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Rustin product Knodel hoping home ice can help his NHL dreams come true

Every year as summer turned to fall, Eric Knodel packed up and headed somewhere.

The West Chester Rustin grad has spent six pro seasons bouncing around the AHL and ECHL.

When he entered free agency this time, he wanted his next hockey stop to be close to home.

The 6-6, 225-pound defenseman got his wish. He signed with the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms last month.

“It has always been a motivation to try and get back,” he said. “I’ve had some real good opportunities elsewhere. I couldn’t really pass those up. It’s definitely easier when family is closer.”

Knodel tried baseball, soccer and lacrosse while growing up in Chester County. His parents, Rick and Molly, were from Buffalo and his dad played Division III hockey. That quickly became Eric’s favorite sport.

Much of Knodel’s youth was spent at Ice Line. He helped Rustin win a state championship 10 years ago and played for the Junior Flyers.

Knodel was a four-year standout at the University of New Hampshire and a fifth-round pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009. He has since become one of the ECHL’s best defenseman.

The veteran led the league with 17 goals, had 36 assists and was plus-38 for Cincinnati last season. He was named the league’s Defenseman of the Year.

Knodel didn’t get promoted to the AHL despite those numbers. He’s hoping to stick with Lehigh Valley when training camp opens next month.

If Knodel doesn’t make the Phantoms, he’ll play for the ECHL’s Reading Royals. Either way, close to home.

Royals coach Kirk MacDonald knows Knobel could be a game-changer at that level. MacDonald said the defenseman would be part of the team’s leadership group, likely wearing a letter, and will bring “pretty much everything” to the team.

“He didn’t get voted the best defenseman in the league by accident,” MacDonald said. “He moves the puck well. He can skate. He has a long reach and is good in his own end. He’s smart and he can run a power play.”

The Royals have done their best to tap into the local talent pool.

Nick Luukko, son of NHL executive Peter Luukko and a West Chester native, played four seasons with Reading and is now an assistant coach. Chris McCarthy of Collegeville and Adam Schmidt of Warrington have been key contributors.

Knodel is the latest player to join Lehigh Valley and possibly Reading, which are affiliates of the Philadelphia Flyers.

“I’ve spent the majority of my career in the ECHL,” Knodel said. “I know it’s a pretty good possibility I’ll spend a lot of time there. So many of my friends played with Lehigh Valley and Reading and had a great relationship. They had so much fun.”

Knodel, who turned 29 in June, hasn’t given much consideration to retirement. He still loves playing and he’s still improving. His past two seasons have been his most productive.

“I’m hoping for a bunch more years,” he said. “You never know. It’s such a crazy world we’re living in with hockey. I’ll keep playing until I stop loving it. I don’t want to leave it too early.”

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