Bengt Gustafsson may not have won a championship in his time with the Capitals, but in the nine years that he spent with the team, he learned valuable lessons that helped him grow not only as a player, but also helped his future coaching career.
The Capitals’ fourth-round (55th overall) choice in the 1978 Amateur Draft, Gustafsson chose instead to play the 1978-79 season in Sweden and later signed with the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association in March 1979, making his North American pro debut in the WHA playoffs that spring.
“I didn’t know what was going on, to be honest,” Gustafsson says. “I found out later on I was drafted. At that time there were so few Europeans and Swedish players over here, it was nothing you were really thinking about. My dream was to make the Swedish national team, that’s what I was aiming for.”
When the Oilers merged into the NHL after the 1979 season, the Capitals reclaimed Gustafsson’s rights. He would go on to play nine years of his NHL career with the Capitals.
He still ranks highly on the Capitals’ all-time record ledger, standing fourth overall in career goals (196), sixth overall in career assists (359), third overall in career game-winning goals (33) tied for second overall in career shorthanded goals (17) and fifth overall in the top 50 point scorers (629 games, 555 points—196 goals, 359 assists). He also led the team in assists during the 1985-86 season (52).
Gustafsson remained in Washington through the 1985-86 season before returning to Sweden for another season. He re-signed with the Capitals in May 1987, spending his last two years in the NHL and finished his playing career back in Europe with Färjestads BK of the Swedish Elite League from 1989-93 and Feldkirch VEU of the Austrian Hockey League from 1993-99.
After his playing career, Gustafsson remained active in hockey, coaching several European teams.
His first coaching stint was with Feldkirch VEU, the same team where he ended his playing career. Gustafsson then moved on to SC Langnau of the Swiss National League from 1998-2001, where he also assisted with Switzerland’s National team. He would then move on to coach his former team, Färjestads BK from 2001-05, leading them to a championship in 2002.
Currently he is the head coach of Tre Kronor, the Swedish national team, where he has been since 2005. In 2006 Gustafsson secured his name in hockey lore, as he became the first coach to win an Olympic gold medal and the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in the same year.
“It’s always a great thing being a part of something, winning for your nation. It’s unbelievable,” stated Gustafsson. “In February we won the Olympics and then in May we won the World Championship. That was a special time.”
After winning championships as both a player and a coach, Gustafsson notices a difference between winning as a player and winning as a coach.
“As a coach, it’s a great experience and it’s a great pleasure to be working with so many great players but it’s totally different [than celebrating as a player because of the impact of the game,” Gustafsson says. “You pick the players and you make the plays but they are making the decisions, the ones scoring, it’s their event.”
Through all his of his coaching experiences, Gustafsson often reflects on his career and experiences. Today, he looks back at his time with the Capitals fondly. His NHL experience has helped mold him into a successful coach.
“We didn’t win any titles, but there were so many big steps the organization took and I was a part of it,” Gustafsson remembered about his time wit the Capitals. “From being really low to make it as they are now it’s been a long ride.
“I relate a lot back to the coaches I had in my career. I try and bring the good stuff and things that impacted me and things I thought weren’t so good I try not to do the same things.”
Earlier in 2008-09, Gustafsson found himself back Washington as a guest coach. He spent time earlier this season with the Capitals and the coaching staff reacquainting himself with the smaller ice surfaces of North America in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Gustafsson is the father of Anton Gustafsson, Washington’s first choice (21st overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. The elder Gustafsson has found success as a coach, but has never forgotten his success as a player. And that is something he makes sure the young men he coaches learn and appreciate the big picture.
“I tell them you’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to be a hockey player and to be in the NHL or on a national team,” stated Gustafsson. “Whatever you do you just have to enjoy the moment and do anything you can to do your best everyday, every time you step on the ice.
“You look at it and it’s not much time you’re on the ice. Even today we practiced for 40-45 minutes, it’s not a lot of time, but everyone should expect to do their best and they will be strong.”