Sometimes, late in the night, during those hours when you know there is no reason to stay out and yet something keeps you from heading for home and sleep, you will see him at the end of the bar. Always he will be alone, with his thoughts and his memories.
For 16 years he was a star in this town. Now the name is starting to be forgotten, but the man is still here. Eric Nesterenko is 41 years old; his days of skating for the Chicago Black Hawks are over; his winters of traveling the world as a National Hockey League regular are all past. The sounds of the thousands calling his name from the distant reaches of the stadium are just a private echo.
Some nights you join him. He is good company. Nesterenko was always different, a reader of books in a professional world where most of his companions chose to pass the days in front of a television set. His athletic colleagues used to refer to him as an “intellectual,” and even though they were speaking the word and not writing it, you could hear the quotation marks. His need to examine his life, to question the meaning of the fame and glory that had been his since he was a boy, made him a loner among the others, and he was made to know it every day and night of his working life.
“The adulation you receive as a professional athlete is such an odd thing. To be made to feel that you are that important … when in reality you are just a kid, just a boy.”
Now the nights are different, and Nesterenko is still thinking about it, still wondering how it all came to pass. Sometimes he will look down at the bar and talk about it.
“The adulation you receive as a professional athlete is such an odd thing,” Nesterenko will say. “To be made to feel that you are that important … when in reality you are just a kid, just a boy. I know that I was just a boy. I was eighteen years old the first year I skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I had grown up in a tiny town called Flin Flon, in Manitoba, and I was truly an innocent young boy. And there I was every night in Maple Leaf Gardens, with twenty thousand people screaming and shouting down at me, counting on me. The adulation … I was a virgin. I had never slept with a woman.”
As Nesterenko talks, you sense that here is a man who has come to terms with his own weaknesses, his own limitations. He is not one to dwell on the peaks of his athletic career, the statistics and the numbers that now exist only on paper. Rather, he will be quick to turn to the other side of it—to the moments when a boy’s doubts became a man’s truths.
“The hardest thing in the world for any professional athlete to recognize is that he is not the best in the world,” Nesterenko will say. “There are so few who make it to the major leagues of any sport. All of us were the very best in our schools, the very best in our neighborhoods. Until you become a pro, you just don’t comprehend that this will change. It took me two or three years in the National Hockey League. Then one day, I just knew it was true: ‘There are men here who are better than me. I can play my very best, I can play at the absolute top of my ability, and still there are men who are younger and much better. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s a fact.’ And that’s when you start realizing what it means to get old playing a sport.
“Even now I see it. I work with teenagers, coaching them in hockey, and on several occasions a kid of seventeen or so will skate into me and square off. He wants to fight. He wants to prove that he is man enough to fight with me. And I think to myself, someday he, too, is going to have to face it. You can’t fool yourself forever. There are men younger and tougher and better than you are. That’s what life is about.”
“For me the real fun of skating, the true joy of it, disappeared as soon as I started to get paid for it. There was never a moment in the National Hockey League that compared with the sheer joy I had as a boy.”
Nesterenko will try to turn the conversation away from this. His interests are strongest when he is talking about a world not his own; he would much rather hear about a way of life he has never tried than discuss the years of his past. If you press him, though, he will tell you about it.
“I was never really with the rest of the players,” he will say. “We got along well enough, but I always seemed to be on my own. For me the real fun of skating, the true joy of it, disappeared as soon as I started to get paid for it. There was never a moment in the National Hockey League that compared with the sheer joy I had as a boy skating outside in Flin Flon. That’s something you can never recapture—doing it because you want to be doing it. Now, that is sport.”
The hour will near closing time, and Nesterenko will know that it is time to head back to Evanston, where he lives with his wife and three children. But he will be reluctant to leave; there is something about going out into the night that keeps him inside the bar a bit longer.
“It’s kind of funny,” he will say. “I played in this town for sixteen years, and I don’t have one friend left here. I had two men who I could really call my friends, but they’re both gone now. Do you know what I do for fun? I ski. I’m not very good at it; really not too good at all. But I’ll go out there by myself to a place where there’s snow, and I’ll start down that course, and it will make me feel wonderful. Maybe not being good at it has something to do with it. I can’t even tell you how fine it makes me feel. It’s just me, trying to do something because I want to. It’s like I’m back in Flin Flon again, learning to skate for the first time. It makes me feel like a boy.”
* Exact date unknown. Could be ’72 or ’73.