May 16, 2006

Eric Nesterenko

Of all the hockey players, Eric Nesterenko has had perhaps the most interesting, if not most unconventional, lives on and off the ice. He's of course best known as a hockey player, but he's worked as a disk jockey, a stock broker, a travel broker, a freelance writer, a university professor and a ski instructor. He's done odd jobs such as driving a loader and diesel Cat in the arctic. And he's even tried his hand at acting - he played the father in the Rob Lowe hockey movie "Youngblood."

Nesterenko was unorthodox in his hockey days as well. He was one of the first to be inspired by Canadian fitness guru Lloyd Percival. He concentrated on his diet and conditioning years before it was common for NHLers to do so.

Eric was born in the mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba, where his parents settled fleeing their native Ukraine. They were political refugees who escaped to Czechoslovakia because of the Russian Revolution, and later moved to Canada.

Eric's father was a highly educated man, working as a chemist at the mine and was fluent in 6 languages. All the children were raised with a thirst for education, including Eric. But Eric soon fell in love with the Canadian game of hockey - but he never stopped learning.

Eric played on the frozen ponds in remote Manitoba from age 5 through 11. He really learned how to skate and stickhandle in these unorganized games. Eric suggests that this is what kids nowadays lack - the natural skills that organized hockey doesn't develop.

At age 11 Eric's family moved to the Toronto area. It is in Toronto where Eric first really started playing in organized hockey. He quickly established himself as a top level peewee and bantam player. Soon enough word got out to Conn Smythe and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who selected him to play in their junior system. Nesterenko stepped in and became one of the top junior aged players in all of Canada.

When the Montreal Canadiens signed graceful giant Jean Beliveau, Smythe, always looking to upstage his arch rivals, boasted about their emerging star named Nesterenko. The comparisons between Eric and Jean began there. Because of his large size (6'2" 200lbs) and good skating ability, Nesterenko was compared favorably to Jean Beliveau early in his career. However no one confuses the two now that all is said in done.

Nesterenko turned down a four year hockey scholarship to the University of Michigan in order to play for the Maple Leafs beginning in 1953. However over 4 years with the Leafs, all parties involved were very frustrated. The man once compared to Jean Beliveau was doing little much to the disappointment of the Leafs and their fans. Nesterenko was upset that Toronto would not let him have a chance to excel.

"The problem was they tied my game down," said Eric in Charles Wilken's book Breakaway. "They wouldn't allow any free-wheeling. No imagination. You had to stick on your wing. Detroit and Montreal were playing much more imaginatively. Toronto had been a great team in the past, but at that point they weren't doing much."

"Eventually I got into a big fight with the Leafs about how they were playing me. In those days you didn't question management at all, and in 19554 they got rid of me, sold my rights to Chicago."

Nesterenko would be a long time member of the Chicago Blackhawks, but he never fathomed that immediately after the trade to the Windy City. Fearing his career was over, Eric enrolled at the University of Toronto. But the Hawks desperately wanted Nesterenko in their lineup, and by January finally came up with an unusual agreement

Nesterenko agreed to play for the Hawks, but only if he could continue his education. Eric is probably the only full time university student to play in the NHL! He would travel back and forth between school and the site of the Hawks next game, but rarely would he travel with the team or even get in some good practice time. He pretty much arrived in time to play the game and left quickly afterwards. Needless to say, the accommodation for Eric was not well liked by the Hawks coaching staff.

In Chicago Eric was transformed into a valuable defensive forward. His skating ability and hockey sense made him into a superb penalty killer and shadow of the league's better players.

By 1956, Nesterenko was having some problems coming to an agreement with the Hawks on a new contract. So he left the Hawks training camp and tried out for the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. Eric had been a star football player in high school and college. The Argos even offered Eric a contract, but he used that as leverage to get the Hawks to improve their contract offer, and he returned to the Hawks.

While Eric was excelling as a defensive forward in Chicago, he took in everything the city of Chicago could offer him. Unlike most hockey players, he would frequent theatres and operas, the symphony and art museums. He even took some part time university literature courses. He was even present at the now-famous anti war demonstrations in Chicago in 1968.

Though Eric enjoyed the big city, he loved to escape it as soon as the NHL season was over. He'd pack up the whole family and they'd go out into the wilderness. They would often find their way to the quietest ranches and mountain slopes.

Eric excelled in the NHL for 20 years, including a Stanley Cup championship year in 1961. Towards the end of his career he admitted he wasn't as good as he was earlier in his career, he said it was easier because of the diluted talent in the league because of expansion.

After retiring from the NHL in 1972, Nesterenko had a cup of coffee in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars in 1973-74. He spent a year coaching in Lausanne, Switzerland and also enjoyed a season in the Western Hockey League in 1975-76, skating with famed Trail Smoke Eaters. Between the Swiss Alps and the BC mountains, Nesterenko developed a love of skiing, and perfected his skills on the slopes.

He eventually ended up in Colorado, where he did a number of odd jobs, including helping to set up a hockey program for the locals. And he's a bit of a celebrity in Vail, where he earns a good living as a ski instructor. In a town known for celebrity appearances from Hollywood and the rich and famous, Nesterenko is not a celebrity because of his hockey past. In fact, many of the people in Vail have little idea of his past!

There is no doubt that Eric Nesterenko is one of hockey's most interesting people - but it is perhaps is non-hockey stories that are the most interesting part of his life.

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