As the NHL trade deadline came and went on April 3, Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom was a little unsure of where he stood. A pending unrestricted free agent (UFA), he was just the kind of “rental” player who is dealt from teams that are out of the playoff race to those hoping to beef up for the post-season. Thing was, the Stars weren’t out of the race – they were only a few points out of eighth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Still, the Stars made moves, dealing future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to the Boston Bruins and Derek Roy to the Vancouver Canucks. In an earlier move, captain Brendan Morrow was dispatched to the Penguins. Nystrom stayed put and was on hand to see what few would have predicted: the Stars got better.
Some of the young guys added to the roster gave the team a boost, and as of this writing, the Stars sat two points out of a final playoff position.
“I think it’s been a good year. We made a lot of moves to get younger, and we’re only two points out of a playoff spot.”
“We got rid of two highly talented players, but we got better,” he said. “We brought up a bunch of guys.”
Still, for Nystrom, losing someone like Jagr was a jolt to the system. Not only was Jagr a supremely talented player who could educate others on what it takes to succeed, but he was also Nystrom’s linemate for a time.
“It was a pretty unique experience to be on a line with him, to see first hand the skill and strength and power, even at 41. It’s pretty amazing,” Nystrom said on the phone from Dallas.
Adding to the lustre was that, as a kid, he had a poster of Jagr hanging in his room.
Playing with Jagr, his role was to “get in there first, get the puck to him. Once I got it, to get away.” Those were Jagr’s instructions. He wanted the room to go against the defender one on one. “He told me to get away, to go find a spot, and he would put it on my tape,” Nystrom said.
The son of New York Islanders’ Bobby Nystrom – he scored the Cup-winning goal in OT versus Philadelphia in 1980 – Eric was always exposed to hockey, but never felt any pressure to become a pro.
Growing up on Long Island, he learned to skate at a young age and would be at the rink for his dad’s games. He took up the sport and continued to improve. As he got better, “doors opened,” he said.
In his teens, he tried out for the U.S. national team development program and made the cut. He played for the junior national team and earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan. In 2002, when he was 18, the Calgary Flames selected him in the first round of the entry draft, 10th overall,
Canadian kids, he said, dream of making the NHL. “I just loved playing hockey.”
As he grew up, he received valuable guidance from his father, who retired in 1986 with four Cups to his credit. “He was so great growing up,” Eric recalled. “He never over-coached me. He was not a fanatical hockey parent.”
His dad helped all the teams Eric played for, but while Eric was a forward, Bob would work with the defence “and was never looking over my shoulder.
“The only time he yelled at me was when I wasn’t working hard,” Eric said.
Even to this day, his dad provides fatherly advice. He watches Eric’s games on TV and will sometimes make suggestions to tweak his game – stuff that Eric might’ve missed on his own.
One example cited by Eric relates to his high-energy style. At six-foot-one, 193 pounds, Eric is usually a third line digger and mucker. “He’ll recognize I’m over-skating and he’ll tell me to slow down, or handle the puck more, don’t get rid of it so fast.”
When he’s implemented the advice, he’s found it works, Eric said.
Though his dad is a native of Sweden – his family moved to Canada when he was four – his mom comes from Long Island. Eric was raised Jewish, attended Hebrew school weekly and had a bar mitzvah.
Earlier this winter, he accepted an invitation from William (Billy) Jaffe to serve as assistant coach of the U.S. hockey team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer.
“I said, ‘Sure, it’s a great opportunity to do something so unique, something connected to hockey,’” he said.
This will be Nystrom’s first trip to the Holy Land. Jaffe, an NHL Network hockey analyst, served as captain of the U.S. hockey team in the 1997 Maccabiah Games. That outfit lost to Team Canada in the gold medal game, the one and only time hockey was previously part of the Games. Coincidentally, Jaffe played hockey at the University of Michigan, as did Jewish NHLer Mike Brown and Mike Cammalleri, whose mother’s family is Jewish.
This will be Nystrom’s first attempt at coaching. It’s something he’s considering full time when his playing days are over. “I just want to go behind the bench and see how it is,” he said.
Maccabi Canada organizers have put together a talented roster of NCAA, Major Junior and minor league professionals that should be tough to beat. Maccabi USA has a lot of quality college players to draw from, but Nystrom admits that so far, the recruitment has been tough. “Players are worried about training. It’s a big commitment, absolutely.”
Many don’t want to disrupt their summer training programs, others are concerned about the paperwork and the fundraising that’s expected of them.
“I tell them, ‘It’s a great life experience and it’s foolish not to take advantage of it,’” Nystrom said.
For his part, Nystrom is looking forward to the experience. “It will be great to see all those Jewish athletes together,” he said.