Sports Column

Out of hockey and listening still for that distant drum

Trent Frayne March 10 1980
Sports Column

Out of hockey and listening still for that distant drum

Trent Frayne March 10 1980

Out of hockey and listening still for that distant drum

Sports Column

Trent Frayne

Purists will be pleased to hear that Eric Nesterenko hasn’t abandoned the quest. He’s still waiting to hear that distant drum. He still listens to the wind.

“Nester the Quester” was different than most hockey players—more thoughtful, more curious, more in search of, oh, fulfilment beyond pay day. He never found it, though. He played for 20 years in the National Hockey League, the first four in Toronto and 16 in Chicago, and he was still looking when he left in 1972.

Once when Nester was nearing the end of his long term, he was tooling along an expressway on the outskirts of Chicago and his glance fell upon a big outdoor pleasure-skating rink.

The day was bitterly cold and the rink empty, bathed in the bitter, useless sunlight of winter. He sped down an exit ramp, drove to the rink and pulled an old pair of skates from his trunk. He threw off his coat and for the next 45 minutes he skated around and around on the glistening wind-swept sheet.

“It was like when I was a kid in Flin Flon,” Eric remembers. “Nobody was there and all I could hear was the wind. In Flin Flon back then, the lakes would often freeze by early October. The snow wouldn’t come till much later so you could skate for miles. I was free. You know?” Eric is 46 and now he has turned to skiing, looking for that freedom. He’s defensive about it, of course. “I ought to grow up and get a serious job,” he says.

“Nester the Quester” had been exposed to skiing a couple of times over the years but, being Eric, he was enthralled by the remote majesty of the Rockies in a visit to Aspen, Colorado, a couple of winters ago. He’d skied enough to be able to get a job on a ski patrol.

“We did mountain rescue work, brought injured people down the slopes and worked at avalanche control,” he says. “In the last year I’ve become a skiing instructor. I hope to go on skiing the rest of my life. I’m in terrific shape, I

weigh now what I weighed as a rookie in Toronto.”

Eric has a wife, Barbara, who understands him as few people do. She’s at their Chicago home with their three teen-age children while Eric searches for himself among the avalanches.

“We’ve been married a long time,” Eric says. “After 19 years, we’re not kids. Barbara has a good job as a psy-

chiatric social worker in Chicago and the kids are doing great in high school. I guess when I left hockey I ran into that middle-age crisis bullshit, drank too much, all that. Skiing’s helping me.”

Eric says that in his first years in pro hockey the game was intensely demanding and exciting. That lasted for 10 years and included a Stanley Cup win by the Hawks in 1961. When he first went up with the Leafs from the junior Toronto Marlboros he got a lavish welcome because by then the Nesterenkos had moved from Flin Flon. As a student at North Toronto Collegiate, Eric got a local-boy-makes-good reception in which he was merely compared to Howe, Apps, Conacher and Richard, and the Star Weekly did a 2,500-word piece on him on the strength of two goals in his second NHL game.

Oddly enough, Nester didn’t quite live up to the billing. “I used to go skating

alone on Grenadier Pond to get away from the crap,” Eric remembers.

His first exposure to skiing came in the summer of 1963 when he went holidaying to Chile. He took a train from Santiago to an area called Portillo where skiers were falling off mountains, the way skiers do. Naturally, Nester tried it: “I fell in love with it.”

Subconsciously, maybe he was thinking of skiing after he quit playing hockey eight years ago. He went to Lausanne, Switzerland, to coach hockey and in his spare time took cable cars to the mountaintops, looked around at the endless sweeps of snow and peaks, drank the rare air and slid down.

“I was burned out with hockey, mentally and emotionally,” he reflects. “This was all so far removed from the other. The NHL game seemed for little boys. The trend appeared to be towards violence, headhunting. The elegance, flow and continuity were fading. I was on a downer towards competitive sports. I liked the idea that you could ski and not have to beat anybody.”

Later, back home, he coached the Trail Smoke Eaters in the shadow of Red Mountain where he soon was filling spare hours with the ski patrol, dabbled in other things. Back home in Chicago he worked at a recreation centre running the hockey school, even took an acting job with CBC TV a year ago, called by producer Ralph Thomas to perform in a hockey drama, Cement Head, which dealt with the blood-and-thunder nature of the game.

These days, Nester doesn’t have much time or patience for hockey. “I saw a game on television a while back between Vancouver and Colorado,” he says sombrely. “I couldn’t believe the mediocrity. There was no passing, no teamwork, only ragged violence. Most of the players I saw should have been in the minor leagues; only about eight have any credentials at all. I spent 20 years up there and I never heard of most of them.”

For “Nester the Quester” nothing looks the way it should. So there he is, out there searching.