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Gus Visits his Old Stomping Grounds

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
Former Caps center Bengt Gustafsson made a trip into the District last week. Gustafsson and ex-Canadien Mats Naslund were in Washington on scouting business. Gustafsson is the head coach of Sweden’s national man’s hockey team; Naslund is the general manager for the same club. Prior to the Caps’ game with Tampa Bay on Mar. 1, Gustafsson chatted informally with local media. Here is a transcript of that conversation:


Tarik El-Bashir, Washington Post: So what brings you to town?

Gustafsson: I’m scouting. I was hoping there would be two Swedes playing for Tampa tonight, but I think it’s only one. One is hurt. I hope [Johan] Holmqvist is playing in net. I don’t know. Holmqvist has been playing good lately. I hope he is playing, but otherwise we’re here to talk to the guys. If they fall out of the playoffs, we have the World Championships in May in Russia.

El-Bashir: Do you expect Nicklas Backstrom to be there? Will he play in that?

Gustafsson: Of course. He was there last year. He has had a tough time after Christmas here, but I was watching a game yesterday he was playing and you can see that he is on the way back up again. I hope he can find the form he had before.

El-Bashir: Do you think he is the type of player who will be able to contribute right away if he comes to Washington next year?

Gustafsson: Well, yes. Of course he has all the skills. If he plays with the right surroundings I am sure he will produce and play as well as he can. He had a lot of pressure on him this year. He played in the World Championship last year, and he had to play in the Junior World Championship [this year]. There was a lot of pressure at home and all that stuff. I think he ran into a tough time there. I think he needs a good World Championship to really feel like he is ready to take the next step.

El-Bashir: Have you talked to him at all? Is he excited about coming over next year or he is just focused on this season?

Gustafsson: I don’t talk about that with him. The last time we had a tournament in Sweden, he got sick and couldn’t play in that tournament. He went back home. I’m not trying to intervene in what they want to do in the future, their plans and all that stuff. It’s not my thing. I try to stay away from that. I’ll be happy if he stays home, but I guess one day he will be here for sure. It’s just a question of if it will be next year or one more year.

Mike Vogel, washingtoncaps.com: Is there anything you’ve seen that you can put your finger on that he was doing earlier in the season that he is not doing now?

Gustafsson: I think he just ran into a situation there with the team. The team was playing really well and he was playing well, too. And after Christmas there, after the Junior World Championship the whole team has really been struggling since them. It has been up and down, and he hasn’t been getting points. I think the coach has been changing the lines around a lot, and it’s a situation where the team hasn’t been great. I saw them yesterday, and the whole team played a little better. They play the last game of the regular season tomorrow and then the playoffs start on Monday. I think he is on the way up.

Vogel: It has been almost 30 years ago since you came over to play in North America for the first time. What was that like for you? There were only a handful of Europeans, a handful of Swedish players in the NHL at that time.

Gustafsson: I didn’t really have any expectations at all. I just came over here and just wanted to play hockey. I have to say that when I came to Washington I was really lucky because they had Rolf Edberg and Leif Svensson were playing here. They really helped me a lot with everything you weren’t thinking about. Back home, we were used to the clubs taking care of everything. You would come to a new team and they would set you up with an apartment, they help you out with cars, phones. Everything was just set up.

Then I came here and it was, ‘Here’s your paycheck, get yourself a house or somewhere to live.’ What do you do? It was a good thing for me that they were there to help me. That was a big support for me the first year. After that of course you get used to what was going on and it was no problem. It was a big adjustment socially. Hockeywise, it wasn’t that big. The game is the same, and it’s a fun place.

Vogel: That first year you played for Washington, in 1979-80, there was a fight over your playing rights. The Oilers wanted to keep you, and the Caps wanted to retain your rights. Commissioner Ziegler had to rule on that. Do you ever think about what would have happened had you played out your career in Edmonton with Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky and all those guys?

Gustafsson: They turned out to be great teams. They won five [Stanley Cups] in a row or whatever it was, four out of five. And of course you can think that maybe I could have been there, but maybe if I was there it wouldn’t have been like that. [laughter] Who knows?

I was involved in the decision to come to Washington. It was a lot of paperwork and all that stuff. We made a decision, my agent and I, that I wanted to go to Washington. I was really happy to come here and I really enjoyed those nine years I had here. It was really, really great. I had no regrets and it was a big part of my life. Edmonton was two games in the WHA, and that was it.

Vogel: When you came here, the Caps had never made the playoffs and were one of the worst teams in the league. They were like that for the first couple of years you were here. And then you guys started getting really good. In the mid-80s, you were among the elite teams in the league, at least during the regular season. What was that process like? That’s sort of where these fans and players like Ovechkin and Backstrom hope this team is right now.

Gustafsson: When I came in here, the team was only a few years old. It was a very young team. It takes time to set things up and get everybody involved through the draft and some of that stuff. I was lucky to end up being a part of that process with Ryan Walter Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens and all those young guys coming in. We really had a good bunch of guys, and also some experienced guys coming in and helping out. We learned pretty fast what it took to win. In the middle 80s, we really had a very, very good hockey team. Unfortunately, we were in a tough division and it was really tough to get out. We had some good years there, but unfortunately we didn’t go all the way. But that’s sports, too.

You have some young prospects here. It looks like if you keep those guys around for a couple years, you’ll have a great team here in Washington again.

El-Bashir: Earlier you had mentioned that maybe Nicklas would stay one more year in Sweden. Is there any talk of him maybe staying one more year in Sweden before coming?

Gustafsson: I don’t know. I was there yesterday and I talked to the manager. For them, it’s not finished that he’s leaving. That’s what they said. It has been in the media that he is leaving, but they haven’t gotten it straight from him yet that he is leaving. That’s why I said that. They were not sure.

El-Bashir: I spoke to one of the reporters from over there a while ago. He wrote a big story in the big sports paper comparing him to Peter Forsberg. Is that a fair comparison, or is that putting too much pressure on Nicklas?

Gustafsson: It’s impossible to compare players. Everybody is unique in their own way. Peter, when he was young, he was unique. He was, as he is now, so stubborn sometimes when he is playing, and he’s a greedy player too. He doesn’t have just good skills. I think that’s maybe what Nicklas hasn’t got really, yet. He has all the skills and all that stuff and he plays, but he is not as physical as Peter. He probably has to learn to have that kind of game sometimes. But it’s tough to compare. He is a very, very skilled player with a lot of talent. I’m sure he is going to be a great, great hockey player. But is he going to reach the kind of success that Forsberg had? It’s impossible to talk about that right now, I think.

Nicklas Backstrom
Vogel: Without comparing Backstom to any other player, what’s your scouting report on him as a player?

Gustafsson: He is an intelligent player with great, great hands. He really finds those passes. He finds holes and small, small things the way [Wayne] Gretzky did when he was I his prime, just waiting and waiting. You think, ‘I’ve got him,’ and then the puck is just chipped by you to the next guy who is coming full speed with an empty net, whatever it is. Those small things are his biggest assets right now. You can’t get the puck away from him once he gets it, he always finds good solutions and finds his teammates and gives them good scoring chances.

Vogel: When you were playing, did you ever think of going into coaching when your playing days were over? And now that you are coaching, which coaches from your playing days influenced you the most?

Gustafsson: I started coaching in ’98. At Christmas in ’97, somebody asked me if I would coach and I said, ‘No, no way.’ But then the situation just happened, and then I was involved and I started coaching. Now, I’m stuck. [laughter]

El-Bashir: How long have you been the coach of Team Sweden?

Gustafsson: I’ve been with Team Sweden since the World Championship in 2005.

El-Bashir: So you’ve had Backstrom once?

Gustafsson: Last year, he was there and I brought him in at the end of the tournament last year. He was with us all the time, but last year was his first and only World Championship.

But as a coach, the way I am right now, you learn good things from everybody. And the bad things, the things you said, ‘I’ll never make the mistakes they made,’ you try not to make them anyway. And then you try to bring all those good things you learned and heard along the way, but you always end up being yourself. I can’t try to be anybody else. I’m Gus, and I’m not going to change how I coach. That would be a strange situation when you played with a lot of players that I’m now coaching, I can’t try to change and be somebody different.

Vogel: Have you grown to love coaching as much as you loved playing?

Gustafsson: No.

Vogel: More of a job?

Gustafsson: It’s more like a lifestyle right now. It has changed totally. As I player, I loved to play. But when I walked off after it was over, it was over. I came home and I could relax. But now it’s hockey 23 hours a day. It’s always something. Sitting in front of a computer watching stats, and looking for things that happen, walking around thinking about players, [thinking] ‘maybe he could play there’ and all that stuff. It’s a totally different life and my head has switched around a little.

Vogel: Do you have aspirations to coach in the NHL ever?

Gustafsson: I can’t have aspirations. I’m not that kind of guy who is aiming [for that]. If that happens, of course it would be very, very interesting. It would be a great thing. But I’m not working with the goal of coaching in the NHL. If that happens I would be more than happy to take the challenge. It would be interesting to try it, no doubt about it. But I have to wait another three years first.


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