Eric Joyce came upon the game of hockey in a different way than most.
Sure, the 37-year-old Joyce grew up in Dorchester, where hockey is pretty much a way of life for those who get their secondary education on the blue collar, rough-around-the-edges streets. But the primary reason was something more uncommon.
Joyce was born with a club foot that his doctors suspect was connected to environmental toxins his father came into contact with while fighting in Vietnam. His family was told that Eric would never enjoy a normal athletic childhood, playing sports as freely and easily as the other kids.
But, somehow, hockey became a source of joy, a way to escape and something the determined youngster would build his identity around.
“It’s actually kind of a unique story, and it explains of why I’m not only dedicated to winning a Cup with the Florida Panthers . . . but also giving back to kids,” Joyce said during last week’s podcast episode of the Great American Hockey Show.
“I had (the club foot) corrected at Children’s Hospital in Boston with a man named Dr. McKay, who did a wonderful job. We saw a bunch of doctors that said ‘Hey, your son will be able to walk and stuff. But he’s never going to be able to run, or really be an athlete.' My mom didn’t accept that answer, so we went back to Dr. McKay and asked him what was the best thing to strengthen my legs. He said ‘Why don’t you put him on skates? Hockey players usually have huge asses and it looks like they have strong legs, so put him on skates and see what happens.’
So Joyce and his mom trudged out to Devine Rink with the milk crates to perform a tiny little miracle for a 2-year-old, right around the same time local heroes Mike Eruzione and Jackie O’Callahan were performing their own Miracles on Ice
“My dad was more of a baseball and basketball guy without much of a hockey background, but I enjoyed it and it definitely helped me out,” said Joyce. “I played Dorchester Youth growing up, played in Quincy a little bit and on a Hyde Park team when they had the likes of Mike Mottau and Brian Cummings."
Joyce did much more than simply use skating and ice hockey purely for therapeutic reasons. He played a couple of years at BC High, and then ended up at the Pingree School in South Hamilton (Joyce said he had to do a double-take the first time he saw one of his classmates driving a BMW around the campus). From there, he played Division I college hockey at West Point . . . all based off the experiences he had from initially pushing himself to overcome his challenges.
Joyce is quick to say he was never the most talented guy on any of his teams, and other local players -- like Mottau -- were the ones catching much of the attention and accolades on the South Shore in the mid-1990s. But that passion led him to play three years at Army, with 5 goals and 16 points .
The hockey experience, and the lessons learned on the ice, clearly stayed with him through an honorable, rigorous career in the armed forces. Prior to joining the Panthers front office, Joyce served in numerous governmental roles focusing on National Security, including a stint as a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry, where he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq for roughly two years. While serving in Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, Joyce earned a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and a Bronze Star, and his unit earned the Valorous Unit Citation.
Most recently, Joyce was an instructor for the Department of Social Sciences at the United States Military Academy at West Point, specializing in instruction in Counterterrorism and Homeland Security.
It doesn’t feel like the typical background for an NHL executive, but it’s clearly something that bestowed Joyce with a number of different skills sets outside the norm in NHL front offices.
Joyce is also one of a couple of locals with more prominent roles in a reconfigured front office for the ascending Panthers. Joyce and general manager and Lynn native Tom Rowe both report to club president Dale Tallon after a management reshuffling that was made official last week, and continued Monday when head of scouting Scott Luce was fired.
As outlined in this excellent piece from James Murphy at Vice Sports, new Florida owner Vincent Viola and the Panthers are putting a premium on military experience in many of their organizational hires these days.
There have been recent questions about Tallon’s role within the freshly shuffled reorganization, but a couple of things remain clear about the longstanding Florida exec: He has final say on hockey matters presented to ownership, and he’s been freed up to do what he does best: Scouring the land in search of hockey talent.
“This is just how I grew up being a kid from Dorchester and also with the military background. You just view yourself as part of a team,” said Joyce. “The great thing about Dale is that he’s an incredibly gracious guy. He puts the scowl on and he plays the part, but at the end of the day he’s like a Teddy Bear in the sense that he really cares about the people that work for him, he cares about the organization and he wants to win.
“We talked about evaluating players . . . I wasn’t always the best player on the ice, so I had to spend a lot of time evaluating my competition during that time in order to just be effective. I basically told him what I see with the players, and the direction that I see the game going. And he listened. Most NHL GMs would say ‘Who is this kid trying to push his way into pro hockey that’s only been here for five minutes?’ But he took the time to talk to me, and we formed a pretty good relationship.”
A relationship between Joyce, who earned a Masters from the Harvard School of Government, and Viola was the key to opening the NHL door to him prior to 2013-14 with a job as assistant to the general manager. Since then it’s been Joyce’s job to kick-start the Panthers analytics department and forge relationship with the area doing community relations outreach for the Panthers in the southern Florida region.
It’s been a steady rise since then for Joyce, who's served as GM of the San Antonio Rampage and Portland Pirates over the last couple of seasons as the Panthers franchise has gone from teetering on bankruptcy to winning the Atlantic Division. He played a role in helping shepherd through the Jimmy Hayes-for-Reilly Smith trade that worked out well last season for the Panthers, and is part of a Florida group that looks poised for a long, extended run of contention.
Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau form a young nucleus buffeted by key veterans like Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell, and the analytics will play a key role in maintaining, building and taking the Panthers to places they’ve never been before.
“It’s a real testament to our scouting staff," said Joyce. "I know a lot of people use the term ‘analytics’, or say ‘Oh, Joyce . . . he’s an analytics guy.’ We’re just looking at every single data point we can get, whether it’s a scout talking about his character, a report on how he skates or an Excel spread sheet that says when this guy is on the ice going things tend to happen, or when this other guy is on the ice not-so-good things happen. It’s a combination of [things]. I’d like to tell you there’s a silver bullet (in advanced statistics), but it all depends on what kind of player you need and when do you need them. Let’s just take secondary scoring with speed for example.
“Last year our recommendation was ‘Let’s try to acquire Reilly Smith from the Boston Bruins’ because he’d provided secondary scoring up until last season. But he also added another element. He added some speed. When you looked at our roster two years ago, one of the things we lacked was speed. So we made the decision to give up secondary scoring in Jimmy Hayes to acquire secondary scoring in Reilly Smith. The reason we did that was because Boston was looking for a bigger, Zdeno Chara-like presence in front of the net on the power play, where that player could be effective putting pucks home at a 20-25 goal rate. Reilly Smith did a lot of the same things well as Hayes did, but he also did with speed. That’s something that’s kind of a subjective thing on our scouting reports, rather than a possession numbers thing where Smith drives X possession and Hayes drives Y possession.”
Joyce admits a metrics-conscious Florida team would still go with a scouting report over a spreadsheet if it’s a dead heat in a choice between similar players for one spot on the roster. It seems like the statistical reports, including ones utilized and introduced by an actual math professor on staff with the Panthers, is about assigning a monetary value to any and every player within the league’s overall salary cap structure.
At the end of the day, though, it’s about putting all the factors together to put a value on every player, and making sure the team doesn’t overstep on those valuations. It will be interesting to see where the Panthers go with Huberdeau, Ekblad and Trocheck all looking at new contracts over the next calendar year, and the Florida franchise not exactly a money-making machine even after a successful playoff season.
That’s where being smarter and bolder than the other teams becomes necessary, and that’s where Joyce will lend his voice after a lifetime of bucking the odds.
-- The Bruins will hold this summer’s development with on-ice sessions at Ristuccia Arena from July 12-15, with each day's practice session set to begin at 10 a.m. There will also be a host of TBA community events for the B’s prospects to participate in on July 13.
-- I'm very new to the entire GIF world, so it’s been very disappointing I haven’t been able to track down any old footage of Hillbilly Jim’s WWF wrestling matches to have at the ready when Jumbo Joe Thornton hits the ice with that bird’s nest of a playoff beard. Clearly it’s working for him and Brent Burns, and one can only hope they get a chance to dip those scraggly beers in a Stanley Cup full of adult beverages just a couple of weeks from now.
Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.