eric nesterenko, 1933—2022

Eric Nesterenko has died at the age of 88, the Chicago Black Hawks are noting today. Born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, he made his NHL debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1952 as an 18-year-old. After playing parts of five seasons in Toronto, the Leafs sold his and Harry Lumley’s contracts contract to Chicago for $40,000. Sixteen seasons he skated with the Black Hawks before retiring from the NHL in 1972. He subsequently joined the Chicago Cougars during the WHA’s 1973-74 season, taking a last pro turn at 40. In later years he worked as a ski patroller and instructor and taught some university as a guest lecturer. He played Rob Lowe’s father in the 1986 movie Youngblood and, apparently, passed several summers in the northern Alaska volunteering as air-defence spotter in case any Russian aircraft should stray into view.

In Bill Gaston’s wonderful novel The Good Body (2000), his protagonist, Bonaduce, marvels at Nesterenko, who in 1968 (he asserts) “scored 32 goals for Chicago and published his first book of poems.” I looked for that book, and when I failed to find it, I asked Gaston, was it true? He couldn’t remember whether or just should be. I found an address in Vail, Colorado, and wrote to Nesterenko for the final word, but my letter came back unopened, RETURN TO SENDER, the envelope demanded, while confiding also ATTEMPTED and NOT KNOWN, and finally (protesting way too much) UNABLE TO FORWARD.

It’s worth, on this day, revisiting the interview Studs Terkel did with Nesterenko for his 1974 book Working.

“It’s been a good life,” the hockey player said there. “Maybe I could have done better, have better record or something like that. But I’ve really had very few regrets over the past 20 years. I can enjoy some of the arts that I had shut myself off from as a kid. Perhaps that is my only regret. The passion for the game was so all-consuming when I was a kid that I blocked myself from music. I cut myself off from a certain broadness of experience. Maybe one has to do that to fully explore what they want to do the most passionately.

I know a lot of pro athletes who have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself. I look forward to a lower key way of living. But it must be physical. I’m sure I would die without it, become a drunk or something.

I still like to skate. One day last year on a cold, clear, crisp afternoon, I saw this huge sheet of ice in the street. Goddamn if I didn’t drive out there and put on my skates. And I flew. Nobody was there. I was free as a bird. I was really happy. That goes back to when I was a kid. I’ll do that until I die, I hope. Oh, I was free!

The wind was blowing from the north. With the wind behind you, you’re in motion, you can wheel and dive and turn, you can lay yourself into impossible angles that you never could walking or running. You lay yourself at a 45-degree angle, your elbow virtually touching the ice as you’re in a turn. Incredible It’s beautiful! You’re breaking the bounds of gravity. I have a feeling this is the innate desire of man.

I haven’t kept many photographs of myself, but I found one where I’m in full flight. I’m leaning into a turn. You pick up the centrifugal forces and you lay in it. For a few seconds, like a gyroscope, they support you. I’m in full flight and my head is turned. I’m concentrating on something and I’m grinning. That’s the way I like to picture myself. I’m something else there. I’m on another level of existence, just being in pure motion. Going wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. That’s nice, you know.”

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