VERDICT: Former Blackhawk Eric Nesterenko dies at 88
Eric Nesterenko, a fluid skater and deep thinker who played 16 seasons with the Blackhawks, has died. He was 88 years old.
Only six people — Stan Mikita, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick KaneBobby Hull and Jonathan Toews – has played more games for the franchise than Nesterenko, who has logged 1,013 games in various roles, many of them unglamorous.
After growing up with Ukrainian immigrants in what he called a “little mining town 400 miles north of Winnipeg, an abandoned place called Flin Flon,” Nesterenko moved with his family to Toronto. Accompanied by hockey as a youth, he was signed by the Maple Leafs, who thought they had a future superstar. But after four seasons in which he felt constrained by their style, Nesterenko was sent to Chicago, where he became a staple from the 1956-57 season.
He only scored 20 goals once, the following year. But the “Flin Flon Flash”, with his elegant gait, lanky build and exceptional intuition, established himself as a defensive savant. Nesterenko, who also responded to “Elbows” or “Swoop”, reliably tracked opposing snipers and killed penalties for long years alongside specialist partners such as Bill Hay, Chico Maki and Lou Angotti . When opportunity and space permitted, Nesterenko could pounce. He scored 25 shorthanded times, including six in 1964-65.
A nonconforming type even in the comfortable days of the Original Six, Nesterenko enrolled at the University of Toronto while a member of the Blackhawks. College was a rumor in the National Hockey League at the time, but he was looking for a backup plan, just in case. Blackhawks general manager Tommy Ivan, eager to get this enlightened young man on the ice, came up with a new solution. Nesterenko could go to classes, provided he is ready and able for games.
Motivated and disciplined, Nesterenko has always been. He also explored life off the beaten track. When salary negotiations stalled, he briefly left the Blackhawks during training camp to try out for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Like the Maple Leafs, they saw real talent and offered him a contract. With that leverage, Nesterenko returned to the Blackhawks and helped the rejuvenated franchise to the 1961 Stanley Cup.
Nesterenko ventured into places not often frequented by big city athletes. He visited the vast cultural places of Chicago – museums, theaters, opera, symphony orchestra. Then, at the end of the hockey season, Nesterenko would disappear from the Evanston home with his wife and three children, seeking peace and quiet. His teammates affectionately referred to him as “intellectual”, but he only laughed at the label. Also, the guys knew that when the puck fell, Nesterenko was all-in.
Studs Terkel, a legendary author, wrote a book in 1974: “Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.” Nesterenko was a star guest and his interview did not disappoint.
“The goal of a professional game is to win. That’s what we sell. We sell it to a lot of people who don’t win at all in their usual life. I have my doubts about what I’m doing. I’m not sure of myself. It doesn’t seem clear to me sometimes. I’m a man playing a boy’s game. Is that a good reason to make money? Then I turn around and think about a job. I tried to be a stockbroker. I say to a guy, ‘I have a good stock, do you want to buy it?’ He says no. I say, ‘Okay.’ You don’t want to buy, don’t buy. I’m not good at persuading people to buy things they want to buy. But the stockbroker comes to see me play. I’m not going to see him be a broker. When Toronto let me down, I said, “I’m a failure. Twenty-two, what do we know? We know our time is fleeting. Our values are instantaneous. C It’s really hard to bide your time.
Famous columnist Bob Greene was also intrigued by this student-athlete. After leaving the Blackhawks in 1972, Nesterenko had a brief stint with the Chicago Cougars of the World Hockey Association. He reflects on his career as follows:
“Hockey can be a heavy mistress when the legs give out and maybe the mental edge as well. The hardest thing for a professional athlete to recognize is that they’re not the best in the world. There are some so few who make it to the major leagues in any sport. We were all the best in our schools, our neighborhoods. Until you become a pro, you just don’t understand that’s going to change. This took me two or three years in the NHL Then one day I just knew it was true There are men here who are better than me I can play my best, I can play at the absolute peak of my abilities, and there are still men who are younger and much better. You hear that the players don’t have fun like they used to. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it’s is the case, it’s a shame.”
After his retirement, Nesterenko said he became a “ski bum”. He settled in Colorado where he became a famous ski instructor. Always ready to try something different, Nesterenko briefly went to Hollywood, starring in the hockey movie “Youngblood.” He acted as a consultant for the film, and also as the co-starring father of an aspiring gamer.
“Dean Youngblood was Rob Lowe,” Nesterenko recalled. “It was a typical storyline. I was there to teach him how to skate. Nice guy, not really fast on the blades. But it worked and it was fun. Whatever I was doing, I was looking to have fun If I had one message to today’s race in the NHL, it would be to have fun at the sport, because it’s the greatest sport of all.The hockey player enjoys an existence privileged. Savor it. It’s work. But it’s work to play.
Eric Nesterenko. A life fully lived.