DETROIT — Every prospective NHL player in the league undergoes an entrance level physical exam prior to the start of training camp in September. They are poked and prodded, tested and re-tested to make sure athletes are healthy enough for the physical exertion required to compete at hockey’s highest level.
For Jonas Gustavsson, the sometimes-tedious tests may have saved his life prior to the 2009-10 season when doctors discovered an irregular heartbeat for the then-Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender. This prognosis would eventually lead to Gustavsson’s player initiative called ‘Big Hearts Mini Monsters’.
“It started when I was playing in Toronto,” Gustavsson said. “I worked with Universal Studios and their Cardiac Kids program. It kind of started when, I, myself had heart issues, had some manipulations for my irregular heartbeat and all that. That’s when I kind of got involved with that and I also think it’s for kids, they’re the future so you want to try and help them and give them a smile if you can. That means a lot.”
Through Big Hearts Mini Monsters, Gustavsson hosts a child with a congenital heart defect at each Red Wings home game with a pair of donated tickets. Guests are selected by Hearts of Hope Michigan and Cardiac Kids in Toronto. Having played his entire NHL career in two cities separated by a little more than 200 miles, Gustavsson is able to combine both communities in his program. A native of Danderyd, Sweden, he continues to give back to two regions that have supported him for the duration of his professional career.
Gustavsson has had three surgeries since 2009 to correct an irregular heartbeat. He said he is not currently affected by it but that it is monitored annually at the beginning of each season.
“I mean my last procedure was three or four years ago. Since then, I’ve felt fine. So no, hopefully I’m done with that.”
Being active in the community is important to Gustavsson and he felt a need to contribute. Supporting kids with heart defects is one that the six-year pro can relate to and is a cause that he has been supporting since his time in Toronto. He said player involvement is a point of emphasis by teams across the league.
“Since I got here to the NHL, it’s always been a lot about working with different charities and all that,” he said. “I think it’s great. They try to, not push you, but they like you to be involved and like I said, for myself, I like to be involved.”
Hearts of Hope Michigan is a non-profit organization founded in 2005 by a group of mothers whose children share a complex heart defect. The organization helps connect families, give comfort, lend support and create awareness for the number one birth defect among children.
Cardiac Kids in Toronto is a volunteer group established in 2000 to raise funds for children who are suffering from congenital heart disease. One in 100 Canadian children born are born with a heart defect and more than half will require surgery to survive. Funds raised by Cardiac Kids are used to support the children and staff of the cardiology ward at the Hospital for Sick Children.