Matt Eldred began playing hockey in Cleveland's suburbs as a child.
More than 20 years later, it's where the Rocky River native and Bowling Green State University graduate will begin a new phase of his life.
The Toledo Storm defenseman yesterday surprisingly announced that he was ending a six-year professional career to become a pharmaceutical sales representative in his hometown area for Janssen Pharmaceutica, a division of Johnson & Johnson.
Eldred, 28, had two goals, five assists and 70 penalty minutes in 27 games for the East Coast Hockey League's winningest team this season. More than numbers, the stay-at-home defenseman was the stabilizing influence for a Toledo backline that includes six rookies.
He was signed as a free agent this summer by Storm coach Claude Noel. Eldred played the past five seasons for Noel when he coached in Kalamazoo (International Hockey League) and Milwaukee (IHL and American Hockey League).
“I agonized over it,” Eldred said. “It's bittersweet. It's a great job opportunity, but this was hard because of Claude. He's been a friend, a mentor, someone I've been able to count on for the last five years. That's what was the most difficult.”
“Not only that, but leaving a first-class organization and a first-place team that has a legitimate chance [to win a championship] was hard.”
On the disabled list since Nov. 29 after breaking a bone in his left hand, Eldred was looking for a non-playing job this summer but found nothing. Not pursuing anything once the season began, he was contacted recently and offered the position.
“He's really established a work ethic for the group in the back and our whole team,” Noel said. “His leadership has been tremendous. He'll be missed.”
Noel said he won't fill the opening for tonight's 7:30 face-off against Johnstown at the Sports Arena, but expects things to fall into place before the ECHL's cutdown date of Mar. 31.
As for the BGSU alumnus who has a degree in environmental policy, he's already told the coach that he'd be happy to fill in if the team is shorthanded.
“If I'm not tied up and it comes to pass, then I think I owe it to them,” Eldred said. “I'd be flattered if they wanted me back.”
Eldred said he's lucky to have played the game for as long as he has. He has pro career totals of 26 goals, 54 assists and 902 PIM's in 363 games. He lettered at BGSU from 1993-97.
“I got so much more from the coaches and the players than they would ever get from me,” Eldred said. “I hope that they can say that he played hard and that he was a guy that they could count on when the chips were down. I hope I gained their respect.”