Eric Van Impe might be Canadian, but his first memories of hockey come from Germany. His father, Darren, ended a 14-year pro hockey career in Germany with his final five seasons of professional hockey being spent there.
“Some of my first memories of hockey would be playing mini sticks in our basement in Germany,” Eric said. “My dad set up a little rink for my brother and I there and we’d play all the time. Then going to the rink and watching him play, that’s how I fell in love with the game, watching him.”
After nine seasons and 411 NHL games Darren Van Impe played for the Hamburg Freezers and DEG Metro Stars from 2003-2008, when Eric was just learning how to play the game.
Like any other young kid, Eric was also attending school and learning a second language.
“I went to a Canadian school and took an hour of German every day,” Van Impe said. “I could speak German as well as any young kid could at that age. I was there for school up to grade two, and at that age basically everyone is friends with one another.”
Van Impe said the offseasons during his dad’s playing days in Germany were spent mostly in Saskatchewan, split between Prince Albert and Candle Lake.
After Darren’s fifth season in Germany, the family moved back to Canada permanently which allowed for more time spent on developing Eric’s game.
“Once we moved back it allowed me to sort of start my minor hockey in Canada which was a little more serious than it was in Germany,” he said. “At that age you’re focused a lot on just having fun and enjoying the game, but my dad coached my teams up until peewee so it was always fun to have him on the ice and teach me.”
The lessons learned clearly helped Van Impe as he got older, eventually leading him to be drafted 30th overall by the Spokane Chiefs in the 2016 WHL Prospects Draft.
Like a lot of WHL draft picks, Van Impe was in school on draft day.
“I was just at school with another friend (Blake Stevenson) who got drafted too,” Van Impe said. “You try not to pay too much attention to it, and then you start getting a whole bunch of texts, which is pretty cool at that age.”
The Chiefs selected Van Impe after he recorded 43 points (15-28-43) while playing for the U15 Calgary Northstar Sabres, a team that featured multiple future WHL players such as Brayden Tracey, Stevenson, Nolan Orzeck and Ethan Rowland. Van Impe’s 43 points were second amongst defenceman in the AMBHL that season, behind only Bowen Byram.
Van Impe made his way south of the border for his first WHL training camp in the fall of 2016, and as expected, it was quite an eye-opening experience for the still 14-year-old Van Impe.
“I’m a late birthday so I was still 14-years-old and I’m in camp against 20-year-olds,” he recalled. “Guys like Kailer Yamamoto are there, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Hudson Elynuik. So you go to camp and you’re obviously a little nervous because you’re so young and some of these guys are so much older. It makes you realize how much work you have to do to get to that level.”
Signing with the Chiefs before that camp, Van Impe took those lessons back to the U18 level in Calgary and posted 15 points (5-10-15) with the Calgary Northstars in 2016-17.
A year older, stronger and wiser, Van Impe returned to Spokane for training camp in the fall of 2017, hoping to make a strong push for a roster spot at 16-years-old.
“I wanted to give it a push for sure,” he said. “I wanted to try and I thought I had a chance, but it didn’t end up working out. It benefitted me to go back to U18 anyway.”
A second season with the Northstars did prove to be instrumental to Van Impe’s development as he more than doubled his point total from the previous season, scoring 33 points (13-20-33) in 2017-18, eventually being named to the second all-star team for the AMHL.
Though it wasn’t long into the 2017-18 season that Van Impe was told he wouldn’t be playing for the Spokane Chiefs in the future.
“I came home from school one day and my parents were sitting on the landing of the house just smiling,” Van Impe recalled. “They wouldn’t tell me what was going on before asking me if I wanted to go to Medicine Hat. It’s a bit of a weird feeling at that age because you have to sign off on the trade, but it definitely worked out for the best.”
Van Impe was traded from Spokane with Broncos alum Hayden Ostir and a 2019 second-round pick (Brayden Boehm) in exchange for 20-year-old forward Zack Fischer.
Excited about the prospect of playing closer to home, Van Impe made his WHL debut January 5, 2018 against the Edmonton Oil Kings. Despite having a week’s notice before making his debut, the nerves were still present that night.
“They called me about a week ahead of time and asked if I wanted to play that game,” he said. “Obviously it’s nerve racking. I’d say it’s a lot of excitement and then once you get closer to game time you get a little more nervous but once the game starts you try and just go out there and keep it simple.”
And keep it simple he did, finishing the game as a +1 rating in a 5-1 Tigers win.
Becoming a full-time WHL player in 2018-19, Van Impe credited the veteran players on the Tigers for helping make his adjustment to the WHL easy.
“The captain, James Hamblin, was a really good leader,” Van Impe said. “He was a great guy to kind of just watch day-to-day to see how he handled himself. His work ethic was unbelievable, which just makes you strive to be like him at the rink.”
The Tigers finished the 2018-19 season with a 35-27-4-2 record and matched up with the Oil Kings as the seventh seed in the first round of the playoffs. After alternating wins in the first three games of the series, the Oil Kings rattled off three straight wins to take the series in six games.
In 2019-20 the Tigers clearly meant business, playing to a 41-19-2-1 record. Van Impe’s play also improved immensely, going from six points (2-4-6) in his rookie season to 17 points (4-13-17) the following year. That made the cancellation of the 2020 playoffs even harder to swallow.
“We felt like we got robbed,” Van Impe said. “Lots of teams say it, but we felt that we had an honest chance to win the league that year. We were geared up and ready to go for a playoff run. We’re not the only ones that happened to, but it’s always in the back of your mind wondering what would have happened.”
Van Impe says the team was following what was happening leading up to the pandemic, before being told they were being sent home in mid-March. He says he and his teammates thought they might just be sent home for a few weeks before returning for playoffs, but unfortunately never got the opportunity.
Faced with a significantly different-looking offseason than in years past, Van Impe was able to adjust nicely and stay on top of his conditioning to prepare for whenever the 2020-21 season may get underway. Thanks to a Tigers teammate, Van Impe was able to get into some extra games before the WHL season began.
“My good friend Brett Kemp played in Medicine Hat and he’s actually from Yorkton,” Van Impe explained. “So once some junior guys started to go play in the SJHL and the AJHL he texted me and asked if I wanted to play in Yorkton. I had nothing else to do so I figured I may as well, and it was a good experience.”
Van Impe played six games for the Yorkton Terriers to begin the 2020-21 season, picking up six assists.
When the WHL season was able to get up and running in the spring of 2021, Van Impe says he was pretty fortunate with how Medicine Hat was able to work their way through the 24-game season.
“We were honestly pretty lucky since we got to stay at our billet houses,” he said. “We had to keep our contacts to basically just the team and billet families, but we were able to hang out at the rink a lot, they didn’t kick us out early or anything like that.”
Van Impe more than doubled his points-per-game production during that shortened season with 13 points (4-9-13) in just 22 games, going from 0.27 PPG to 0.59 in 2020-21.
Preparing for his 20-year-old season in the WHL, Van Impe came to training camp in Medicine Hat knowing there was an elephant in the room: the Tigers had four 20-year-olds on the roster to begin the season. Because the four, Van Impe, Lukas Svejkovsky, Daniel Baker and Corson Hopwo, had played together for so long, Van Impe says there was no awkwardness about the situation.
“We had a really close group of 20’s so everyone knew the situation, but we were really good about it,” he said. “We just took it day by day, we knew someone was going to go but we didn’t know who until I was traded. You’re obviously competing for a spot, but you’re ready for whatever may come.”
After dressing in just one game for the Tigers in 2021-22, a 2-0 loss to the Broncos to open the season, Van Impe was then traded to the Seattle Thunderbirds a week later.
After spending over three years with the organization, it was understandably a difficult moment for the veteran defenceman.
“It’s never easy when you’ve been somewhere for a while,” he admitted. “We had a really tight group of guys there too so it’s tough to leave that, but at the end of the day you’re excited to start another opportunity.”
After driving himself from Medicine Hat to Cranbrook that day, Van Impe then continued his drive and met the Thunderbirds in Spokane, joining them at the rink and suiting up that night.
He said getting into game action immediately was probably the best way to adjust to a new team.
“The boys got off the bus and I introduced myself to everyone and then just walked in and played,” he said with a laugh.
Adjusting to the locker room was simple enough, but the bigger change for Van Impe was away from the rink thanks to the vast difference between living in Medicine Hat and Seattle.
“Driving to the rink was a lot longer, that was definitely something I noticed,” he laughed. “In Medicine Hat we would come to the rink to workout, go home and then come back for practice, but in Seattle we’d go to the rink for the day and then go home.”
Because the players lived so far apart from each other, Van Impe said they would often all go for lunch after practice to be able to spend time together before all heading home for the day.
The West Coast is a vacation destination for most, and it was no different for Van Impe as he soaked in living in that area of the world during his time there.
“My family came down to visit and we were able to go downtown. I was able to go to a few Seattle Seahawks games too,” he said.
After skating in 27 games with the Thunderbirds and posting eight points (2-6-8), Van Impe was once again on the move.
Though this time he didn’t expect it.
“That one caught me by surprise,” he admitted. “But you just have to roll with it and make the most of everything. My family was able to come and watch me a lot more often than being in Seattle. Coming to a younger group the goal for us was to make a playoff push, which unfortunately didn’t quite happen. And as an older guy you want to try and help some of the younger guys on an everyday basis.”
Van Impe’s arrival in Swift Current was much different than his arrival in Seattle as the Broncos were forced to pause team activities the day after he joined the team.
That playoff push for the Broncos lasted right until the final day of the regular season which came up short in a 4-1 loss to the Prince Albert Raiders, all but sealing the Broncos fate for 2021-22.
“It was really fun,” Van Impe said of games down the stretch. “Lots of guys in the league haven’t had the chance to play meaningful hockey in the WHL over the past few years. It was fun to come to the rink with the fans so engaged towards the end of the season.”
The Broncos playoff hopes weren’t mathematically dashed until the Raiders beat the Brandon Wheat Kings on Saturday, April 16, a game the Broncos players watched as a team.
“That’s when you start realizing it’s over,” he said. “But I have to be thankful for the career that I was given the opportunity to have and the people I met along the way.”
With 214 regular season WHL games under his belt, Van Impe says he’s currently in the process of deciding which school he’s going to attend for the fall of 2022.
While he can’t be a part of the Broncos moving forward, he’s forever grateful that he got to experience being a Bronco during an exciting time for the franchise.
“It’s an awesome place to play, it’s such a great hockey town,” he said. “Towards the end I got to experience how much the Broncos really mean to them. I don’t know if the fans really know how much they mean to us. It was really important for us down the stretch to see the town sort of come back to life compared to the past couple years. They’ve got such an exciting future.”