At least one Ohio State alum was
disappointed with the Buckeyes’ 4-2 win over the Wolverines
Saturday night.

Eric Nystrom’s sister, Marisa, graduated from Ohio State
last year. When the two schools met on Michigan Stadium’s
football field last November, she called Eric when the Buckeyes had
cut the deficit to seven points. Like most of the other Wolverine
fans attending the game, Eric didn’t have much to say at that
moment, though after the game he called her back to gloat.

But on the ice, there’s no doubt where Marisa’s
allegiance lies. When it comes to ice hockey, she bleeds maize and
blue.

The fact that his sister is a Buckeye is just about the only
qualm a Wolverine fan can have with the junior winger, who has
played in all 41 games this season and has 10 goals and 12
assists.

After a fantastic freshman year, Nystrom was drafted 10th in the
2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames. But over the course of
his three years at Michigan, his role in the team’s offense
has, at best, remained the same. These days he’s usually
trying to play a physical game, set up his linemates and battle
around the net for leftovers. But he doesn’t complain or fret
about his role like a high draft pick could.

And when the Wolverines come up with a dud, as they did against
the Buckeyes on Saturday, it’s not because Eric Nystrom
isn’t playing hard. He was far from his best Saturday night,
but he wasn’t one of the players who inexplicably
weren’t ready to play. Eric plays the same way his father,
who was an integral part of the New York Islanders dynasty during
the early-1980’s, did. Anything less than than maximum effort
just isn’t his style.

 

Following the footsteps

 

Eric’s parents, Bob and Michele, both say they
didn’t expect him to still be playing hockey. They say that
he didn’t even like playing the sport at first — it
wasn’t until his friends started playing that he began to
enjoy it.

Eric remembers his beginnings in hockey a little
differently.

Although Eric’s dad’s playing career ended when Eric
was just three, Bob was an assistant coach for two years and then
became involved with the Islanders alumni association. The exposure
to the NHL is something Eric is grateful for.

“I grew up on the ice at the (Nassau) Coliseum,”
Nystrom said. “Even when I was young and I don’t
remember, I was on the ice all the time. And then when I got older
we got the ice by ourselves. In this big stadium, it would be just
me and him and a thousand pucks. It was a blast.”

Until he went to Ann Arbor his junior year of high school to
join the U.S. Developmental Program, Nystrom continued to learn the
sport of hockey from his father. But Bob was always careful about
getting too involved. One year, when he coached a team Eric played
for, he only coached the defense.

“It’s very hard to coach your own son,” Bob
said. “It’s so easy to be overly critical and make the
sport miserable. I thought it was easier to talk to another coach
if I saw something that could help him out. I didn’t want to
be constantly criticizing him. There were definitely times I would
give advice, but I tried not to go too far.”

There was also another way that Eric learned about hockey
indirectly through his father: by immersing himself in his
father’s playing days. Bob Nystrom helped the Islanders to
four straight championships from 1980 to 1983. He and his teammates
were icons in New York at the time, and the Nystrom family never
left Long Island.

“I watched the tapes all the time when I was a kid,”
said Nystrom, who was born in 1983. “I had the stuff the
commentators were saying memorized, I watched it so much. I knew
everything about those teams. I was a die-hard Islanders fan
growing up.”

Nystrom learned so much about hockey from his father, it’s
no surprise that whenever people talk about his style of play, they
immediately compare him to his father.

“He was real tough, but he could also put the puck in the
net,” Eric said of his father, who scored the goal that won
New York the Stanley Cup in 1980. “The thing that stands out
the most was the way he performed in the playoffs — he was a
real clutch player. He wasn’t the most skilled guy, but he
was a guy his teammates loved to have on their side.

“I think my hockey game is really similar to my
father’s game. We play a similar role and we have similar
skills.”

Eric’s teammates recognize these qualities in Eric —
and they didn’t even see his father play.

“He’s one of our best two-way players,” said
senior captain Andy Burnes, who lives in a house with Nystrom and
five other Michigan players. “He can put the puck in the net,
but he’s also always going to make the right play, the smart
play. He’ll be the first getting back to pick up someone and
he loves to work in the corners. He’s a grinder — I
think he gets it from his dad.”

 

Raising the expectations

 

Nystrom claims that his freshman year, when he scored 18 goals,
“everything was going in.” But there was another reason
for his success. Michigan coach Red Berenson makes a concerted
effort to give freshmen a role that they can flourish in, and it
worked for Nystrom. He played on a line with juniors Mike
Cammalleri and Jed Ortmeyer, and the duo made things easy for
him.

Nystrom was surprised the following summer when he was taken
10th in the draft. He expected to be taken in the first round, but
not that high.

The hype surrounding Nystrom his sophomore year led him to
expect big things from himself, and he set goals he couldn’t
live up to.

“I changed my game — I thought I needed to be some
sort of super player,” Nystrom said. “But when I
thought about it, I realized I just need to go back and play my
game. They picked me high for what I had done as a freshman and not
what I was trying to do the first part of my sophomore
year.”

It took Nystrom half a year to get over his initial struggles,
but when he did, things quickly turned around. Ten of his 15 goals
came in the second half of the year, and he was instrumental in
Michigan’s two wins in the NCAA regional at Yost Ice
Arena.

“He thought things would be easy just because he’d
been a high draft pick, when it’s really a reason to work
even harder,” Bob said. “But he got through it and
learned from it. I think it was good thing for him to go through.
It’s a normal and understandable thought process.”

Berenson had a similar message for Nystrom.

“The draft is just a snapshot of where people think you
are that day,” the coach said. “A month later or a year
later or five years later, that changes. It’s about all about
your development, not where you are at the start of the
race.”

This year, doubts have crept up again regarding Nystrom’s
progress on Michigan, and whether he might be better off in the
Flames’ system or even in major junior hockey. Nystrom
believes that the pro-style of hockey that the major juniors offer
suits him better, but he wants to go to college. Nystrom also
disputes the notion that his game hasn’t improved.

“Every time I step on the ice I feel like I’m
getting better,” Nystrom said. “I want to say stats are
deceiving, and I’m obviously not scoring as much, but I feel
like everything — my skating, my patience with the puck, my
plays with the puck — is so much better than when I first
came here.”

Berenson also believes Nystrom has improved tremendously in his
three seasons with the Wolverines, and thinks that his role at
Michigan could be the role that he has in the future.

“He’s a two-way player,” Berenson said.
“Depending on his development, he could have an inconspicuous
NHL career for 10 years by finding a good role on a team that fits
him like the one he has here.”

In Calgary, nobody seems to be worried with Nystrom’s
progress.

“With Calgary, we’re very happy with the way
Eric’s progressing with Michigan,” said Calgary’s
development coach Jamie Hislop, who deals with draft picks before
they turn pro. “An example would be a fellow who’s
playing with our team, Jordan Leopold. He played for the University
of Minnesota, and one of his goals was to win the NCAA championship
and be the captain. We didn’t urge him to turn pro early, and
he accomplished his goals.

“We’re kind of the same with Eric. Those
possibilities are there for him and they would be great for
him.”

Hislop believes that the system Michigan plays has affected
Eric’s offense, but that he has shown poise and character by
accepting the role that is best for Michigan, if not him.

“They play a left-wing lock, where the left winger locks
up one side and has to be a very responsible defensive
player,” Hislop said. “Eric is just showing he has an
ability to play within the system and do what is asked. We do think
he’s capable of doing more on offense, but that will
come.”

And the probability of an NHL lockout may eliminate the
possibility of Nystrom leaving after this year.

“Who even knows if there will be an NHL next year, so what
would be the point of leaving?” Nystrom said.
“They’re happy with where I am, and Michigan has a good
track record with producing players. If the time comes when they
weren’t happy with the way I’m progressing and they
wanted to tell me to get out of school, maybe I’d think about
it, but I don’t think that’s going to
happen.”

While his role limits the chances he gets, Nystrom does show
occasional flashes on offense.

His talents were never more obvious than on Dec. 5 against
Michigan State. With just 1:27 left in a scoreless game, Nystrom
corralled the puck off the faceoff, hesitated and lifted a wrister
through traffic and up over Spartan goaltender Dominic Vicari for
the game-winner.

The game also demonstrated what Nystrom can do when he’s
at his best. That day, his line was asked to focus on shutting down
a Spartan line that had been scoring frequently. He provided
defense to keep the Wolverines in the game, and then he made the
difference on offense.

 

The next Melrose?

 

Through the ups and downs on the ice, two things won’t
change: Nystrom will always be optimistic and he’ll never get
sick of hockey.

“He’s a cool dude,” said winger Milan Gajic,
Nystrom’s housemate. “He has high expectations for
himself and he’s working real hard to achieve those goals,
but it doesn’t consume him. He’s definitely having a
good time at Michigan.”

As far as his love for hockey, some things may never change. He
watched many of his father’s games when he was a kid, and now
he’s watching NHL games all the time.

“He loves his hockey,” Burnes said. “Every day
he and (Brandon Rogers) have to get their fix in. After practice,
until 11 or 12 o’clock, he’ll be watching hockey.
We’ve got two TVs set up in the living room and they’re
always watching hockey.”

For a guy who’s been around the sport from day one,
it’s easy to wonder whether the love affair could come to an
abrupt end, but Nystrom doesn’t see that day ever coming.

“We certainly get a lot of grief for being (ESPN
commentators) Barry Melrose and Darren Pang,” Rogers said.
“That’s what our nicknames have become: Melrose and
Panger.

“For some reason, it’s usually just the two of us
watching.”

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