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Eager to get under opponents’ skin

by David W. Unkle

For better or worse, every player knows when Philadelphia Phantoms winger Ben Eager hits the ice.

Seldom does he hurt opponents with his scoring ability; in 103 regular-season games over the last two years Eager has hit twine 11 times while chipping in 15 assists.

Instead, Eager has garnered the reputation as a spot-picker, a chirper, a hard-hitting first-round draft choice that is frequently a couple seconds out of sync with the whistle.

"We don’t look at him as anybody to worry about as far as our game plan," said Providence Bruins head coach Scott Gordon, whose team on Friday night became the fifth team in as many games to fall to the suddenly resurgent Phantoms.

"We actually want him on the ice; the more he’s chirping, the better off for us."

A sentiment offered by more than one opposing coach.

Selected as the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, Eager concluded his junior career with the Oshawa Generals lugging plenty of baggage.

A 19-year-old Eager drew the ire of Ontario Hockey League officials for an on-ice assault on 16-year-old Peterborough Petes winger Patrick Kaleta.

"The (OHL) is of the opinion that player Ben Eager instigated a fight with an unsuspecting opposing Peterborough player, continuing such altercation while such player was in a defenceless position," stated OHL Commissioner David Branch in March 2003.

"We are of the opinion that Eager’s actions have no place in our game and we must all work to eliminate these type of ‘bullying tactics’ from our game."

Acquired by the Philadelphia Flyers in the Sean BurkeMike Comrie trade on Feb. 9, 2004, Eager signed an amateur tryout deal almost two months later, appearing in five regular-season games and three playoff games with the Phantoms.

If Eager’s 232 regular-season PIM in 66 games the following season caught AHL observers’ attention, his post-season totals definitely cemented a well-deserved reputation.

In 16 games during the Phantoms’ 2005 Calder Cup championship run, Eager piled on another 71 penalty minutes.

"He’s got to be a physical, aggressive guy," said Phantoms head coach John Stevens.

"The ones that we can definitely do away with is when Ben Eager takes a hooking penalty; I’ve got a big problem with that."

Eager began the 2005-06 regular season suspended by the AHL following a preseason altercation against the Albany River Rats.

Less than a month later, an elbow to the head of Portland Pirates defenseman Ladislav Smid shelved Eager for four games.

In February, Eager boarded Binghamton‘s Tomas Malec and when the attention came his way, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound winger turtled, deferring to teammate Wade Skolney to clean up his mess.

Eager’s name has been mentioned as a moveable player as the NHL deadline approaches but for now, Stevens continues to roll him out on the ice, partially because of necessity and partially because he likes his passion.

"It’s part of my game to chirp, be physical, and get under other guy’s skin," explained Eager, who limped to the bench following a high hit late in the game.

To his credit, Stevens has pointed out to Eager where the line begins and ends.

"I’ve done it a lot in the past, I’ve crossed the line a lot," said Eager.

The second-year-pro feels that he has "a better idea where the line is now and what the refs are going to give you."

On some nights, that understanding becomes blurred.

In Friday night’s win over Providence, Eager blatantly whacked Garret Stroshein in clear view of the officials, just outside of the Phantoms’ defensive zone.

Stroshein promptly leveled the lumber into Eager’s chest, sending both players to the box with the 6-foot-7, 245-pound Bruin earning an extra two minutes.

"We don’t want him fighting Stroshein in that situation because he’s more valuable to us on the ice then he is sitting in the penalty box," said Stevens.

David W. Unkle covers the Philadelphia Phantoms and the AHL for SLAM! Sports