Vail Valley character: Eric Nesterenko
June 18, 2009
Known as the first professional hockey player to go to college, West Vail resident Eric Nesterenko attended, and practiced with the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario to stay in shape, showing up to play in games for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Following that, he became one of the first players to push for a players association, resisting management for more players’ rights.
He started playing professional hockey at the age of 19 for Toronto, and in 1961 he won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks.
After his professional career, Nesterenko moved to Switzerland to coach hockey. In Switzerland, Nesterenko learned to ski with his three children. When he returned to the states skiing had become part of his life.
In the late 1970s he learned to be a ski instructor, and worked ski patrol for two years at Keystone.
After moving to the Vail Valley in 1981 for a ski instructor job, Nesterenko spent a couple of summers in the Arctic on the 70th parallel above Alaska, looking out for Russian aircraft with the Defense Early Warning System.
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In following summers he was a guest university teacher, an actor in the movie, “Youngblood,” and, in 1988, he helped build the Orient Express chair lift for the original access to China Bowl on Vail Mountain. He has continued to teach skiing in the winters since he arrived in Vail Valley. He now lives in West Vail.
VD: Having taught skiing and hockey, what have you noticed about people coming into a new sport?
Nesterenko: One of the great learning periods of a person’s life is from age 6 to puberty. If you don’t really learn how to do something in that period, you can learn to be reasonably competent after, but you won’t really have it. You can learn a language in a few weeks, you can do anything at that age if you’re exposed to it and you’re healthy.
VD: And that’s the attitude you have toward your own skating?
Nesterenko: Yeah, I mean, I don’t ever remember not skating … When I was a kid (in Flin Flon, Manitoba) the cold weather would often come in in late October or early November and the snow wouldn’t come in. So, the lakes would freeze and there would be black ice. It’s in the north country where there’s a lot of lakes, so these smaller lakes would be free of snow and they’d be pretty good wind blown, so we would just free skate on the lakes, which was a marvelous thing.
VD: Are these lakes where you mainly learned to skate and play?
Nesterenko: No. In the town, the mine built a big complex with four outdoor hockey rinks and a huge pleasure skating rink for free skating, and I lived across the street from it. I was there every day after school, every night after supper, and we would skate all day Saturdays and Sundays.
There was always some kind of a game going on, and often the older kids ran the games, so the thing was to try to beg a game with the older kids, if they’d let you play.
By the time I came to Toronto, because I was used to skating and playing with older kids who were our de-facto coaches …the knowledge of how to relate to other players and all the mechanical skills of playing were already intuitive, they were all part of my psyche, so when I started to play there, I was playing on an elite team. I didn’t have to be coached.
VD: With what sort of feelings do you reflect on your time as a professional hockey player?
Nesterenko: Oh, it was a pretty good life. Coming from a lower-middle class family, it offered me an opportunity to travel the world. I made, for that time at least, a good bit of money, and it was a pretty exciting way to live.
But for me, when it was over it was over. I realized I wasn’t going to be the best player in the world, but I could play, at least I played well enough to stay in the league. So then I started to use the game as an opportunity to experience the world, which I’ve tried to do.
We did a big exhibition tour in the late ’50s with a team from Boston and a team from New York, and I went with the team from New York, because they needed some extra players. We traveled all through Europe. We were there for 10 weeks, and that was my first exposure to Europe. We made some money and had some laughs. We … played 20 games in 30 days; it was pretty wild.