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March 22, 2004 - Image 15

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The Michigan Daily, 2004-03-22

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The Michigan Daily - SportsMonday - March 22, 2004 - 5B
Grinding Ahead
Eric Nystrom, practically born on the ice, is ready to do all the little things nobody else will to keep Michigan's title hopes aflame
By Sharad Mattu Daily Sports Writer

t least one Ohio State alum was disap-
pointed with the Buckeyes' 4-2 win over
e 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 Sat-
urday, it's not because Eric Nystrom isn't play-
ing 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 hock-
ey. 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 expo-
sure to the NHL is something Eric
is grateful for.
TONY DING/Daily
Eric Nystrom's
43 career goals
are currently
second on the
team to fellow
junior Dwight 2
Helminen, but his
goals have
decreased each
season.

IUNY ,UIN/D lly
Eric Nystrom's father, Bob, won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders. Eric's game is very similar to Bob's - they're both gritty, smart players.

"I grew up on the ice at the (Nassau) Colise-
um," 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 Pro-
gram, 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 over-
ly critical and make the sport miser-
able. 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 him-
self 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 fami-
ly 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 every-
thing 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 con-
certed 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 sum-
mer 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 sopho-
more 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 ini-
tial 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 develop-
ment, not where you are at the start of the race."
This year, doubts have crept up again regard-
ing 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 scor-
ing 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 leav-
ing?" 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 progress-
ing 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 wris-
ter through traffic and up over Spartan goal-
tender 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 provid-
ed 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 expecta-
tions 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 Dar-
ren Pang," Rogers said. "That's what our nick-
names have become: Melrose and Panger.
"For some reason, it's usually just the two of
us watching."

I

2004 NCAA Ice Hockey

Tournament

No. 1 North Dakota

No. 1 Maine

I

I

l

Friday, 7:30 p.m.
No. 4 Holy Cross

L

6

I

I

Friday, 5 p.m.
No. 4 Harvard

. ..-

WEST
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Saturday
9 p.m.

Saturday
6 p.m.

EAST
Albany, New York

FROZEN FOUR
Boston, Massachusetts - Fleet Center

No. 2 Denver

No. 2 Ohio State

Friday, 11:00 p.m.
No. 3 Miami (OH).

Friday, 8:30 p.m.
No. 3 Wisconsin

14 No. 1 Minnesota

No. 1 Boston College 9

Saturday, 12:00 p.m.
No. 4 Notre Dame

Saturday, 12 p.m.
No. 4 Niagara

A r-. r;l 0 1'2

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