Dillon Eichstadt’s hockey career has taken him from his hometown of Bemidji to South Dakota and back again, but it had never taken him as far as the place he called home this year.
The former Lumberjack and Beaver standout suited up for the Coventry Blaze of the Elite Ice Hockey League in his first season of professional hockey across the pond in the United Kingdom.
“It was a lot of fun. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, but it ended up being a really good league with a lot of good players,” said Eichstadt, who capped off his college career with Bemidji State in 2018-19. “I was happy with the decision to go there.”
As a defenseman, Eichstadt was a perennial pillar of Bemidji blue lines for the better part of a decade. He totaled 33 points (9g-24a) for Bemidji High School from 2009-12, and tacked on 32 more (6g-26a) over four seasons at BSU from 2015-19.
Although hockey is not as ingrained into British culture as it is in Minnesota, Eichstadt found the fans in Coventry -- located in central England, about 20 miles east of Birmingham and 100 miles northwest of London -- to be a devoted bunch.
“Hockey’s not super popular, but in a smaller group they’re very passionate,” Eichstadt said.
Coming from the WCHA, Eichstadt got a taste of playing at Olympic-sized rinks in college, though the wider sheets are clearly the norm in Europe.
“Naturally, you’re going to have a little more time and space,” Eichstadt said when comparing the EIHL to the WCHA. “I think that’s pretty standard in all of pro hockey. College hockey is kind of a track meet. Teams get up and down the sheet and really forecheck hard. I think in pro, and definitely the (EIHL), it’s a little slower pace.
“But guys are probably more skilled, and being that they’re older, they might be a little bit slower. But like I said, they’re more skilled and I would definitely say probably smarter when it came to getting to areas to get the puck. It was a tough league to defend in.”
Eichstadt wasn’t the only Coventry player transitioning from the WCHA to the EIHL.
Former Bowling Green standouts and brothers Chris and Matt Pohlkamp, who skated for Brainerd High School, also joined the Blaze this season. Eichstadt lived with Chris, the younger of the brothers, this past year after having hoisted the Clark Cup as USHL champions together with the Sioux Falls Stampede in 2014-15.
“We’ve been friends since then,” Eichstadt said. “After I signed with the Blaze, he reached out to me to kind of maybe get in touch with my agent because he had interest in going overseas. It ended up working out where he was able to sign with the Blaze, too, and then his brother followed suit shortly thereafter. It was good to have some familiar faces, guys that I’ve played with and played against.”
Bitter end to season
Coventry sat third in the league standings and just three points out of first with about two weeks to go in the regular season when all remaining games were canceled March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was tough because we were on such a good run in the second half of the season,” Eichstadt said. “We got a new goaltender. We were really hot.”
The Blaze caught fire during the second half, winning 14 of their final 19 games, and with four of those five losses coming in overtime or a shootout. The team finished the season unbeaten in regulation in its last 17 outings.
“We crawled back pretty good in the standings,” Eichstadt added. “We felt we were making a push with the five games left, and then obviously the playoffs. We felt like we were cheated a little bit I guess in a way because of how well we were playing and how hot we would have been going into the playoffs.”
The Bemidji native accumulated 29 points (4g-25a) in 47 games to finish 11th among all EIHL defensemen.
The season may not have ended the way he wanted, but Eichstadt enjoyed his rookie campaign in pro hockey, all while getting a taste of life in the UK.
“Everything’s so compact, living in houses that are right next to each other (with) not much backyard,” said Eichstadt, who also took in a Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Manchester City during the season. “You’re able to walk to a lot of places, which is a lot different. You drive on the other side of the road, which is pretty strange right away, as well. For the most part, it wasn’t too bad (getting used to a different culture). It helps when you’re in a country that still speaks English.”
Eichstadt self-quarantined for two weeks after flying back to the U.S. shortly after the season was canceled. Since arriving back stateside, he’s been staying in his fiancée’s hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D., where he plans to spend most of the summer.
With the sports world in quarantine, Eichstadt recently helped start a hockey podcast called On the Pond that he co-hosts with friends Sam Jerome and Nick Schmit. Jerome is a hockey official for NCAA Division I women’s, junior and high school games, while Schmit is a former Augsburg University goaltender. Eichstadt lived with Jerome while attending BSU after playing alongside Schmit in the NAHL.
“It was kind of a random thing,” Eichstadt said. “Sam Jerome approached me multiple times and then finally I caved or whatever and I joined. We’ve released a few episodes and it’s going all right. It’s been fun. ... It burns an hour of the week when you’re looking for something to do, that’s for sure.”