Like Father Like Son: Nashville’s Eric Nystrom

For the younger audience out there not familiar with Bob Nystrom he was a winger on the New York Islanders dynastic teams of the early 1980s and it was his game-winning overtime goal in the 1980 Stanley Cup Final that kicked the dynasty off.

He’s not in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but the Islanders retired his no. 23 jersey and starting in 1991 the franchise began awarding the ‘Bob Nystrom Award’ to the player on the team “who exemplifies leadership, hustle, and dedication.”

His son Eric Nystrom was a first round pick of the Calgary Flames in 2002 and carries many of the qualities that his father had as a player. Throughout the younger Nystrom’s ten-year career he hasn’t yet won a Stanley Cup (let alone four straight like dad) but he has been a more than serviceable NHLer for four franchises.

“He was always such a team-guy, and a competitive guy; and had that…competitiveness.

“Even when I was a kid growing up he would come play in the three-on-three games or five-on-five games with my friends,” Eric recalled with a chuckle following a game in New Jersey. “And if we started losing he couldn’t turn the competitive juices off. I definitely think I got that from him, I love to compete and work hard; be a great teammate and that’s all the things he was (as a player). Obviously I’d like to win a Stanley Cup like him, that’d be nice.”

If it wasn’t for dad’s career he obviously may not have become an NHL player, and he’s aware of that; but he also wasn’t handed anything and had to work his way through the US National Team Development Program, four years of college hockey and three seasons in the AHL. “I never even thought of playing in the NHL; I loved being around the Islanders and I loved hockey, but growing up on the Island I never really thought about ‘I could make it to the NHL.’ Doors just kept opening and I just worked hard — it’s amazing how the hard work pays off. He still can’t believe I play in the NHL to this day,” he said with a smile; “and he’s here tonight – he gets such a kick out of it. It was a big first step as well (having him as a dad).”

Despite being an NHL player, and a YouTube sensation (more on that later), Nystrom is one of the more down-to-earth players that you will ever run into and he is very humbled by what he has accomplished, and the path that he has taken to get to where he is today. One of the biggest starting points, as he admitted, was the US program that helped him mature, grow and take that next step in his career path.

“That was huge for me. Actually (New Jersey Devils coach) John Hynes was one of the coaches there, that was a huge opportunity (for me). There was only so far at the time (that) you could go with Long Island hockey to develop and there was a point where you were going to have to leave home. For me to get an opportunity to go play there changed my life and gave me an opportunity to goto college and play at (the University of) Michigan; I got a scholarship there out of the US program and that really changed my whole life. I’m so fortunate for that program, that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

It was in Ann Arbor where Nystrom truly grew and fine-tuned his game under the tutelage and guidance of a legendary coach and was drafted by the Flames after his freshman season. “(Coach) Red Berenson is still there, he’s an amazing coach and he really had a lot of trust in me, a lot of faith in me and gave me a great opportunity to play,” he recounted. “I’m so fortunate for that as well. The lockout happened (during) my senior year (2004-05) so there wasn’t even a choice to leave school (for the NHL). I don’t even know if I would have, it was just what I needed. That’s another place that really helped me get to the NHL and taught me how to be a professional.”

His dad may have four Stanley Cups, which is cool and all, but Eric is a college graduate, and it doesn’t seem like he will ever let his dad (or mom) forget that. “I don’t even think he graduated from high school, soooo…” he said while laughing. “(But) he’s very proud, both of my parents (are). It wasn’t even a thought to goto major Junior for me and go that route; going to college was a no-brainer for me. To get my degree, they are both so proud of that — something neither of my parents have,” he said with a smile, before adding: ‘hey guys, college graduate’.”

Most players that are in the NHL today have played at least one game in the AHL, and those games played were crucial for Nystrom to learn how to be a true pro. He played in such hockey hotbeds (sarcasm) like Omaha, and Quad City while a member of the Calgary organization. “Everybody does it. There’s only a handful of guys that don’t and go right into the NHL. That’s where (most of) the minor league cities are (in non traditional hockey markets); you’re on the bus and it’s tough and the schedule — you play three games in three nights in three cities,” he told The Hockey Writers. “Some cities that you wouldn’t go to if you weren’t playing minor league hockey; it definitely toughens you up and makes you want to make it to this level. And once you get here it makes you want to stay here. It’s all part of the learning process, but it was tough.”

After parts of four seasons with the Flames, he played one season with the Minnesota Wild, two with the Dallas Stars and is now in his third season with the Nashville Predators. In each spot he had basically the same role: a grinder, third/fourth liner who is a pain in the ass to play against and as a team-first guy he always gives the effort that can give his teammates a spark. In his first year with the Preds he netted his first career hat trick — netting four goals (first Nashville player to do so) on the road against the team that drafted him; but the excitement was dampened as they lost 5-4 in a shootout.

“It would have felt better if we won the game; that was the hardest part – score four goals in a game and not come away with two points. It doesn’t even matter, you might as well have scored none. That was one of those nights where I couldn’t do anything wrong, it was crazy,” he recounted to THW. “I was just skating around and the puck would be on my stick. I played over 500 games, it took 500 games for that to happen…so it was basically an anomaly. But it’s one of those nights you’ll never forget.”

Not one, not two, not three, but four goals for Nystrom:

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He chose to sign with the Predators after two solid seasons with Dallas as he explained, and even though the coach has changed it still is the perfect fit for him at this point in his career. “I had played a lot of games against them and I liked their style that they had, and Barry Trotz was the coach at the time; he liked me as a player and I thought it was a great fit. It really has worked out well, I fit in well here, I have a great role and I love the guys on this team. I really think I made a great decision coming here and it’s been nothing but great.”

Dad was nicknamed ‘Mr. Islander’, not only for his OT, Cup-clinching goal — but more for his work off the ice with the Long Island community, various charities and support of local businesses and his son is also following in his footsteps off the ice with his involvement in charity work; especially in the Nashville area. One of the main charities he is a part of is the Garth Brooks’ Teammates For Kids Foundation.

“The Predators are so involved in the community, (and) we are constantly doing things, more than any other team that I’ve been on. we are so involved in getting out there and whether it’s going to a children’s hospital or military families or boys & girls clubs, or underprivileged kids; it’s something that we are all involved in and that’s where we have an opportunity to really be a good influence and good role models. The Nashville Predators organization really does a great job in getting us out there and we love doing it.”

Oh, and we didn’t forget about what we teased earlier when we mentioned Eric is a YouTube sensation. During his time with Quad City he performed (and as he said ‘nailed it’) an on-ice striptease just like the one in the movie Slap Shot as part of a team jersey auction that raised about $30,000.

Here is the amazing rendition done by Eric Nystrom. You’re welcome:

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“That thing won’t die, will it? I’m telling you,” he said while laughing, “I can’t even tell you the amount of people that have come up to me and the first thing that they say to me is, ‘hey I saw your Slap Shot thing on YouTube’; that thing went crazy viral and,” he added with a huge grin “uh, I think I nailed it.”

Dan Rice can be reached via Twitter: @DRdiabloTHW or via Email: drdiablo321@yahoo.com.