The name on the back of his jersey is very familiar to hockey fans, but Eric Nystrom has paved his own path in the NHL. Son of legendary New York Islanders forward Bob Nystrom, Eric grew up in a hockey world, but never knew if his fate would also offer the opportunity to make a living playing the game he loves. More than 450 games later, the forward for the Nashville Predators is still at it.
Kathryn Tappen: Your dad played his entire career with the New York Islanders and is affectionately known as “Mr. Islander.” He won four consecutive Cups while there. What was it like growing up as the son of a hockey legend?
Eric Nystrom: I grew up learning hockey at a young age. Watching all the old video tapes and seeing the incredible memorabilia around the house is pretty special. I don’t think it will ever happen again where one player plays 900 games with the same team and wins four consecutive Stanley Cups. That’s incredible. To know that my dad accomplished that is pretty amazing.
KT: Do you have a close bond with some of your father’s former teammates?
EN: Even now, I will go play golf with Clark Gilles without my dad. We go out, and he’s one of the funniest guys you’ve ever met. This group of guys has so many stories and experiences; they’ve been through it all. I am so lucky to be around those guys my whole life. There are a lot of Islanders that my dad played with whom I look up to and had the opportunity to meet. I’m so fortunate to have that. My dad’s old teammates are my biggest supporters now. I get text messages from them, it’s incredible.
KT: Did you ever feel pressure or feel the expectations were high for you as a hockey player, given that you were the son of Bob Nystrom?
EN: There never really was. I was never pressured into playing; I was just always around the rink. To this day, I just love the game and I am a student of the game. I enjoy it so much and I always have since I was a kid. He never pushed me, there were never any expectations. I simply played hockey because it was fun. I did that for many years and it ended up opening doors for me, including a scholarship to college.
KT: You were actually a well-rounded athlete growing up, from what I understand.
EN: I played all the sports as a kid. I did Little League, played travel soccer. Once I got to high school and hockey really started taking over, that’s when I had to leave home for the USA program. That’s when hockey really became the No. 1 priority. But I played all sports growing up.
KT: You mentioned USA Hockey: You’ve played internationally representing the United States. What does it mean to pull that USA jersey over your head?
EN: It’s one of the greatest honors you can ever achieve. Being able to wear your country’s flag on your chest and represent it against other countries; it’s incredible. There’s so much pride knowing that you are representing your nation.
KT: It was very important to your parents that you received a college degree. Tell me about your decision to attend Michigan.
EN: I wasn’t even thinking about making a career in the NHL when I went to college. I remember living in Ann Arbor and ended up getting a scholarship to Michigan. I honestly had no idea I would even get a scholarship, I just kept thinking, “This is amazing!” After that, I played my first year and ended up getting drafted [2002 NHL Draft, first round, No. 10 by the Calgary Flames]. I thought to myself, “Holy cow! Maybe I can make it to the NHL.” At the point of my career when I ended up choosing the college career, I didn’t even know what Major Junior hockey was. Being from Long Island, you just don’t hear about it.
KT: Let’s talk about Nashville. It’s your first season with the Predators, but Nashville seems to be the perfect city for you.
EN: Nashville is a great scene. The support that we have here is awesome, the fans are great. We’re one of the only pro teams in the town so they really rally behind us. It’s been a good fit for me. There’s something to do every single minute of the day -- you can see a live band whenever you want, at any hour of the day in this city. It’s good to be able to get away.
KT: What do you do with your free time?
EN: With the way the schedule has been this year, there hasn’t been much time to do any of that stuff, except for lay on the couch and rest. But all of my friends come in from out of town for the games and I take them down to Main Street. I show them all the places and give them a taste of the city. It’s such a likable city and everyone always has a blast here. It’s a good place to call home.
KT: What’s your favorite spot to go to?
EN: There are so many of them. I think everyone always likes to go to Tootsies and The Stage on Broadway. Those are the ones you find yourself bringing out-of-towners to. There is so much energy in Nashville and the people are all so friendly.
KT: I heard you have equipment in your condo to mix and create your own music. How did you get into that?
EN: I’m into that electronic dance music. I really enjoy it, and at one point I just started making mixes of music that I have. Guys on the team are always asking me to make them mixes so they can listen to them when they’re at the gym. It’s a great hobby. We go on the plane and you sit there for a few hours and just try to produce some cool sounds.
KT: That’s awesome! Would you ever submit the music to a record label?
EN: [laughs] Oh, maybe in five years when it gets a little bit better! It’s very recent, I just started doing it. I’m actually getting a lot better at it though, it’s like playing an instrument. You have practice, and have to figure it out. While I’m getting better each time, I’m a long ways from being anywhere near a record label, that’s for sure.
KT: So are you in charge of the music in the locker room?
EN: I’ll make mixes that are continuous so you can play them for hours straight. The guys seem to love it. Every once in a while I’ll give them a live show in the locker room and it really fires them up.
KT: In every city you’ve played in, you are very active in the community and with charity work. Tell me about your most recent endeavors in Nashville.
EN: This week, we had a bunch of military families at the game for Defending the Blue Line. That’s been something I have been trying to get involved with. I want to support the military families, get them down to games, and thank them for all that they’ve done for us. Garth Brooks Teammates for Kids is also something that I would say the majority of the League is a part of. The amazing thing about this organization is that every donation Garth Brooks triples himself. For me, it’s always about giving back to the kids, supporting our military and taking care of unfortunate people.
KT: You made a cameo on NHL Network last year during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Will we see you on TV in your post-hockey career?
EN: Oh man! I loved doing that stuff! Like I said to you before, I love hockey, I’m a big student of the game, and me and my buddies always do fake commentary and have fun calling the games. When I went in to the NHL Network studios I was doing the character I do when I’m with all my friends. It translates pretty well on TV! I had a blast. Those guys, E.J. [Hradek] and [Steve Mears], were so good to me. I really enjoyed it and it was fun to see that side of TV.
KT: I better watch my back, you’re going to take my job!
EN: Sounds good!
KT: What are your plans for the Olympic break?
EN: I’m going to head down to Florida. My parents have a place down there so I’m going to relax. My birthday is on Valentine’s Day, and that falls on a Friday night, so I’ve got some friends coming down. We’ll probably head to South Beach and have a little get together.
KT: A “get together.” We’ll leave it at that. Happy early birthday.
EN: I can’t wait, I’m so excited. I need some warm weather. It’s cold here in Nashville and we’re going to Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg; Holy Cow!