For some kids, growing up in the shadow of a legendary athlete parent can be more of a curse than a blessing, with every amateur-league win being outshined by the sparkle of said parent's fistful of championship rings. But true to form, that was thankfully not the case for Syosset native Eric Nystrom, whose father Bobby—a former Islanders great who hoisted the Stanley Cup an incredible four times—remains Long Island royalty.
Now a seasoned NHLer himself, 27-year-old Eric—recently signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Wild—looks back fondly on his childhood, which was mostly spent trekking from the family's Syosset home to virtually every rink in the area. And even though his dad was famous for his on-ice tenacity, it turns out being the son of "Mr. Islander" wasn't so tough after all.
"It was awesome. Who wouldn't want that?" says Eric. "That guy, still, wherever he goes, somebody stops to talk to him. He's just such a friendly guy, and he knows so many people that I'm very, very fortunate to have been brought up in that type of environment."
It goes without saying that Nystrom Sr. had Eric—who was only 6 months old during dad's final championship run and just 3 when he retired—on skates practically as soon as the boy could walk. His coaching and support of his son over the years, paired with the extremely underrated Long Island youth hockey development system, eventually led to Eric being drafted 10th overall by the Calgary Flames in 2002. The selection was yet another feather in the cap for LI hockey, which in addition to 1998 draftee and fellow Syosset native Rob Scuderi (now with the L.A. Kings), produced other top talents like Chris Higgins (Florida) and Mike Komisarek (Toronto) during the same period. (Higgins was also drafted in 2002, 14th overall; Komisarek was picked seventh overall in 2001.) All three players came up together and remain friends to this day.
"Higgins was actually just out here visiting a couple weeks ago; he's one of my good friends," says Eric, who usually returns to the family home in Oyster Bay Cove for the summer, but this year opted for L.A., for a change of pace. "[Higgins] ended up in Calgary this year, so I had a chance to play with him. Komisarek too—we all train together in the summertime. This summer we're kind of all over the place, but we're always together."
That bond was formed largely through the efforts of father Bobby and another ex-Islander, Gerry Hart, who partnered to run the longstanding Junior Islanders program out of Hart's Rinx skating complex in Hauppauge, which in addition to the aforementioned pros, has also sent countless alumni to Division I college programs and the minor leagues. (Other former Islanders Bryan Trottier, Benoit Hogue and Steve Webb are also now involved with the program.)
"He was a great coach," Eric says of his dad. "He just knew the ins and outs of the game, and he obviously knew when to push and when not to, and overall he was so good for all the guys in my age group, like Higgins and Komisarek. Without the guidance of him and Gerry Hart, who knows where we'd have ended up. They did so much, they were just so good with the kids and even today, they still go out and do these practices with the kids. We were so lucky; they were just so good for all of us. There were obviously times when they would be p----d and yell at us, but they taught us so much about the game."
In addition to spending summers working out at Syosset's Iceworks, where the Islanders have practiced for many years, at one point or another Eric played for every LI program worth skating for, including the Nassau County Lions and Long Beach Apple Core, as well as for his Locust Valley-based alma mater Portledge Prep, which has quietly been sending student-skaters to top leagues for nearly two decades. Eric would rush home from school and practice at Portledge, then jet from Syosset to Long Beach twice a week for 11 p.m. practices with Apple Core.
"I'd throw all my equipment in the dryer, which made the whole house stink, then eat something quick, pull it out of the dryer and go to Long Beach Arena," says Eric, chuckling.
It was the kind of grueling schedule that not only tests the endurance of players, but their parents as well. As Sarah Palin is so fond of touting, hockey moms and dads are a special breed, famous or not. In addition to jumping in various car pools, both Mom and Dad drove Eric wherever he needed, whether it was Hauppauge or a tournament in Quebec. It's the kind of support and commitment essential to someday producing true players. While parents in places like Minnesota or Manitoba have been doing it for decades, it's a fairly recent development here on Long Island. But the results are already showing.
"I think the Islanders' early success has a lot to do with it," Eric says. "It was the parents who lived through that, and it's their kids who are coming up now and reaching an age where they're at that level. They've lived through the Islanders' successful periods, got attached to hockey, and their kids are now starting to get recognized."
Eric's new locker in Minnesota may be a tad closer than Calgary to his native Long Island, but he still keeps a special place in his heart for home. He says in his younger days he'd spend his limited free time haunting downtown Huntington, and always looks forward to a homecoming, as well as a good bagel and slice of pizza. Last year, during a road trip with Calgary, he hosted a team dinner at the family homestead, in part to help teammates see the "real" Long Island, aside from the less-than-scenic views of Hempstead Turnpike that visiting teams are usually treated to.
"I rant and rave about how great a place Long Island is, because guys have no idea what it's like—they just see Nassau Coliseum, the Marriott and the parking lot in between, so they think that Long Island is some sort of hellhole," he says. "I tell them how beautiful it is and they can't believe me, so that's why I brought my whole team over for a dinner, so they could see a little bit of Long Island and get a greater appreciation than they had. There's no place like it.
"I love Long Island, and I'm always so proud to be from there," he continues. "I'm just happy to be some sort of representation of Syosset on a big type of stage. I'm proud to represent it."