonsson, Roman Hamrlik and workhorse Adrian Aucoin. He's gone from a rookie with shaky legs to a heavyweight champ contender.
He's currently playing hockey for the London Racers of the UK's EIHL. I had the opportunity to speak with Eric about his career and came to find out that sometimes on-ice skills aren't the most important things for the development of a player.
David Singer: How'd you wind up picking a team in England?
Eric Cairns: I have a friend here who's a player/coach, named Dennis Maxwell, who I grew up with, pretty tough guy in his own right actually. I grew up playing hockey with him in the Burlington area in the summers. When the opportunity came up I gave him a ring. I've already been to London before and loved the city so I figured it would be a good fit to get some hockey in.
Singer: Do you expect to come back to North America this season?
Cairns: I don't know. I hope they work things out. If they don't I'll be here for the season, it's out of my hands.
Singer: How have the fans taken to you?
Cairns: Oh, it's been great. They're real good people over here. It's a little different from back home as far as the way they look at the game, but they're loud and if they don't like your players they'll let you know.
Singer: When you first broke into the pro ranks you spent some time, although short, in the ECHL. Did that shape you at all, having to step up the ladder to the NHL?
Cairns: Oh yeah, it made me who I am today. It made me appreciate more things, that's for sure. Being up in the NHL I know what it's like to be down in the minors and even further down. It helped make me the person I am today, as far as my attitude goes, and the player I am because it's a stepping stone but it wasn't where I wanted to be. I wanted to be up two more levels and eventually I made it, but it was a big jump for me.
Singer: When the Islanders picked you up you seemed to transform, not just as a fighter, but as a player as well. Was there anything specific you worked on as a defenseman that you could isolate and say that improved you the most?
Cairns: When I was with the Rangers I was very young, and I appreciated the opportunity that they gave me. But I also wasn't playing very much and I was sitting in the stands a lot and it was tough because I had reins on me a bit. When I moved over to the Islanders, I felt like the reins were taken off and I could be who I wanted to be. I wasn't being as controlled as much as I was with the Rangers as far as everything goes, defense, fighting and just playing the game I wanted to play. I played with the Islanders a bit the first year, about 10 games, and then the next year Butch Goring gave me a lot of room to move and played me a ton and that help me out a lot confidence-wise. The confidence was there afterwards to do what I wanted and it kept building and building more and more.
Singer: Did moving from the Rangers to the Islanders help intensify the rivalry games for you?
Cairns: Obviously when you move from one team to another you want to prove yourself. You want to beat that team every chance you get to play against them; and even four-five years down the line I still have that same thing inside me. I was a little upset about how everything transpired there and I wanted to prove them wrong. So I guess it does build-up the rivalry, but when it comes down to it, it's two points on the line and that's the main thing to me. So it's not a personal thing, I just want to win the game for my team.
Singer: Everyone takes some shots as a rookie, but you really turned it around in the fighting department. Was there anything you did to help your improvement or was it just sheer experience?
Cairns: I think experienced helped me improve. Confidence, and like I said to you before, I had some reins put on me that weren't that comfortable as far as fighting goes by people at the Rangers. I was told “you can't take a big shot in the face or you're going to let your team down”-type stuff. I was just learning each year, gaining more confidence, but when you hear stuff like that it makes you think about it a little bit more and it wasn't very comfortable to me personally. When I moved over to the Islanders the reins were taken off and I felt more comfortable to build all parts of my game, including fighting. I box every summer too.
Singer: Last season, in your fight against Todd Fedoruk, he knocked you down, you bounced back up and wound up breaking his orbital bone. It's not a flashy knockdown, and hard to tell what happened on first viewing. What's your reaction skating away from a fight like that?
Cairns: I look at it as two guys showed up and tried to give a jump to their team, that's it. I never want to hurt anybody when I fight them, I don't, but I do want to defend myself and do it to the best of my ability. I don't go away from the fights thinking “I might have won that” or anything like that, I just do my best. If my teammates get a lift from it or I'm protecting my teammates, that's all that matters to me really. I asked Todd when he was back in the lineup if he's doing ok, because those are things that can hurt you later on in life. That's the way I look at it, other guys are different, but I don't skate to the box saying “yeah, I won that one”. He hit me first and caught me with a good little punch. Either way I think both of us showed up and that was the main thing. He's a real tough guy and he does his job real well so you've got to have respect for one another.
Singer: It looked like you tried to have a go with Fedoruk's teammate, Donald Brashear, a few times this past season and he just wouldn't bite.
Cairns: He works hard out there; you know he's going to come to play every game. He's going to get his nose in there and get dirty. He plays a good, hard, dirty type of game that can drive other teams a little bit crazy. He's a big guy and he's going to try and make room for himself. He plays a dirtier game I guess, a hard game, and that's the way he's trying to make his team better. As far as me challenging him, maybe he's got a bad hand, maybe his coaches told him not to, I don't know. I'm just trying to do my job out there and if he chooses not to fight, that's up to him. With guys like that I just look at everybody as trying to do the best possible job for their team. They wouldn't be in the NHL unless they're doing something right.
Singer: When Dale Purinton took a swing at you last year, did you know at all it was coming or was it just too late by the time you realized it?
Cairns: I've met Dale before and he's a nice guy, he is. When I turned around he had his gloves off and I said “ok, hold on Dale” and I went to skate back and give myself a little room. I remember my gloves were on my fingertips and I didn't even see it coming. Since I kind of know him, I just thought he would have the respect to let me get my gloves off and get in the position so we could at least have a fair start. Maybe he thought I was ready, maybe he didn't, but I know I didn't even see it coming. As I said, my gloves weren't even fully off my hands.
Singer: Are you disappointed he never gave you a fair shot after that?
Cairns: I'm going to be really honest here: I have no respect for that guy at all, I don't. I'm still mad at him. That fuse is not going to go out for a while because that fact that he hit me, that's fine, he hit me on the right spot and I wasn't ready for it – but that's fine, you can just let me go to the ice and then the fight's over; but then he hit me afterwards on the ice and that's what burns me a lot and what is staying in my memory because you can hurt somebody if you do that. To me, he tried to hurt me, so I've still got a little spur in my side for Dale.
Singer: Last season when Jason Wiemer was claimed off waivers by Minnesota the team went into a dive. Was the funk the team went into related to his departure?
Cairns: I think it was, definitely, I think it had a lot to do with it. Jason is a real good guy and he was one of our leaders in the room. It's the business part of the game I guess. I'm not sure of the exact details of what happened or what went on, I'm a player not a GM or an owner, but I know it did hurt our team a lot and we went into that 7-game skid. It was like a snowball effect, it kept getting worse and worse, and there were things thrown out there that this and that is wrong, but I think the team as a whole got a little sour about losing a guy like that. Obviously a team's a team and you've got other guys who can step up. But we weren't playing well as a team because things were shaken up weirdly, so I think it did hurt our team.
Singer: You were quoted in The Hockey News recently speaking about Probert and how he was your favorite growing up. What are your thoughts on him and what was it like having a chance to square off with a guy you looked at as a hockey role model?
Cairns: That was one of the highlights of my career probably. It's right up there, easily. I grew up watching Bob Probert, and had a poster of him in my bedroom as a kid. When I played Junior hockey in Detroit for a few years I got to meet him once or twice. I was a pretty star-struck young kid. He could play the game too, and that was the thing that I loved: he played the game, he played hard, and he fought everybody, anybody and everybody. He just played the game hard the way I liked to play. It was a huge thrill for me to be able to drop my gloves with him and actually hang in there. He's probably the best there's ever been. I've met him a few times after that through Ryan VandenBussche who's a real good friend of his and he's been real cool, trying to share a little conversation with him without drooling on myself.
Singer: Have you gotten any fighting advice from him or any other teammates you've had?
Cairns: There have been players out there that help you out when you're younger, and you still get advice. Darren Langdon helped me out a lot when I was with the Rangers. I still talk to him at times. He's a great guy and never did mind talking and trying to help me out a little bit.
Singer: The Islanders-Leafs series from 2002 was a great series, still talked about now. It was the first time the Islanders were back in the playoffs in years, the crowds were crazy. You had a big fight against Shayne Corson. It seemed as though he was trying to get at you and you were just trying to hold him off at first.
Cairns: Well, the reason that was going on is because I didn't think I could fight. Obviously, I could have, but I had a broken thumb at the time. He kept on egging me on more and more and finally there's no looking back. I had the choice to turtle, which I'm not going to do, or defend myself, so I decided to defend myself. It was a great feeling in the building, the fans were unbelievable to us all year and all playoffs. They awarded us with three unbelievable games at home, which we won all of. For us to leave the building that way that year was a great feeling.
Singer: The season after that you had a fight against Chris Neil. He went after you shortly after coming off the bench, and you were at the end of a shift – is that a fair fight or is that a guy being a punk?
Cairns: Oh no, not at all, that was a fair fight. I was going after Marian Hossa, I mean Chris Neil's got to come on and do his job. I don't mind at all because I was looking to pick a fight probably. He came off the bench, he did his job, he did a real good job I thought, and he stood in there well. My left shoulder was dislocated so I was in some awkward positions where it was either jump to the ground or stand there and take the punch. It was a hard fight for me to fight because I couldn't use my left arm at all, but I thought he did an unbelievable job. He's definitely one of the better guys out there. I give him full props because he's made his way up the hard way.
Singer: You've had some injuries in the past and had some seasons where you couldn't drop the gloves much, how does that affect your game? Do you have to scale back your type of play?
Cairns: Sometimes. Injuries are a part of the game and you just have to deal with them so I sometimes scale back a little bit. I don't take away from my hard play, I'm always going to play hard no matter what. If a guy asks you to have a fight you've got to say no every once in a while because you have a hand injury or dislocated shoulder or whatever it is. That's just all part of the game. Hopefully they'll understand that, that you'll be there to battle when you're healthy again, but at that point in time there's not really anything you can do about it. If I ask a guy to fight and he says “no, my hand's kinda sore”, I have the enough respect for that player that I'm going to leave him alone unless he starts screwing around again out there, whacking around one of our best players. Then you're going to go and have another word with him. At that point, if he's hurt, he's hurt, and there's nothing you can do about it. I'd rather fight a guy at full strength anyway; it's more of a challenge. What's the use in fighting a guy who can't fight? If he says no, he's being honest. We're all men out there and that's the way it should be.
Singer: In the Juniors you were tagged by Matt Johnson, two seasons ago you put him to the ice. Can things from the Juniors carry over all the way to the NHL?
Cairns: It definitely wasn't revenge. I remember in the Juniors he gave it to me to pretty good. It was many moons ago, but you don't forget stuff like that, my nose is still crooked from it. <laughing> Everytime I look in the mirror… well, you can't ever forget it. I fought him two years ago, and I fought him before that too. We were down 2-0 against Minnesota and I was trying to get my team going. It's never a personal thing with me and I was just trying to spark my team up and we actually came back and won the game. I did my job and that's good enough for me.
Singer: Was there anyone who helped you better yourself as a defenseman?
Cairns: Butch Goring and Lorne Henning, they basically threw me out to the wolves my first year with the Islanders. I played against every top line in the league. I love a challenge and that's what makes me tick, and I love when the coach has confidence in me to do that. We skate after practice and I talked to them and they made me feel comfortable out there, like “you can do this job”. So I think that's what helped out my defense.
Singer: So you think it was mainly confidence more than anything else?
Cairns: Yeah, if they believe in you. Like “Go ahead, play against the Philadelphia Flyers and Eric Lindros and John Leclair” or Mats Sundin and all of those good players, like Jaromir Jagr.
Singer: Well Jagr was quoted some years back where he specifically named you as someone he didn't like playing against. What kind of compliment is that to you?
Cairns: That was great of him to say that. I don't know how many beers he had before he had the interview, but that was definitely the feather in my cap to have someone like him say that. I think it's because I play hard against everybody, and I played hard against him and I guess he didn't like it. Obviously I'm not the best defenseman in the league, but I guess I gained his respect and that's why he said that. It was a huge thrill for me.
Singer: Now that you're overseas, are you playing an enforcer role over there?
Cairns: I'm playing a ton of minutes. I'm going to start toning it down, I'm not going to be dropping my gloves. We have a couple of other guys on the team, Jeremy Cornish and Dennis Maxwell that can take care of business. I've been playing about 35 minutes a game or something, I'm not sure, they don't keep track, but power play time and all that fun stuff. I've gotten a little carried away a couple of times and that's going to stop. Not altogether, I can't promise anyone anything. I'm not going to promise any miracles. You've got to stick up for yourself and your teammates every once in a while and I find it fun every once in a while too. I'm going to play the way I play and I've been playing a ton, having fun, actually getting to play the game and play in different situations than I'm used to. It's a good experience so far.
Singer: How's the skill level compare?
Cairns: It's pretty good. Obviously it's not the NHL, but it is what it is. There are some good players over here, some fast players. It's a big ice surface which is a huge difference compared to the NHL rinks. It's a different game, there's a lot more room to move out there. You have time, it's a possession game. The players here are all accustomed to that and it's a different type of game because of that. There are some real good players.
Singer: How was your bout against Mel Angelstad?
Cairns: Oh, I'd say it was a real good one. He's a tough guy; he's been doing it for a lot of years in the minors. We actually had a real good scrap. It was fun; it was a challenge for me personally and for him probably too. He hit me well once or twice, I hit him well with a couple. We both went back and forth. Then his jersey came off and there was nothing really to grab on to and then I just did a faceslam on to the ice because I couldn't grab on to anything. I thought it was a real good even fight. I thought he did real well, and I thought I did real well. I was just disappointed the referee kicked us out afterwards. They weren't supposed to, but I guess he decided to make up his own rules.
Singer: How's hockey doing over in the UK?
Cairns: Everywhere we've gone the fans have been coming, it's been great. The fans love it over here, they love the rough play. It's been pretty exciting.
Many thanks to Eric for taking the time out of his schedule for the site.
Special thanks to Lindsey Richmond.
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