Before the Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko debate heated up, there was –more than a half-century ago – a similar “Who’s better?” It pitted Jean Beliveau vs. Eric Nesterenko. Beliveau wound up in the Hall of Fame while Nesterenko settled into becoming a role player, then a skier.
It was a decade before the creation of the NHL draft, during the Original Six era. NHL teams had signing rights for local players, and in the early 1950s, Beliveau and Nesterenko were the Montreal and Toronto counterparts to Hughes-Kakko. They were teenagers head-and-shoulders better than the next tier of rookies. Nesterenko was 18 and a star with the junior Toronto Marlboros in 1951-52. Beliveau was 20 and ripping up the scoresheet with the senior Quebec Aces.
Nesterenko was being promoted in the Toronto media as the rescuer of the rapidly sinking Maple Leafs of the 1950s. The French-Canadian Beliveau was more highly touted than any previous Canadiens player.
Nesterenko was the son of a mining engineer out of Flin Flon, Man. He moved to Toronto at 16 where his talent and size had him destined to sign with the Leafs. He averaged more than a goal per game in junior. In Quebec, frustrated Habs fans wanted the up-and-coming Beliveau to become the Canadiens savior. After all, the Flying Frenchmen had not won a Stanley Cup since 1946; not even with Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard leading the way. Thus, the Nesterenko-Beliveau battle was born in the media and fans watched in great anticipation.
Nesterenko split 1952-53 between the Marlboros and the Leafs, dominating in junior and showing promise with 10 goals in 35 NHL games. By contrast, Beliveau, the pride of Victoriaville, Que., was in no big rush for NHL stardom and played another year with the senior Aces. His five goals in three NHL games whetted the appetite of fans.
The Habs solved the dilemma in 1953 by purchasing the QSHL and making Beliveau a Canadien for good. Beliveau, in turn, stunned the hockey world by showing up for his signing accompanied by an agent, a move that was unheard of in those owner-dominated days.
Neither Nesterenko nor Beliveau got out of the starting gate well in 1953-54. Beliveau had 34 points in 44 games but ranked just sixth in team scoring. Nesterenko’s freewheeling style was suppressed by defense-minded coach King Clancy, and the rookie had just 14 goals and 23 points in 68 games. Toronto fans pressured Nesterenko to provide more. “There I was every night in Maple Leaf Gardens with all those people screaming and shouting down at me,” said Nesterenko to Chicago columnist Bob Greene. “The hardest thing for any pro to recognize is that he’s not the best in the world. It took me two or three years in the NHL to realize there were men better than me. And there was nothing I could do about it.”
A turning point for both players occurred in 1955-56. Nesterenko slumped to four goals and 10 points in 40 games with the Leafs and finished the season with Winnipeg in the Western League. “I was 22 and told myself I was a failure,” he said.
Meanwhile, new Habs coach Toe Blake warned Beliveau to get tough or else. “Jean got the message, big-time, and got nasty,” said Le Soleil newspaper columnist Claude Larochelle. Beliveau’s penalty minutes leapt from 58 in 1954-55 to 143 under Blake. His goal total jumped from 37 to 47 and points from 73 to 88. There was no stopping him.
Nesterenko signed with Chicago in 1956 and spent 16 seasons playing dependable hockey for the Hawks. His banner season was 1960-61 when he hit 19 goals and 38 points in 68 games while helping Chicago to its first Cup in 23 years. By that time, Beliveau had five Cup rings – eventually to be 10 – and would be recognized as one of the best centers ever. “Talent is a gift, but you can only succeed with hard work,” said Beliveau about his success.
From 1956, when he won his first Cup, to the end of his career, nobody worked harder. After retiring, he attended Habs home games until felled by illness. He died in 2014 at age 83.
After hanging up his skates, Nesterenko became a popular ski instructor in Colorado, where he still lives. He’s 85.