Eric L'Italien: The altruistic academic athlete

Eric L'Italien captured the Randy Gregg Award for his achievements in hockey, academics and community service. / Photo: Clauido Calligaris
Eric L'Italien captured the Randy Gregg Award for his achievements in hockey, academics and community service. / Photo: Clauido Calligaris

Hockey star turned law student brings well-roundedness to new levels

By Pascal Zamprelli

Back in 2004, Eric l’Italien was completing his final year in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League, playing for the Rimouski Océanic alongside none other than Sidney Crosby. Over the course of his five-year major-junior career, he had also played in Quebec City, where a very passionate and intense Patrick Roy was his general manager.

But unlike many players who make it to such a competitive level, L’Italien was ready to consider the possibility that his hockey career would not necessarily take him where Crosby was going and Roy had been.

“I was looking for an opportunity to continue to keep playing hockey,” he said, “so I looked at the university option.” Wanting to stay in the province, L’Italien was accepted to McGill and pursued his interest in Psychology here, despite barely speaking any English. “McGill has a very strong reputation in this field,” he explained, “so I said that was perfect for me. I would be able to keep playing hockey and study at a great university.”

Thus began an impressive demonstration of how one can successfully combine academics and athletics.

L’Italien obtained his Psychology degree, stayed at McGill to study law, and is just completing his second year of that program. This year was also his fifth and final as a member of the McGill Redmen hockey team, of which he was co-captain. He has been a major part of the team’s unprecedented success over the last few years, including three National Championship appearances in the last four years, and this after almost of century without a McGill team making it that far. “With 14 rookies!” he said referring to this year’s squad, “which is unbelievable.”

Success has been even sweeter as captain, being able to guide all those rookies along, something he sees as a learning experience. “It made me really self-aware about what I was doing, and how I was acting,” he said. “There are very smart players on the team, studying in different fields, and you have the chance to be the leader of this group and try to act as a role model.”

As important a part of his life as hockey is, however, L’Italien always recognized the value of bringing the same energy, organization and dedication to his schoolwork. These days his passion is law. “I look at this discipline and I realize that it’s related to so many things in life,” he said. “You can understand how society works. I think about that all the time.”

For L’Italien, being well rounded doesn’t end with school or sports, however. He also volunteers extensively in the community, as evidenced by his being honoured this year with the Dr. Randy Gregg Award, presented annually by Canadian Interuniversity Sport to reward the student-athlete most exhibiting outstanding achievement in three areas: hockey, academics and community involvement.

“I never try to focus on one thing,” he said. “It’s always been important to mix a couple of things in my life. I think that this trophy reflects this strive for balance.”

One of his side projects aims to pass along his notion of balance to young major-junior players following in his footsteps. “We’re trying to make players in the Major-Junior hockey league realize sooner that university is an option,” he said.

“When you have 16-year-olds, it’s normal that they would like being a hockey player better than being a lawyer,” L’Italien said, “even more so when you have the chance to play in the major-junior league. You’re so close. But not many players end up finishing in the NHL, so we’re trying to make them think about that sooner.”

He also helps run a youth hockey school affiliated with McGill’s hockey program, volunteers playing hockey with kids in Montreal North, helps out at the student-run Legal Clinic on campus and plans to stay involved with the Redmen next year by helping run practices.

And as if his plate weren’t full enough, the 25-year-old and his wife are awaiting their first child in June. “Maybe I will switch from being a hockey player to being a father,” L’Italien conceded with a laugh. “I think I’ll be really busy next year.”