What a difference two years can make.
Allow me to introduce you to Eric Doyle. Eric is currently the Portland Winterhawks USA Head Scout. He has a powerful story, and has been on quite the journey over the last 15+ years.
For fans of the WHL, Doyle is a veteran of 303 games and spent time in the league with the Everett Silvertips, Swift Current Broncos, and his overage season with the Portland Winterhawks in 2009-2010.
Everett used the 15th overall selection in the 2004 Bantam Draft to select Doyle — a right shot defenseman. Like many first-round picks, Doyle represented Canada during the spring U18 tournaments. He was also selected for the CHL Top Prospects game in his draft year.
After playing his first season with Everett, Doyle was traded to Swift Current where he spent parts of four seasons with the Broncos.
When the NHL Draft rolled around, Eric never heard his name called. He was naturally extremely disappointed.
Then, on November 26, 2009, Portland acquired him in exchange for defenseman Travis Bobbee, and Doyle finished out his WHL career in the Rose City. Portland defeated the Spokane Chiefs in seven games before falling to Vancouver in the second round of the playoffs. In 13 playoff games Doyle scored a goal and seven assists.
To those on the outside, everything seemed normal. Doyle, like all other graduating players, made a decision to continue to pursue his career.
However, Doyle was battling internally, and struggling, most of which was hidden to the outside world.
“I liked to have a good time, always one of the last to leave the bar/party,” Doyle said. “In Junior, I got into some sort of trouble as a result of alcohol. At the time I thought it was normal, I was just having fun and being a kid.”
What Eric didn’t know was “what seemed so innocent and normal turned into a daily dependence on drugs and alcohol. It was no longer fun or social.”
Doyle played 12 games in the ECHL with the Ontario Reign before retiring at 22 due to issues related to concussions. However, he was not ready to leave the hockey world.
Eric explained his next steps. “I was sitting at home, still recovering from a concussion — bored, lonely, and scared of the future. I called Mike Johnston (Portland’s vice president, general manager, and head coach) and asked if I could help out with scouting around Calgary.”
“Garry Davidson (former director of player personnel) had joined Everett halfway through that year and the following offseason Grant Armstrong (former head scout) left for Victoria,” Doyle continued.
Johnston shared what stood out to him to bring Eric onto his scouting staff, “We just felt his personality and the way he thought the game and talked the game when he was with us struck me as someone who would be worth the time to kind of groom and see how far he could go in the business.”
After Doyle’s first season scouting for Portland, Johnston extended an offer for him to become a full-time travel scout with the Winterhawks. Johnston’s “intent was ‘Let’s take in this young guy with some potential, much like we would with a player and see if we can develop him into a scout. We had some good people with experience on our scouting staff who could be good mentors for him. His passion was to stay in the game and he wasn’t going to do it as a player.
We provided him with the opportunity; however, much like with a player, it is what you do with the opportunity and how serious you take it and how hard you work at it and how passionate are you with it. Eric had all of that going for him and worked really, really, really hard and had a good eye for players.”
Eventually, after five years in different roles inside Portland’s organization, Doyle got an opportunity he could not pass up.
“My dream was to be part of a Stanley Cup winning staff. I was offered a job scouting the WHL for the New York Rangers.”
Despite the change of jobs, the battle inside of Doyle did not go away.
“On the outside my life looked great. I was working in the NHL, making good money, living the dream. Inside, I felt like I was dying a slow, and painful death. I lacked self-respect and was never really comfortable in my own skin. I always looked for external fixes for ease and comfort.”
While drugs, alcohol, money, women, or a better job provided temporary happiness, it never solved Eric’s real problem.
“Wherever I went, whoever I was dating, or wherever I worked my problems followed.”
By now, the problem worsened and Eric was “working for the New York Rangers as a full-blown addict. I never went to a game high or drunk, but I often missed flights and just didn’t go to the games at all. I would often go on binges where I wouldn’t answer my phone or get back to people.”
Eric knew he had an issue and would often tell his loved ones that he would change, and he meant it; however, “after a week, or even a few days, my alcoholism told me I didn’t have a problem.”
“I thought because of who I am, and what I do for a living, that I was different and should be able to quit on my own. I was told from a young age that hockey players are some of the toughest people around.”
Doyle quickly pointed out, “While that might be true, addiction and mental health issues don’t discriminate.”
After a suicide attempt and many suicidal thoughts, Eric was a regular in the Calgary psychiatric wards.
“In January 2018 I spent a week in the psych ward. The psychiatrist there told me I may have a problem and should look at getting sober. I told the Rangers that I was trying to get sober and they offered to help. They offered to send me to a treatment center, but I wasn’t ready. I thought I could do this on my own.”
Doyle’s attempt at sobriety lasted a couple of weeks until April 1, 2018 where the wheels came off again. This time, Eric knew he had to make a change and get help, so he sent a text to a colleague and friend asking for assistance.
“I was in a very dark place. I knew it wouldn’t end well if I didn’t get some immediate help. I was given the gift of desperation.”
The New York Rangers “sensed the desperation and within 24 hours I was on a plane to a treatment center in Texas.”
The response the Rangers had is something the now 30-year-old will never forget and should serve as reassurance to others when thinking about asking for help.
“They couldn’t have been more supportive. They told me not to worry about my job, my draft list, the combine, or the draft. ‘Just get better’ is all they asked of me,” Eric said.
“They saw a person who needed help and they helped, no questions asked. The kindness, love, and compassion they showed me was incredible. I will forever be grateful to the New York Rangers for starting me on my path to recovery.”
Eric got the help he needed and has been sober since April 1, 2018.
“There have been many ups and downs in sobriety — that is life. For me, it is about positive change and becoming a better person.”
In the summer of 2019, the New York Rangers did not renew Doyle’s three-year contract, so he was looking for work again.
Earlier in the summer the Portland Winterhawks had a vacancy in its scouting department — Josh Dye took an NHL scouting job.
Once again, Mike Johnston entered back into Eric’s life when he offered him a job as USA Head Scout. “While I wanted to get back to the NHL, this position really intrigued me,” Doyle shared. “I really enjoy working with Mike (Johnston), Mike Coflin, and Kyle (Gustafson) and have a familiarity with Portland that has made it an easy transition.”
Johnston was impressed with the work Doyle did the first time around and the void he left was a big one for the Winterhawks organization. “When we lost him to the Rangers – that’s what you want is to have someone go to the NHL level, we are excited for you to move on – but it was a big loss for our program because he did such a good job for us. He was really a respected scout around our league at that time even though he was still young because he just worked so hard, he was everywhere. People used to say, ‘He is in every rink and talking to everybody.’ When I heard Eric might be looking for an opportunity to get back, we grabbed him right away.
I think his experience in our league is what is really helping him move forward in talking to parents and talking to families about his time firsthand. He is a real trustworthy guy and he can tell everybody, “This is the way it works in this league. You can come in as a high pick but you have to focus on the right things, and here is how Portland can help you.”
The role Johnston is playing in Doyle’s sobriety is one not many are familiar with.
“Originally when we had Eric working with us, I knew he had some issues at that time,” Johnston said, “I talked with him making sure he was okay and how he was dealing with things. At times when I didn’t hear from him for a week, or ten days, I was concerned and followed up with him just to make sure – not scouting wise – but personally he was doing okay.”
Doyle spoke about his relationship with Johnston, “Mike is a brilliant hockey person but more importantly a very good person. He has built a culture in Portland that people want to be a part of. Professionally, I have and continue to learn a lot from him. As a person I strive to be like Mike. The way he carries himself and treats people is what makes him special. He is a great role model and a friend.”
Former Winterhawks assistant general manager, and current Kamloops Blazers General Manager, Matt Bardsley is also someone who means a lot to Eric.
“Matt has always been supportive of me and saw a bright future for me when I couldn’t see it myself. He always answered the phone when I called no matter what time it was. That was so important, sometimes I just needed to hear someone on the other end, and he was always there. He didn’t offer any profound advice, he just listened, and I am so grateful for that.”
The adjustment to sobriety is something Doyle has focused on since “most of my social life revolved around drugs and alcohol. I spent a lot of times in bars, casinos, and all sorts of unsavory places with unsavory people. I cared a lot about what people thought of me. I always found it tough to fit in and was never comfortable in my own skin.”
Eric described how he lived a life “full of self-pity, anger, anxiety, fear, and always feeling like a victim. I drank to escape reality, to forget.”
All of that has changed since getting sober.
“Today, I don’t care if I fit in or what people think of me, Doyle expressed. “I am able to be present and have genuine connections with human beings. I am able to be of service and help people, which is amazing.”
Johnston feels over the last two years Eric looks “more comfortable, more relaxed, certainly he knows that the journey is not over and is something you have to keep on top of all the time if you are dealing with issues like that. I just see him as knowing, ‘Hey, I’m dealing with this now, I’m going to deal with it, I’m going to continue to work my way through it.’ Before, I didn’t really see that, I kind of saw him handle it, but not deal with it.”
What helped lead to Doyle’s turnaround and success in sobriety?
“I surrounded myself with people with solid recovery. I try and attend a 12-step meeting at least once a day where I can hear and share a message of hope. I have been taught a new way of living which is better than I could ever have imagined. I am not rich, a social media star, have no education, but what I do have is peace and serenity. I have an understanding of who I am. I no longer live in fear, anger or self-pity. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
“I am grateful to be alive today because two years ago I did not want to be alive. I am finally comfortable in my own skin and have peace of mind. I am inspired every day. I know what it is like to feel hopeless and helpless. I get to see people firsthand go from a state of hopelessness to a life full of hope and happiness.”
Eric’s goal is to be involved with hockey as long as possible, but he also feels he has a bigger purpose. “I try to practice love, compassion, and respect every day. I love what I do for a living and hope to do it for a long time, but today I understand that my greatest purpose and gift is to help others and share a message of hope.”
Doyle has tried not to voice his opinion or give too much advice directly. Rather, he’s elected to share his experience and what worked for him and hopes someone can relate to his story.
He offered, “If you are struggling with drugs or alcohol, there is plenty of help out there, just ask. Whether it be a family member, friend, coach, teacher, just ask. I am not an expert by any means and don’t claim to be. I do have plenty of experience though and always willing to talk to anyone. Whatever you are going through or have been through, I can more than likely relate. At the end of the day I was willing and desperate enough to ask for help and it saved my life.”
“By the grace of God, I have been given a second chance in this world. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
Two years and counting!