LOOKING BACK: Eric Nesterenko
Before there was Esa Tikkanen, Claude Lemieux or Sean Avery, there was Eric Nesterenko.
One of the game's early instigators, he was known as "Nester The Pester" or "Elbows" Nesterenko. But in the Stadium, he was "Swoop".
Swoop managed to carve himself out a fine NHL career, spanning 21 seasons. He came out of the mining town of Flin Flon, in northern Manitoba, the son of Ukranian political refugees. He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and was heralded as the answer for the Canadiens' Jean Beliveau.
Nesterenko got his nickname for his low-to-the-ice skating style, especially coming around behind the net, looking as if he were parallel to the ice.
He was never in the elite class of player, like teammates Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita. But he was a true lunchpail player, always going tough into the corners, and usually good for 30-35 points and 80-100 penalty minutes. His best season was 1960-61, when he had 19 goals and 19 assists, along with 125 penalty minutes, helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.
He was also an ace penalty killer, mainly because of his skating and stickhandling ability. Rather than clear the puck, he would just dangle around the rink to kill penalties.
Unfortunately, his main claim to fame outside Chicago is the Willie O'Ree incident. O'Ree was the first African American player in the NHL. On his first trip to Chicago, Nesterenko butt-ended O'Ree, resulting in O-Ree spitting a couple Chiclets onto the ice and a busted nose. O'Ree also recalls Nesterenko using racial slurs on the ice. O'Ree retaliated by slamming his stick over Nesterenko's head.
It would be easy to just dismiss Nesterenko as a racist jerk. Judging by the rest of Nesterenko's life, both on and off the ice, it's safe to figure that Nesterenko was probably just using the one thing he know would get under O'Ree's skin. He was a shit-stirrer, not a racist.
Nesterenko was not a typical 60's NHL player. He participated in the Viet Nam peace marches, and even when he came to the Hawks from the Leafs in 1956, he wouldn't do so unless the Hawks allowed him to get his college degree. That sort of thing just wasn't done back then.
While other players were hitting bars and nightclubs in various cities, Nesterenko went to museums and art galleries. He also did some writing, and once his career was over, he played Rob Lowe's father in "Youngblood", where his most memorable scene was near the end of the movie, when he teaches Lowe's character how to fight on the ice.
He hung up the skates after a brief run in the WHA, where the Chicago Cougars gave a contract to any erstwhile Blackhawk they could get their hands on (Pat Stapleton later was a part-owner of the team).
At age 40, Nesterenko learned how to ski. He loved it so much, he became a ski instructor in Vail, Colorado. He draws on his experience as a hockey player, saying that if you know how to skate, you can handle yourself on skis.
I also strongly recommend you read Studs Turkel's "Working", especially the part where Studs interviews Nesterenko. This is a guy somebody needs to write a book about.