Eric Nesterenko, member of 1961 Chicago Blackhawks, dies

For good or ill, with words or actions, Chicago Blackhawks great Eric Nesterenko was known as a hard-nosed type.

“The hockey player enjoys a privileged existence. Savor it,” he told the Tribune’s Bob Verdi in 1991. “You are playing a game for a living, a good living. Sure, it’s a job.

“But it’s also a contradiction in terms to have a game, a sport, represent work. Never forget that.”

Nesterenko, who died Monday at 88, lived an unforgettable hockey life — including a moment that, in the modern light, most players probably would like to erase.

Nesterenko is forever connected with one of the most infamous moments in Willie O’Ree’s struggle to break hockey’s color barrier. O’Ree, in his autobiography and in interviews, said Nesterenko called him the N-word, broke O’Ree’s nose and knocked out some of his front teeth during a game at Chicago Stadium in the 1960–61 season. Nesterenko reportedly later said he had no recollection of using the slur.

Nesterenko needed 15 stitches after O’Ree retaliated, setting off a benches-clearing brawl.

Later that season, the fifth of his 16 with the team, Nesterenko helped the Stan Mikita- and Bobby Hull-led Hawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup.

Nesterenko ranks seventh in franchise history in games played (1,013) and scored the second-most short-handed goals (22), trailing only Dirk Graham (26).

The right winger’s 495 points place 18th on the team’s all-time list.

Nesterenko also played five seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs and finished his career with the World Hockey Association’s Chicago Cougars in 1973–74.

Former Hawks teammate Ab McDonald called him a “lone wolf.”

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Nesterenko at times cast as harsh a light on himself as anything or anyone else.

Hanging around as an ex-professional athlete is pathetic, as far as I’m concerned,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “I played my entire career in fear — fear of doing badly, fear of being hurt, humiliated. Obviously as an athlete, you are naked in the arena.″

After hockey, Nesterenko — known for using his sharp elbows in the corners during his playing days — played “Elbows Martin” in the hockey telefilm “Cementhead.”

He also played Rob Lowe’s father in the 1986 movie “Youngblood” but acknowledged his difficulty coaching up the actor’s skating.

“Having him on the power play is like putting Cheryl Tiegs at middle linebacker, but it was fun,” he told the Tribune in 1991.

Much of Nesterenko’s second act was spent as a ski instructor in Vail, Colo. He reflected on his hockey experiences to the Vail Daily in 2009.

Said Nesterenko: “Oh, it was a pretty good life. … 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.”

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