If it wasn’t for hockey, it’s almost a foregone conclusion Blake Gustafson would still be an athlete of some sort.
The Red Deer Rebels defenceman played pretty much everything growing up and takes a lot of pride in his multi-sport athletic ability, whether it’s basketball (which he’s played since he was five) volleyball, handball or soccer.
With all that, there’s one other athletic pursuit that is somewhat unusual for a hockey player to excel in– javelin.
The 17-year-old Ardrossan native doesn’t just toss it around for fun either, although that’s how he started in junior high – he is now a two-time Alberta Provincial high school champion at both the junior and intermediate levels.
The first provincial title was also a bit serendipitous.
Gustafson was drafted by the Rebels in the 10th round of the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
The following spring, he was in town for the Rebels annual prospects camp. That weekend just happened to coincide with the Alberta Schools Athletic Association Provincial Track and Field Championships, taking place at Lindsay Thurber.
So, with the Rebels blessing, Gustafson skipped a pilates session, went out to the track to see how he would fair. He won with a toss of 46.63 metres, also a personal best.
“Didn’t expect to finish first. I showed up and ended up throwing a personal best to come first. It was kind of a surprise at first, but it also made a little bit of sense. I trained really hard that summer and I was stronger,” he recalled, adding he watched some YouTube videos to help learn a little bit off the start.
Last spring, he did it again. It was another personal best, a throw of 51.45M, to win gold by almost a full metre over the nearest competitor.
“No high expectations, but I showed up and threw another personal best, so it’s been personal bests for me, which is really good,” he said.
“I think I attribute most of it to the Rebels training program, I don’t think I’d be throwing that far without their booklet. It’s really good they supported me that first year because that made me think maybe I can do this.”
The six-foot-two, 190-pound blueliner has even been approached by a national team coach, Kim Cousins about doing a little more with the sport. For now, he’s sticking with hockey.
“She said she’d be willing to help me. But I haven’t really approached her yet,” he said.
Because it turns out, he’s pretty good at that hockey thing, too.
He cracked the Rebels roster this fall and has dressed for three games so far this season. He also had his first career point in his first game, an assist. Like most young players, Gustafson is navigating the space between wondering when he’s going to play next and trying to force his way into the lineup.
“I’m loving it. I’m making an impression in practice and working hard. The only thing I can do is concentrate and keep giving it my all,” he said.
“I’ve learned a ton since I’ve come here. From day 1 of camp till now, I’m a completely different player and I notice it on the ice with my skating and my stickhandling. It’s been really good and I’m really happy to be here.”
Gustafson is perhaps one of the more cerebral players on the Rebels. He thinks things through and processes in a different way than most. It’s helped him adapt at a quick pace early on his career.
“One thing he has going for him is that he understands the game defensively better than any of our young players and that’s the thing they need to work at and get better at to be complete players,” said Rebels GM/ head coach Brent Sutter.
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What he likes about the young blueliner is the way he approaches the game. Gustafson takes pride in being the steady guy, the reliable option on the backend that defends well, closes gaps and doesn’t leave much room for opponents. That has him in Sutter’s good graces early on.
“He fits in nicely with the way he plays. Compliments our other guys that are in that age group. He’s just a real steady defensive defenceman,” Sutter said.
“He’s not a guy that is going to put up huge numbers but he takes a lot of pride in defending. Takes a lot of pride in handling his 1-on-1 situations and handling the rush well. He’s a throw back-type player.”
He’s sprouted up to almost six-foot-three over the last year, but he’s also bulked up. After finishing his second season with the Sherwood Park Kings Midget AAA team last year, Gustafson said he put on about 10 pounds in the offseason.
It has obviously been an adjustment for the teen this year, both getting used to a bigger body on the ice at the major junior level, but also the opponents are a lot bigger and faster.
“The hardest thing is the space on the ice. It seems like there’s a lot less room when you’re getting pucks. I’m working on it,” he said.
“I need better confidence, so I’ve been working on being more confident and the speed of the game.”
If he lacks a bit of confidence now, don’t expect that to last long.
If the pace in which he went from casually throwing a javelin to becoming a provincial champion is any indication of the quick-learning ability of Blake Gustafson, his name might be one Red Deer Rebels fans could get used to seeing penciled into the lineup a lot more often down the road.