Vail’s Nesterenko happy for Hawks’ win
VAIL, Colorado – The celebration of the Chicago Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup since 1961 began in Philadelphia on Wednesday night. It continued early Thursday morning when the team returned to Chicago. And today is the parade with Lord Stanley in the City of Broad Shoulders.
Vail’s Eric Nesterenko, 77, also celebrated a little bit. Better known locally as a ski instructor and seen on the golf course as well, Nesterenko was a member of the 1961 Chicago Blackhawks,.
“I’m really happy for them,” said Nesterenko, who lives in West Vail. “It’s really hard to go all the way.”
Nesterenko played 21 seasons in the NHL – the first five for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the rest with the Chicago. He was a two-time NHL All-Star as forward and had 250 goals and 324 assists during his career.
Playing in the days of “the Original Six,” Nesterenko and the Blackhawks finished third during the regular season in 1961 and earned a date with the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinals. The Habs were the five-time defending Cup champs, a run which has yet to be matched, but Chicago won the series, 4-2, setting up a date with Detroit.
After each team won on home ice through the first five games of the finals, the Blackhawks doubled up the Wings, 4-2, in Game 6 at the old Olympia to win what was Chicago’s last title until Wednesday.
In 1961, the celebration was a little more low key than it is today. The captain of the team – it was Ed Litzenberger – accepted the Stanley Cup on the ice and that was it. The celebration occurred in the locker room.
“We had some champagne out of it. It was fun,” Nesterenko said. “They say my name’s on it, but I haven’t seen it.”
Nesterenko said that the toughest thing was making the finals, which brings up an interesting historical point. These were the days of the Original Six, and in particular, Montreal and Toronto.
“You have to understand that Toronto and Montreal controlled all rights to players within 200 miles, so those were great teams,” Nesterenko said. “Plus, with only six teams in the league, every player on every team could skate, even the guys who fought.”
The Blackhawks and Nesterenko met up with the Canadians, whose roster was a who’s-who of hockey, for four straight years from 1959-1962 in the NHL semifinals. This is somewhat akin to the old Brooklyn Dodgers winning pennant after pennant only to face the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Nesterenko played in the Stanley Cup finals three more times in his career – in 1962 vs. the Leafs and 1965 and 1971 against the Habs – with the Blackhawks coming up on the short side of the stick.
Not surprisingly, when Nesterenko watched the NHL Playoffs on TV this year, he was surprised to see the more wide-open style of hockey being played. He’s also not a big fan of pugilism.
“The best hockey is played in the Olympics and in the playoffs,” Nesterenko said. “It’s still a physical game, but there’s no fighting because the guys know they’re going to get tossed. I have no idea why the owners and the commissioner don’t ban fighting and widen the rinks a little.”
Nesterenko retired from the NHL in 1972 and from hockey all together in the mid-70s. He made his way out to Aspen in 1978 and to Vail eventually in 1981. Nevertheless, he’s stayed in touch with the hockey world.
He’s been to Blackhawks gatherings and met with fans who grew up watching his Chicago teams of the 60s. The organization flew him back last October.
“They’ve been bringing back players like myself. I saw them play in October,” Nesterenko said. “They’re a good team with terrific players. Those guys can do tricks with the puck. I thought they would have a chance. I didn’t know they’d go all the way.”
Nesterenko describes himself as semi-retired. He still teaches skiing during the winter, and enjoys playing what he calls “terminally-mediocre golf.”
“I get these pamphlets from the Cleveland Clinic, and they say if you want to resist old age, exercise every day and meet new people,” Nesterenko said. “There’s no better way to meet new people and get exercise than teaching skiing.”
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or email@example.com.