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by Staff Writer / Buffalo Sabres
Paul Gaustad (photo: Getty Images)
Paul Gaustad remembers the embarrassment. The Buffalo Sabres' hulking center remembers the teachers in the corner with tears nearly flowing from their eyes as they laughed out loud. He remembers the kids, oh those critical kids.

"They gave me the hardest Dr. Seuss book that I have ever seen in my life, and I had the hardest time reading it," said Gaustad, who through his brutal honesty couldn't remember the name of the book he had to read to a group of school kids last year.

It's not as if the Sabres 6-foot-5, 225-pound center couldn't read the book. He's no dummy. Gaustad, though, like most of us, couldn't read it with the same inflection and tone in his voice that these kids were used to hearing from their experienced teachers.

Talk about stress. Hockey critics are saints when compared to a group of honest children who know what they want to hear.

"With Dr. Seuss, you have to have a rhythm and it has to rhyme, and I was not reading it in the right Dr. Seuss way," Gaustad said. "The kids were laughing at me a little bit because I had to have them help me read a Dr. Seuss book. The teachers were just dying because they knew they gave me the hardest book to read.
"It was pretty funny, but now I have a rider: No more Dr. Seuss books."

We'll put this story in the "it's the thought that counts" category because that's really all that matters. His embarrassment aside, Gaustad remains one of the most involved professional athletes within the Buffalo community.

Not only does he still go to schools to read to children -- as long as it's not The Cat in the Hat or Green Eggs and Ham -- Gaustad volunteers his time to aid children stricken with cancer and to spearhead the Sabres' "Green Team," which is a high-profile effort to encourage fans to recycle and conserve energy.

Gaustad's charity work coupled with his dogged determination as a former seventh-round draft pick turned NHL regular are the reasons he was chosen by the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association as their nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy.

"The things that I am involved with off the ice are things I don't want to just give my time to and say that's good enough," Gaustad said. "I want to know what the organization is all about and who is benefiting from it so I'm not just going in, signing autographs and leaving."

While Gaustad still very much enjoys going to schools to read books to children, he takes most pride in his work with the Camp Good Days, which defines itself on its Web site as "a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for children, adults and families whose lives have been touched by cancer and other life challenges."

"They recently baked cookies that they were trying to sell to raise money for cancer awareness," Gaustad said. "It's amazing that these kids can do that. It shows so much character in them."

Gaustad said he can't define exactly what his role is as a volunteer for Camp Good Days -- it's not as if he's curing their ills, or making them physically better in any way. However, he knows he does play a pivotal role, which both astonishes him and touches him at the same time.

"I guess I just brighten their days up," he said. "They love hockey and they love hockey players, but I don't feel like a hockey player going in there. I've become friends with some of the kids by just hanging out with them and seeing them smile. If I can help them by being there, well that's great. It's a huge perk for me that I can do this."

It's a perk Gaustad admits he never would have known if he hadn't overcome some serious odds himself.

Even though the Sabres selected him with the 220th pick in 2000, Gaustad was a longshot to play beyond the AHL. He was deemed too slow, and according to the Buffalo News, even coach Lindy Ruff figured Gaustad was a career minor-leaguer.

"I have always been a little slow, it kind of runs in my family genes," Gaustad said with a chuckle. "We're not the fastest breed around."

Gaustad never let his speed, or lack there of, slow him down.

After three successful seasons with the Rochester Americans from 2003-05, Gaustad made the Sabres' final roster coming out of the lockout. Perhaps it was because he could play on the cheap and Buffalo GM Darcy Regier was worried about the new salary cap, but more likely it was because Gaustad's hard work was evident.

He was faster than he was the day the Sabres drafted him. He was better. And with his size and ability, he was the perfect third or fourth line center in the new NHL.

Gaustad, who has a career-high 31 points this season heading into Wednesday's game against Tampa Bay, has become a fan favorite at the HSBC Arena because while he may strive to conserve energy by going green off the ice, on it he's a virtual wrecking ball.

"I have worked extremely hard to get faster and to get to the NHL," said Gaustad, who each summer works with a skating instructor to improve his technique and speed. "I'm proud that I'm here, but it's even more of a battle to stay in the NHL."

But is it tougher than reading a Dr. Seuss book out loud to a group of kids?

Gaustad would know.

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