Nystrom returns to his roots on Long Island

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2011 - 7:30 AM

Eric Nystrom's dad, Bob, is "Mr. Islander," known for his tenacious play. The team's leadership award is called the "Bob Nystrom Award." To this day, "Mr. Islander" stops for pizza or bagels and the place comes to a halt.

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New York Islanders Bob Nystrom, right, embraces teammate Wayne Merrick as they celebrate Merricks goal against the Minnesota North Stars. At left is North Stars Gordie Roberts.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Walk into Nassau Coliseum, take a deep breath and there's a distinctive smell.

It's not a wretched smell. It's just a smell unique to the Coliseum, one that takes any Long Islander back to his youth.

Last March, after three years playing for the Calgary Flames, Eric Nystrom finally made his first visit to the Coliseum. Before playing his first game inside the arena he spent so many childhood mornings skating around with his father, Islanders legend Bob Nystrom, Eric inhaled a gigantic whiff of that Coliseum air.

"I said, 'That's Nassau Coliseum,'" the 28-year-old Nystrom said, laughing. "Who knows if we should be breathing that in, but I remember that smell from when I was a little kid. I don't know what it is, but I love it."

Nystrom, who grew up in the Long Island town of Syosset, returned home with the Wild for the first time Tuesday afternoon. After scoring a goal and an assist in last year's homecoming with the Flames, Nystrom will play in the Coliseum for the second time Wednesday night in front of scores of family and friends, including his dad, mother, Michele, and older sister, Marisa.

"He's definitely pumped," Bob Nystrom said. "He's spent many a day down there with me, and to come back and play in that building is a thrill for him and me to watch. It's not easy to come off Long Island and make it to the pros. He's worked his tail off."

Playing the Islanders is always surreal for Eric Nystrom. His dad is "Mr. Islander." Known for his feisty, tenacious play, Bob Nystrom scored clutch goals, especially in the playoffs, including the overtime winner that clinched the first of four consecutive Stanley Cups for the Isles in 1980.

"I mean, I wasn't just a fan of the team growing up," Eric Nystrom said. "I'd go down there on Saturdays with my dad and skate on the ice at 6:30 in the morning, just the two of us, with just tons of pucks. I knew all the players. I was entrenched, man."

Bob Nystrom directs the Islanders Alumni club. The team's annual leadership award to players is called the "Bob Nystrom Award." To this day, "Mr. Islander" walks into pizza parlors and bagel shops and the place comes to a halt.

"Whenever we'd leave a game as a kid, we'd go into the parking lot, one person would see Bobby Nystrom, and before you knew it, a mob of people was all trying to get his autograph," Eric Nystrom said. "He embraces that. He's so loyal to the people that have been so loyal to him."

Eric Nystrom never once felt he had to escape his dad's shadow. He was 4 months old when the Islanders won their fourth Stanley Cup and 3 when his dad retired, so it wasn't until later in life that he even realized how revered his father was. Hall of Famer Denis Potvin says he always remembers little Eric running around "with red hair and his dad's eyebrows."

"He didn't take to hockey the first little while, even when I was [an Islanders] assistant coach," Bob Nystrom said. "But once his friends started playing, he got the bug."

Nystrom and former Islanders teammate Gerry Hart coached Eric on a Long Island select team made up of current NHLers Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins and Matt Gilroy.

"It was just a treat for me to travel from town to town and watch Eric play and develop," Bob said.

Said Eric: "I was just lucky to have a father that had such great knowledge of the game. You see any player who's had success from Long Island, at some point along the way my dad coached him."

It has been a trying year for Eric Nystrom. His first month after signing a three-year, free-agent contract, Nystrom seemed to be scored on every time he hit the ice. Defensively and physically, he actually has played well the past three months. But snakebit all year, he has scored three goals -- two in the past few weeks.

That's where he has leaned on his dad.

"He tells me he had 20-goal seasons. I said 20's like five these days," Nystrom said, laughing. "Seriously, my dad knows the exact time when I'm at the breaking point of frustration."

Added his father: "Eric's probably one of the most positive people I've ever met. God bless him for it, because to be honest, I was quite different as a player. But there are times I feel I need to call when I see things. I don't want to weigh in too much, but I just try to tell him to slow down because working harder isn't always working smarter."

Bob Nystrom was ecstatic when Eric signed in Minnesota. He believes the Wild can make waves in the playoffs, and father's dream is to one day witness son win the Stanley Cup.

It might never be four. But one would be sweet.

"Eric did get a chance to sit in the Cup as a baby," Bob Nystrom said, proudly. "Marisa did three years prior, so for me to get that photo of Eric in the Cup in 1983 was really important.

"And I hope he can hold it above his head one day."

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