Iconic Vail resident and Stanley Cup champion Eric Nesterenko dies at 88
Longtime Vail ski instructor lived life to the fullest
VAIL — One of America’s original renaissance men — and one of Vail’s most fascinating individuals — took his final shift recently. Stanley Cup champion Eric Nesterenko, an iconic Vail ski instructor from 1981-2020, died on June 6.
He was 88.
“Eric Nesterenko was an original. They threw away the mold when it was over and there will probably never be another one like him,” said Kaye Ferry, who was with Nesterenko for eight years after meeting him on the first day she moved to the Vail Valley in 1987. “He is one of the most mesmerizing human beings you could have ever met. It was a true honor to be involved in his life. Just an amazing human being.”
Freelance hockey writer Joe Pelletier, founder of GreatestHockeyLegends.com, wrote of Nesterenko — who also worked as a disk jockey, stockbroker, travel broker, freelance writer, university professor and a driver of a diesel Cat in the Arctic — “(Nesterenko) has had perhaps the most interesting, if not most unconventional, lives on and off the ice.”
“In a town (Vail) known for celebrity appearances from Hollywood and the rich and famous, Nesterenko is not a celebrity because of his hockey past,” Pelletier writes.
“In fact, many of the people in Vail have little idea of his past!”
The ‘Flin Flon Flash’
Nesterenko’s parents fled Ukraine separately during the Russian Revolution, escaping to Czechoslovakia before ending up in Canada, where their paths would eventually cross. A brilliant man who spoke six languages, Nesterenko’s father worked as a chemist at the mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba, roughly 400 miles north of Winnipeg — where he met his wife at a Ukranian social. He convinced her to move to Flin Flon, where the family lived until Eric was about 10.
While there was no organized hockey in the isolated mining town, kids frequented the local rinks for pond hockey games.
“It was just endless, fool-around hockey,” said his son Paul Nesterenko, who has lived in Vail since 1986. “He always said the time playing in Flin Flon, where they didn’t have parents involved, served him well when he did start playing organized hockey a little bit older in Toronto.”
When the family moved to the Toronto area, Nesterenko quickly rose through the peewee and bantam ranks, garnering the attention of Conn Smythe, then-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs (and now known more as the namesake for the NHL playoffs MVP award), who signed him to the Leafs’ junior system. By 16, Nesterenko was drawing a salary comparable to his immigrant father’s as one of the top Canadian junior players.
Pelletier reported that he told Charles Wilken, author of “Breakaway,” that Toronto “tied down” his game.
“They wouldn’t allow any free-wheeling. No imagination. You had to stick on your wing. Detroit and Montreal were playing much more imaginatively. Toronto had been a great team in the past, but at that point they weren’t doing much,” he said to Wilken.
“He never really fit in,” Paul said of the four years his father spent in Toronto. “He didn’t like the way that they played, he didn’t want to change his style and they butted heads a lot.”
After being sent down to the Winnipeg development team one too many times, Nesterenko quit.
“He just told Toronto he was finished, and because they owned him, he thought his NHL career was finished, and he was going to go back to college,” Paul said. “And then they sold him to Chicago.”
Chicago was persistent in luring the 23-year-old back to hockey, and Nesterenko coupled sports with academics, becoming the first NHL player to go to college. Starting in the 1956 season, he became a fixture in the Chicago lineup, ending his 16-year stint with 1,013 games played, seventh all-time in Blackhawks history. Playing alongside Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall, he helped propel Chicago to the 1961 Stanley Cup title.
The “Flin Flon Flash,” who also responded to “elbows,” was a reliable defensive genius who relied on above-average intuition and hard-nosed toughness. He once told Ferry that he “stopped counting stitches in his face when he got to 800.”
Once, after being regretfully discovered — at least in his mind — by ski patrol after a rare wipeout on Milt’s Face in Vail long after his hockey days were through, he sat in Dr. Bob Gerner’s office and had his face sewed back together, with Ferry as his assistant — without any anesthetic.
“OK, Eric, you’re going to need a few stitches, but, I think we ought to get the plastic surgeon in here,” Gerner told Nesterenko, who replied, “Bobby, you’re going to fix it or I’m leaving.”
“And then we went out to lunch,” Ferry recollected. “He was tough. He was one of those that if he got hurt, it just didn’t matter.”
More than hockey
According to Pelletier, his teammates knew him as an intellectual, a label he shrugged off. A frequent visitor to all of the city’s cultural offerings, he was as likely to appreciate an orchestral excerpt out of the bell of longtime Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet player Bud Herseth as a great goal off the stick of his teammate Hull. On a summer trip to Alaska, Ferry remembers Nesterenko intensely absorbed in opera music for the entire ride. “And singing the whole time, I might add,” she laughed, adding that the 6-foot-2 imposing penalty killer was also fond of ballet.
“He just had this almost insatiable curiosity about things that were interesting to him that were, in general, not typical of a hockey player of his era,” Ferry said, adding that the intensity and joy with which he approached anything he valued was what set him apart.
“I think I’ve known a lot of people who have been very successful in their lives and very dedicated to what they do, but I’ve ever seen someone be so obsessed with what they’re doing,” she said. “He would be obsessed with reading a book. He was obsessed with listening to opera. He was obsessed with every single thing he did. Every part about him — if he was in, he was all in — and he expressed it without any stop gaps. He was either obsessed by it, or it didn’t matter. There was nothing in-between. You either put your all in or you moved on to the next thing.”
“He used to say when he liked someone or respected someone that they lived life on their own terms,” added Paul. “I really feel like he lived life on his own terms.”
Of all of his traits — and the list is vast — his sporting fingerprint was engraved in his elegant skating.
Asking for memorable Eric Nesterenko stories from those close to him is a bit like asking J.R.R. Tolkien for his favorite Hobbit anecdote — there are just too many to choose from.
“You could call 100 different people, and you’ll get 100 stories, and they won’t be the same, I guarantee you,” Ferry said. “But, they will have an underlying theme that he didn’t suffer fools, that he was passionate about life, and everything was done to the ‘nth’ degree. Nothing was halfway with Eric.”
As a kid, Ferry’s parents had season tickets to the Blackhawks, which she occasionally attended before rushing home to bed to be ready for school the next day. When she met Nesterenko at the Christiania Bar on her first day in Vail that winter of 1987, she didn’t recognize him. Later, a friend invited the pair to go skating at Dobson Arena.
“I didn’t know how to skate very well, so I’m sitting there, figuring out how to put my boots on, and Eric went around, just gliding around the arena, and the first time he went by me, I started crying,” Ferry fondly recalled. “Because it was so beautiful. And I recognized him immediately. I recognized him when he was skating. I didn’t recognize him sitting in a bar.”
Even though he was as gritty as they came, Ferry said that Nesterenko often lamented the violence in today’s NHL.
“The way he always explained it to me was that the physicality he brought to the game was necessary. It wasn’t random, it wasn’t mean — it was part of the job,” she said.
With only six teams in the league, athletes were careful to not cross the line.
“You were going to see them next week, so you didn’t really want to do anything that didn’t need to be done,” she said. “He hated this kind of violence that’s in hockey. And for that reason, he didn’t really watch hockey anymore.”
An avid outdoorsman
As avant-garde as he was off the rink, Nesterenko was equally unorthodox in his preparation to play on it. Pelletier described him as one of the first NHL players to concentrate on diet and conditioning. True to form, his method of getting into playing shape was hardcore, authentic and organic.
He would venture to Jackson, Wyoming, for weeks at a time, backpacking into the Wind River wilderness by himself.
“He was that kind of person,” said Paul, who bonded with his father when he was old enough to join him on those preseason “training camps.”
Similar to Nesterenko’s relationship with his own father, who took him into the Canadian woods to fish and pick berries, Paul’s formative junior high and high school days were spent growing close to his father sleeping in a tent and living off whatever your fishing pole could catch.
“It was intense. We talked about everything,” said Paul. “It was just being together — that was the big thing.”
Only a young boy as his dad’s legendary career wrapped up, Paul remembers his dad skating by and smiling at him in the crowd before dozing off in the third period. Though he inherited some of his dad’s skating prowess, Paul admitted to lacking all-around hockey promise, and since his mother, Barbara, didn’t care to raise him in the sport, he didn’t pursue it. He did, however, follow his dad out West, attending the University of Wyoming before settling in Vail.
When Nesterenko left the Blackhawks in 1972, he moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where he became the Lausanne Hockey Club’s first NHL player-coach. It was in those mountains that he and his family learned to ski. He returned to Chicago and played one season in the WHA with the Chicago Cougars, but, as Paul described it, “he was dreaming of being a skier again.”
He saw an ad in a hockey magazine for a team in British Columbia in need of a coach.
“He wanted to get a job in skiing,” Paul said. “He said if you can get me a job with the ski patrol up there in Trail, at Red Mountain, then he would come.”
Nesterenko spent a year with the Trail Smoke Eaters in 1975-76, further perfecting his skills on the slopes as his skating days wound down.
Now divorced from Barbara, who still lives on her own in Evanston, Illinois, and will be 87 next month, Nesterenko left for Colorado and worked as an Aspen Highlands patrolman. From there, he went to Keystone and A-Basin for a couple of years to be an instructor before coming to Vail in 1981.
After his graduation in 1986, Paul followed his dad.
“We learned to ski together in Switzerland and kept learning to ski together,” he said. After forging a relationship in the woods, they continued growing together on escapades into the Back Bowls.
“Those are really some of the greatest times I ever had,” Paul said of the pair’s powder-hunting adventures to the East Vail chutes 30 years ago.
“I think we kept each other in Vail. I think we both liked Vail and might have stayed here anyway, but because the both of us were living there, the other one would say, ‘Well, you know Vail is great, but I have my son here, I have my father here.'”
Their “Nesterenko School” of skiing became distinct.
“He had this style of his own. You could spot Eric skiing from a mile away,” Ferry said.
“He had a way that was his — it wasn’t necessarily what ski school would say, ‘this is how you do things,’ but this was how Eric did it.”
“It was not racing-based. Even before fat skis got into favor, we kind of could see the benefit of being able to go sideways, be able to pivot, whereas that’s not a really big attribute of ski racing,” described Paul. “It was all about crud skiing, Back Bowl skiing, bad snow skiing — not groomed run skiing — whatever was effective to handle the different conditions we would find around Vail Mountain.”
Whether it was his unique style or simply his ability to fully focus on people in a way that made them feel as if they were the only one in existence, Nesterenko had a way with his students.
“They couldn’t get enough of him,” Ferry said, noting that some remained clients for 10-15 years.
In his final days, he skied less and less. “He sort of became a creature of habit,” Paul said of his dad’s routine, which included hitting the hill from 11-1, getting soup at Vendetta’s and going home.
A fall right before the COVID pandemic put Nesterenko on the sidelines for good, and when he began suffering other health issues, he moved to Glenwood Springs in September of 2021, where he lived out his final days.
“He had the fame when he came, but then he was just kind of a regular guy and I think people really appreciated that — that he was down to Earth,” reminisced Paul and his father’s legacy within the Vail community.
“(He wanted) to just live here and enjoyed being in the mountains and I think that really struck a chord with a lot of people who lived here and (he) made a lot of friends. He’ll be missed for that.”
Ferry added a summary fitting for the icon, who also starred in the 1986 Hollywood hit “Youngblood” alongside Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe — as if there wasn’t already enough said about how he got every ounce out of life — saying, “There will never be another one like him.”