He showed up to spring training camp weighing 272 pounds and almost immediately, he could hear the whispers.
He walked in the room and heads turned, some with the look of astonishment, others wondering how in the world someone that big expects to play a sport as mobile and physically demanding as hockey.
Dustin Nehring heard it all. He saw the look in his teammates’ faces. Then, he looked at himself in the mirror and realized there was a reason for all the curiosity. At five-foot-10 1⁄2, he was big and he knew it.
“After the season ended last year, we had a spring training camp and I weighed in at 272 pounds and the guys were all laughing at me,” said Nehring, a talented and physically punishing defenceman for the Yorkton Harvest out of Saskatchewan. “I said right then things have to change. I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘I’ve got to do something to get down to a decent playing weight.’”
He started by getting a summer job at a moving company and in the first week alone, lost eight pounds. He now weighs between 230-to-235 pounds and has been as low as 228 pounds this season.
“It was hard intense labour,” Nehring said, of his summer job. “I’m talking about 16 hours a day.”
He followed that up with an intense workout regiment that included lifting weights and running four-to-six days a week. He didn’t diet but he watched what he ate and as the results came, so too did Dustin Nehring’s self esteem.
“I had to get a lot of new clothes,” Nehring said. “I feel better about myself today and once the season ends, I hope to trim down even more.”
Today, he’s one of Yorkton’s best players and his bruising, take-no-prisoners approach has sent shivers down the spine of opposing forwards, many of whom are aware of his presence every time he steps on the ice.
He is big. He is tough. And he is mean.
“It’s funny,” says Dustin’s father, Morlie. “In his first year of midget, nobody wanted him. He weighed around 285 pounds and everybody said he’d never play AAA midget. He always dominated when he was younger but as he got bigger, there were questions about his size.”
In fact, had it not been for a phone call by his father to Yorkton head coach Ryan Hoffman last year, Dustin may have hung the skates up forever. Because of football commitments and concern about his weight, Dustin didn’t attend Yorkton’s hockey tryouts for the 2001-02 season.
His dad called Hoffman to request a late tryout and while the coach agreed, he really didn’t think Dustin could make the team. Not at that weight. But hey, Hoffman felt, what’s the harm in a courtesy tryout?
“He (Dustin) didn’t come to our tryouts last year because he had football but his dad called us later and asked if he could still try out,” Hoffman said. “I really didn’t think he was in our plans. We had a three-game mini pre-season tournament on the big ice surface in Notre Dame and I felt that was a good chance to see what he could do.
“If he couldn’t play, it would be easy to tell on the big ice surface but he came in and played great and wrecked a few guys.
“Now, he’s made a commitment to see what he can do in hockey in the next couple of years.”
Dustin, who also plays competitive football and was the most valuable defensive lineman in the Regina Intercollegiate Football League, says he’s in somewhat of a dilemma when it comes to watching his weight.
On the one hand, he’s supposed to be lean and mean for hockey. On the other hand, as a talented two-way lineman in football, his coaches would like him to remain on the bigger side.
But as he continued to mature and get older, Dustin said he was faced this season with the inevitable task of selecting one sport over the other.
At least for the time being.
“It got to a point where I had to choose a sport I wanted to be more serious about,” he said. “That’s something I hadn’t wanted to do for a long time. It was tough because in football, it’s in my best interest to be heavier but then hockey comes around and they want me lighter.”
Dustin, who is property of the Laronde Ice Wolves of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, is hoping to get traded to the Yorkton Terriers next season. He’s determined to see how far he can go in hockey and if things don’t work out, he always has football to fall back on.
He said he’d love to play for the Regina Rams university team but for the time being, his focus is on winning an Air Canada Cup and keeping opposing snipers away from the front of his team’s goal.
Bill Montague is a Sault Star sportswriter.