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Gustafsson reflects on NHL debut

Gustafsson: "I have to fight for my spot, but I feel like I can do better and better."

by Tyler Esquivel @TylerAEsquivel /

WINNIPEG - Middle of the night phone calls are rarely welcome.

But when Jets rookie David Gustafsson dialed his family home around 5:00 A.M in Sweden, his parents could hardly wait to answer.

"They were awake," said the 19-year-old who made his NHL debut on Tuesday night.

"I called them, and they were happy for me and they were happy about the way I played, and I thought so too."

By all accounts it was a solid first twirl for the forward drafted 60th overall by Winnipeg at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas, Texas. In his 5:59 of playing time, Gustafsson won 75 per cent of his faceoffs, blocked a shot - only one two forwards to do so - and made a few key defensive plays in his own zone.

"It was a tough game, (the Coyotes) played good," explained Gustafsson.

"It's tough going in after being away from the game for a couple weeks. But, you know, I feel like I did what I could and I'm happy about the game and I think it went well."

And he isn't the only one to have liked his play against Arizona. Head coach Paul Maurice was pleased with how the young centre handled the opportunity.

"I liked him," said Maurice following practice on Wednesday at Bell MTS Place.

"(Gustafsson) is a version of a guy that I had 18 years ago, the late Josef Vasicek. He came out of junior as a captain - the first European captain in the OHL - and we had him going to the minors. I never looked twice at him really and then halfway through camp we said there is a chance he could play on our fourth line, came out of camp on our third line and never left it because he was just safe and you knew he was going to kind of get better."

Like Gustafsson mentioned, getting back into game action is an adjustment after sitting in the press box for the first few weeks of the season. While every player wants to be on the ice, Gustafsson used the time up above as a learning opportunity.

"I just tried to watch the centremen - how they do things - especially Copp and Lowry and watch how they play the game. I try to do the same things as they do on the ice, so I tried to learn centre positioning"

"I look at (Copp & Lowry) a lot and both of them have helped me out a lot too. They'll often come and talk to me and tell me something I can do differently - especially in face-offs - they help me out a lot. It's definitely two guys who I watch a lot more."

Considering the amount of forward depth the Winnipeg Jets possess, it would have been to nobody's surprise - including Gustafsson's - if he was sent back to Europe at the conclusion of training camp. But like all athletes, the hunger to compete and push for a spot on the roster was his objective.

"My goal was to make the team and I felt that I had a chance. I didn't expect it to happen, I didn't feel like it would be weird if I didn't make the team. I came here with a good feeling and I said to myself, 'I'm coming here to take a spot'."

During his media availability on Wednesday, Maurice said regardless of if Bryan Little (concussion) returns to the lineup against the Islanders, Gustafsson will be back in the lineup once again.

"I'm just trying to keep on fighting like I did. I know how it is, this is a good team, especially on the forwards side - we have a lot of good forwards - so I have to fight for my spot, but I feel like I can do better and better."


Aside from the excitement of making his NHL debut, there was an extra special element to Gustafsson's first game. Arizona captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson is one of three players from Gustafsson's hometown of Tingsryd, Sweden playing in the NHL (Buffalo's Lawrence Pilut being the third).

"It's kind of special to have three guys over here. OEL has always been my childhood idol," said Gustafsson.

"That's been a guy who has always been around during the summers in Sweden. Me and my friends were always asking for autographs and pictures with him. It's cool to finally play against him - it was a special feeling to play against him."

Near the end of warmups on Tuesday, there was a special moment between the two as they posed for a photo to mark the occasion.

"I wasn't sure if he recognized me or not, but I think someone told him that I was going to play. Then I saw him winking at me and that we should go and take a picture"

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