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Nystrom making father proud

by Mike Board / Calgary Flames
Eric Nystrom
Bobby Nystrom is on his cell phone, driving north and west through the state of Florida, happily talking about his son, Eric, and the Calgary Flames. The former New York Islander, one of the scrappiest, toughest players to ever play the game, is showing a kinder, gentler side. His parenting side.

The previous evening he has watched Eric patrol the left wing for the Flames in a 2-1 shootout win over the Florida Panthers. The team plays in Tampa two nights later, hence the trek across the state.

“It’s hard to believe. I was saying to my wife, Michelle, ‘Can you believe your son is playing in the NHL?’ It’s a thrill for us,” says Bob, who won four Stanley Cups during the Islanders dynasty years.

Eric was born in 1983 so he didn’t see his father’s overtime winner in Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final that started the Islander dynasty. He would have plenty of time growing up to watch the tapes and see his dad’s heroics.

Eric Nystrom Video Highlights

While hockey was obviously a part of the family heritage – Bob was raised in Hinton and played for the Calgary Centennials before being drafted 33rd overall by the Islanders – Eric didn’t really get serious about the game until he was 14 or 15, according to his father.

“He wasn’t all that big on it. He was playing baseball and soccer and other sports but around 14 or 15 he started to take an interest when some of his friends started playing,” recalled Bob.

Now 24 Nystrom has been through the United States development program, spent four years under the tutelage of Red Berenson at the University of Michigan where he captained the Wolverines and played in two World Junior Championships. Not bad for a kid who didn’t get serious about the game until he was in his teens.

“We always felt that it was important for him to play other sports. He didn’t play hockey in the summer. He played soccer and baseball and I think that helped with his overall fitness,” said Bob.

Although the younger Nystrom looks more like his mom than his dad, the two share more than a couple of attributes – like playing a hard-nosed game of hockey.

“That’s just the way I play. I always have,” said the younger Nystrom. “It is bringing energy.”

The younger Nystrom also doesn’t mind dropping the gloves – he had three fights in the span of a week during one stretch of the season – something his father did regularly during his NHL career.

“Honestly, it’s get in there, hang on punch as hard and as fast as you can and hope you hit him and he doesn’t hit you,” said Nystrom.

His father played plenty on a checking line but also had several 20-goal goal seasons and once scored 30 goals in a season. It all came from hard work and determination, traits that are obviously instilled in Eric.

“I just try to be effective on the penalty kill whenever I can and play well defensively. If I am playing with some good offensive guys, if I can get in there and create some havoc and get them the puck it’s a bonus. And I know I can chip in offensively, too,” said Nystrom.

“I played the same way in college. I did play on the power play in college. But there were guys there putting up 75 points a season. I was more like 30 points a season. I have always tried to play a two-way game,” said Nystrom.

The college experience was one Nystrom will never forget. He can still remember visiting Ann Arbor and meeting Berenson, an established NHL player and coach, in his office on the University of Michigan’s campus.

“I had a bunch of offers and you go for your visit and you walk around the campus. At Michigan I barely walked around the campus. My dad and I met with Red Berenson in his office for an hour. As soon as I walked out of there I said ‘This is a where I want to go,’” recalled Nystrom.

While he could always lean on his father for hockey tips and advice, Berenson had a big influence on Nystrom.

“Awesome,” he said of the coach.  “He is such a hockey guy. He has done it all. He coached in the NHL, played in the NHL, he played college hockey, he was an all-American. He got his degree, he’s got an MBA, he won the Stanley Cup. Everything he told me I just soaked it in.”

And the games were something to soak in, too.

“It was fantastic. It was crazy. Sold out all the time. There were 7,000 students gong crazy every game. It was an unreal experience,” said Nystrom, who earned a degree in liberal arts.

“A lot of guys don’t finish it but I had no problem studying and playing hockey. I got better at it every year,” he said.

Bob Nystrom was always a little uncomfortable coaching his son. “I coached him for a while but the hardest thing in the world is to coach your kid. People are always watching what you do. So I think you tend to be a little harder on them,” he said.

“He wasn’t always the coach but he would come out and run some practices. He ran great practices,” said Nystrom, noting that his father put together a team that allowed the top players on Long Island to play and practice together.

The two talk regularly now, sometimes about hockey. “If he ventures to ask me about hockey I’ll venture to give him an answer,” said dad.

One recent hockey conversation between the two had a remarkable coincidence.

 “It was funny, I was talking to my dad and he said ‘You know you have to slow down sometimes. You don’t always have to be the first guy in there going 100 miles an hour.’ The next day after he told me that Mike (head coach Keenan) calls me into the office and says ‘Sometimes you just have to slow down.’”

Nystrom was chosen 10th overall by the Flames in 2002 at the NHL Entry Draft in Toronto.

"I think he has my intensity, I think he has my desire to win,” father Bob said at the time.  “As far as the skills, he's a much better skater and puck handler and even a better scorer than I was. I tried not to influence the way he played, other than the fact that I wanted him to play hard all the time."

Playing hard does have drawbacks, though. After a decent rookie season in the American Hockey League, where he tallied 15 goals and 33 points, Nystrom injured his shoulder in training camp last year. He tried to play through it and rehab it but it wasn’t going to work.

“It was tough. It was like playing with one arm,” said Nystrom.

He finally had to have surgery and returned to the team for five playoff games. Over the summer it was major-league workouts to get the strength back in the arm.

“He battled and battled. He worked like a dog all summer,” recalled Bob.

Having not played for the better part of a year, Nystrom was sent to the minors to get into game shape and get into game speed. He took the demotion in stride, went to the Flames AHL affiliate in Quad City and worked hard. He didn’t pout. He hadn’t achieved his goal of playing in the NHL on a regular basis. The work and attitude earned him a call-up in late October and he has been a regular in the line-up ever since.

That makes Bob one proud father.

“You only hope that your kid realizes their dream,” he said.

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