Eric Nesterenko, Black Hawks legend, in Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’

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In 1972, his final season with the Black Hawks and his second-to-last season of professional hockey, winger Eric Nesterenko gave Studs Terkel one of the most honest and insightful quotes that any athlete has ever committed to the annals of history:

“The whole object of a pro game is to win,” Nesterenko said. “That is what we sell. We sell it to a lot of people who don’t win at all in their regular lives.”

Tonight, the Blackhawks open the Stanley Cup Finals in Tampa with a chance to bag their third championship in six seasons. Prior to that, the franchise had gone 49 years without a championship. Nesterenko was a part of that team.

In honor of the latest Blackhawks Cup chase, I have typed out Nesterenko’s full interview with Terkel, part of the 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.

It remains one of the great athlete interviews I’ve ever read.

(Note: The following text is written as it appears in the book.)

***

Eric Nesterenko, by Studs Terkel (Hockey statistics)

Toronto Maple Leafs, 1951-56

Chicago Black Hawks, 1956-72

Chicago Cougars (World Hockey Association), 1973-74

He has been a professional hockey player for twenty years, as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks. He is thirty-eight. He has a wife and three small children.

“I lived in a small mining town in Canada, a God-forsaken place called Flinflan. In the middle of nowhere, four hundred miles north of Winnipeg. It was a good life, beautiful winters. I remember the Northern Lights. Dark would come around three o’clock. Thirty below zero, but dry and clean.

“I lived across the street from the rink. That’s how I got started, when I was four or five. We never had any gear. I used to wrap Life magazines around my legs. We didn’t have organized hockey like they have now. All our games were pickup, a never-ending game. Maybe there would be three kids to a team, then there would be fifteen, and the game would go on. Nobody would keep score. It was pure kind of play. The play you see here, outside the stadium, outside at the edge of the ghetto. I see ‘em in the schoolyards. It’s that same kind of play around the basket. Pure play.

“My father bought me a pair of skates, but that was it. He never took part. I played the game for my own sake, not for him. He wasn’t even really around to watch. I was playing for the joy of it, with my own peers. Very few adults around. We organized everything.

“I see parents at kids’ sporting events. It’s all highly organized. It’s very formal. They have referees and so on. The parents are spectators. The kids are playing for their parents. The old man rewards him for playing well and doesn’t reward him for not doing so well. (Laughs.) The father puts too much pressure on the kid. A boy then is soft material. If you want a kid to do something, it’s got to be fun.

“I was a skinny, ratty kid with a terrible case of acne. I could move pretty well, but I never really looked like much. Nobody ever really noticed me. But I could play the game. In Canada it is part of the culture. If you camp play the game, you are recognized. I was good almost from the beginning. The game became a passion with me. I was looking to be somebody and the game was my way. It was my life.”

At sixteen, while in high school, he was playing with semi-pro teams, earning two hundred dollars a week. At eighteen, he joined the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Eric Nesterenko with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Eric Nesterenko with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There’s an irony that one get paid for playing, that play should bring in money. When you sell play, that makes it hard for pure, recreational play, for play as an art, to exist. It’s corrupted, it’s made harder, perhaps it’s brutalized, but it’s still there. Once you learn how to play and are accepted in the group, there is a rapport. All you are as an athlete is honed and made sharper. You learn to survive in a very tough world. It has its own rewards.

The pro game is a kind of a stage. People can see who we are. Our personalities come through in our bodies. It’s exciting. I can remember games with twenty thousand people and the place going crazy with sound and action and color. The enormous energy the crowd produces all coming in on the ice, all focusing in on you. It’s pretty hard to resist that. (Laughs.)

I was really recognized then. I remember one game: it was in the semifinals, the year we won the Stanley Cup. I was with Chicago. It was the sixth game against Montreal. They were the big club and we were the Cinderella team. It was three to nothing, for us, with five minutes left to go. As a spontaneous gesture twenty thousand people stood up. I was on the ice. I remember seeing that whole stadium, just solid, row on row, from the balcony to the boxes, standing up. These people were turned on by us. (Sighs.) We came off, three feet off the ice … (Softly) Spring of ’61.

When Toronto dropped me I said, “I’m a failure.” Twenty-two, what the hell does one know? You’re the boy of the moment or nothing. What we show is energy and young bodies. We know our time is fleeting. If we don’t get a chance to go, it makes us antsy. Our values are instant, it’s really hard to bide your time.

Violence is taken to a greater degree. There is always the spectre of being hurt. A good player, just come into his prime, cracks a skull, breaks a leg, he’s finished. If you get hit, you get hit — with impersonal force. The guy’ll hit you as hard as he can. If you get hurt, the other players switch off. Nobody’s sympathetic. When you get hurt they don’t look at you, even players on your own team. The curtain comes down — ‘cause it could have been me. One is afraid of being hurt himself. You don’t want to think too much about it. I saw my teammate lying there — I knew him pretty well — they put forty stitches in his face. I saw him lying on the table and the doctors working on him. I said, “Better him than me.” (Laughs.) We conditioned ourselves to think like that. I think it’s a defense mechanism and it’s brutalizing.

The professional recognizes this and risks himself less and less, so the percentage is in his favor. This takes a bit of experience. Invariably it’s the younger player who gets hurt. Veterans learn to be calculating about their vulnerability. (Laughs.) This takes a little bit away from the play. When I was young, I used to take all sorts of chances just for the hell of it. Today, instead of trying to push through it, I ease up. It takes something off the risk. The older professional often plays a waiting game, waits for the other person to commit himself in the arena.

The younger player, with great natural skill, say Bobby Orr, will actually force the play. He’ll push. Sometimes they’re good enough to get away with it. Orr got hurt pretty badly the first couple of years he played. He had operations on both knees. Now he’s a little smarter, a little more careful and a little more cynical. (Laughs.)

Cynicism is a tool for survival. I began to grow up quickly. I became disillusioned with the game not being the pure thing it was earlier in my life. I began to see the exploitation of the players by the owners. You realize owners don’t really care for you. You’re a piece of property. They try to get as much out of you as they can. I remember once I had a torn shoulder. It was well in the process of healing. But I knew it wasn’t right yet. They brought their doctor in. He said, “You can play.” I played and ripped it completely. I was laid up. So I look at the owner. He shrugs his shoulders, walks away. He doesn’t really hate me. He’s impersonal.

Among players, while we’re playing we’re very close. Some of the best clubs I’ve played with have this intimacy — an intimacy modern man hardly ever achieves. We can see each other naked, emotionally, physically. We’re plugged into each other, because we need each other. There have been times when I knew what the other guy was thinking without him ever talking to me. When that happens, we can do anything together.

It can’t be just a job. It’s not worth playing just for money. It’s a way of life. When we were kids there was the release in playing, the seethes in being able to move and control your body. This is what play is. Beating somebody is secondary. When I was a kid, to really move was my delight. I felt released because I could move around anybody. I was free.

That exists on the pro level, but there’s the money aspect. You know they’re making an awful lot of money off you. You know you’re just a piece of property. When an older player’s gone, it’s not just his body. With modern training methods you can play a long time. But you just get fed up with the whole business. It becomes a job, just a shitty job. (Laughs.)

Maurice Richard with a high-sticking on Eric Nesterenko during the 1961 Stanley Cup Final.
Maurice Richard with a high-sticking on Eric Nesterenko during the 1961 Stanley Cup Final.

I’m not wild about living in hotels, coming in late at night, and having to spend time in a room waiting for a game. You’ve got a day to kill and the game’s in back of your mind. It’s hard to relax. It’s hard to read a good book. I’ll read an easy book or go to a movie to kill the time. I didn’t mind killing time when I was younger, but I resent killing time now. (Laughs.) I don’t want to kill time. I want to do something with my time.

Traveling in the big jets and going to and from hotels is very fought. We’re in New York on a Wednesday, Philadelphia on a Thursday, Buffalo on a Saturday, Pittsburgh on a Sunday, and Detroit on a Tuesday. That’s just a terrible way to live. (Laughs.) After the game on Sunday, I am tired — not only with my body, which is not a bad kind of tiredness, I’m tired emotionally, tired mentally. I’m not a very good companion after those games.

It’s a lot tougher when things are going badly. It’s more gritty and you don’t feel very good about yourself. The whole object of a pro game is to win. That is what we sell. We sell it to a lot of people who don’t win at all in their regular lives. They involve themselves with their team, a winning team. I’m not cynical about this. When we win, there’s also a carry-over in us. Life is a little easier. But in the last two or three years fatigue has been there. I’m sucked out. But that’s okay. I’d sooner live like that than be bored. If I get a decent sleep, a bit of food that’s good and strong, I’m revived. I’m alive again.

The fans touch us, particularly when we’ve won. You can feel the pat of hands all over. On the back, on the shoulder, they want to shake your hand. When I’m feeling good about myself, I really respond to this. But if I don’t feel so good, I play out the role. You have to act it out. It has nothing to do with pure play. It has nothing to do with the feeling I had when I was a kid.

‘Cause hell, nobody recognized me. I didn’t have a role to play. Many of us are looking for some kind of role to play. The role of the professional athlete is one that I’ve learned to play very well. Laughing with strangers. It doesn’t take much. It has its built-in moves, responses. There is status for the fans, but there’s not a whole lot of status for me. (Laughs.) Not now. I know it doesn’t mean very much. I shy away from it more and more. When I’m not feeling good and somebody comes up — “Hello, Eric” — I’m at times a bit cold and abrupt. I can see them withdrawing from me, hurt. They want to be plugged into something and they’re not. They may make a slurring remark. I can’t do anything about it.

I’m fighting the cynicism. What I’d like to do is find an alter-life and play a little more. I don’t have another vocation. I have a feeling unless I find one, my life might be a big anticlimax. I could get a job, but I don’t want a job. I never had a job in the sense that I had to earn a living just for the sake of earning a living. I may have to do that, but I sure hope I don’t.

I have doubts about what I do. I’m not that sure of myself. It doesn’t seem clear to me at times. I’m a man playing a boy’s game. Is this a valid reason for making money? Then I turn around and think of a job. I’ve tried to be a stockbroker. I say to a guy, “I got a good stock, you want to buy it?” He says, “No.” I say, “Okay.” You don’t want to buy, don’t buy. (Laughs.) I’m not good at persuading people to buy things they don’t want to buy. I’m just not interested in the power of money. I found that out. That’s the way one keeps score — the amount of money you earned. I found myself bored with that.

Eric Nesterenko (#15) skates against the Montreal Canadians.
Eric Nesterenko (#15) skates against the Montreal Canadians.

I’ve worked on construction and I liked that best of all. (Laughs.) I’d been working as a stockbroker and I couldn’t stand it any more. I got drunk one Friday night and while I was careening around town I ran into this guy I knew from the past. He said for the hell of it, “Why don’t you come and work on the Hancock Building with me?” He was a super on the job. The next Monday I showed up. I stayed for a week. I was interested in seeing how a big building goes up — and working with my hands.

A stockbroker has more status. He surrounds himself with things of status. But the stockbroker comes to see me play, I don’t go to see him be a stockbroker. (Laughs.)

The real status is what my peers think of me and what I think of myself. The players have careful self-doubts at times. We talk about our sagging egos. Are we really that famous? Are we really that good? We have terrible doubts. (Laughs.) Actors may have something of this. Did I do well? Am I worth this applause? Is pushing the puck around really that meaningful? (Laughs.) When I’m not pushing that puck well, how come the fans don’t like me? (Laughs.) Then there’s the reverse reaction — a real brashness. They’re always rationalizing to each other. That’s probably necessary. It’s not a bad way to handle things when you have no control over them. Players who are really put together, who have few doubts, are usually much more in control. If you’re recognized by your peers, you’re all right.

I still like the physicality, the sensuality of life. I still like to use my body. But the things I like now are more soft. I don’t want to beat people. I don’t want to prove anything. I have a friend who used to play pro football, but who shares my philosophy. We get into the country that is stark and cold and harsh, but there’s a great aesthetic feedback. It’s soft and comforting and sweet. We come out there with such enormous energy and so fit. We often go into town like a couple of fools and get mildly drunk and laugh a lot.

Being a physical man in the modern world is becoming obsolete. The machines have taken the place of that. We work in offices, we fight rules and corporations, but we hardly ever hit anybody. Not that hitting anybody is a solution. But to survive in the world at one time, one had to stand up and fight — fight the weather, fight the land, or fight the rocks. I think there is a real desire for man to do that. Today he has evolved into being more passing, conforming…

I think that is why the professional game, with its terrific physicality — men getting together on a cooperative basis — this is appealing to the middle-class man. He’s the one who supports professional sports.

I think it’s a reflection of the North American way of life. This is one of the ways you are somebody — you beat somebody. (Laughs.) You’re better than they are. Somebody has to be less than you in order for you to be somebody. I don’t know if that’s right any more. I don’t have that drive any more. If I function hard, it’s against a hard environment. That’s preferable to knocking somebody down.

I come up against a hard young stud now, and he wants the puck very badly, I’m inclined to give it to him. (Laughs.) When you start thinking like that you’re in trouble, as far as being a pro athlete is involved. But I don’t want to be anybody any more in those terms. I’ve had some money, I’ve had some big fat times, I’ve been on the stage.

It’s been a good life. Maybe I could have done better, have a better record or something like that. But I’ve really had very few regrets over the past twenty 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.

Eric Nesterenko, 1966 Topps card.
Eric Nesterenko, 1966 Topps card.

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. I took off my camel-hair coat. I was just in a suit jacket, 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 forty-five degree angle, your elbows 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.

(His eyes are glowing.) 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. (Laughs softly.)

Jack Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Say hey @readjack.

If you enjoyed this interview, you will enjoy pretty much all of Studs Terkel’s work. Click here for his radio archive.

Photo sources

Top: Blackhawks.NHL.com

Maple Leafs card: beehivehockey.com

Nesterenko and Richard: Blackhawks.NHL.com

Nesterenko vs. Canadians: fanbase.com

Nesterenko 1966 Topps card: sportscarddatabase.com

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One Reply to “Eric Nesterenko, Black Hawks legend, in Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’”

  1. I first read this nearly 40 years ago and was so impressed by the natural poetry from so unexpected a source. Reading it again for the first time in decades it’s wonderful to come across something that’s even better than I remember it. And great to know I’m not the only person who feels this way about it.

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