Toronto Maple Leafs Monster: Jonas Gustavsson Reminds Us Hockey Isn't Everything
Sometimes hockey just doesn't matter.
After the siren sounded to end the game in Montreal on Saturday night, a 2-0 loss, Gustavsson skated off the ice with his teammates, disappointed after a tough game against their long-time foes. Most players on the team had their fathers accompanying them on the trip, an annual tradition that GM Brian Burke brought with him from his days in Anaheim.
For one night, they got to feel like kids again, as their fathers waited for them in the hallway after the game, offering encouraging words and "you'll do better next game," like they did back in the house league days.
A bittersweet moment to be sure for the players, who after a loss to their division rivals got to hang out with dad.
But for Gustavsson, his father wasn't there to tell him he played okay. No one was waiting for him with an encouraging smile on his face. There was no feeling like a kid again on this night.
Gustavsson's father passed away four years ago, just as he began his ascent up the rankings in Sweden, long before he was on the NHL's radar.
And while every other player (except Tomas Kaberle and Nikolai Kulemin, whose dads couldn't make it) had one more night with their fathers before the fun weekend ended and it was back to work as usual, the man between the pipes had to deal with the loss without family there to support him.
Alone in a crowded room.
But there's more to it than that for Gustavsson, whose painful story only begins with the loss of his father.
Last season, just before he signed his contract with the Leafs, the 26-year-old lost his mother to a chronic lung disease as well.
Suddenly, a man searching for a way to make the NHL was searching for answers. His life turned upside down.
A lot to shoulder for anyone, but for a man who's under the pressure of an entire city to be the future netminder of the Leafs, while spending his first season in a foreign country; it's a wonder how he handled it all.
Or how he still handles it now.
On top of all that, he also had setbacks on the ice last season when it was found he had a racing heart beat, and the complications forced him to have two separate procedures. A scare for anyone, but when you're 5,000 miles away from home with no parents to call, it must have been a horrible experience.
So for a Leafs team struggling to find their identity (and wins), the weekend may have been refreshing to the players who got to spend some time with "pops," showing them how life in the NHL really is; but it was no doubt tough for Gustavsson.
He must think of his mother and father every day, and to watch his teammates have a weekend all about dad, it had to be difficult.
It's apparent the Leafs netminder is one tough customer, having already dealt with moving to a new country, learning a new language, new rules in the NHL and dealing with health issues off the ice.
He's a fighter if there ever was one.
But to do it all without his parents, without the ability to just call mom and dad to say hi, that's when you look at the man they call the Monster, and realize that nickname might mean more than we think.
It might suggest the amount pain and struggle he's been through to get where he's at today. It might suggest the amount of loss he's had to deal with and accept at the young age of 26.
It certainly suggests the size of fight he has in him: the determination to work hard every day and reach his goal of being a starting goaltender in the NHL. An achievement you know he would have loved to share with his parents when he reaches that level one day.
Jonas Gustavsson is a Monster—at heart.
Doctors may have had to fix whatever issue ailed him health-wise, but there is nothing wrong with the heart he exudes in just showing up to the rink every day. While battling through a lifetime of hurt, getting up one more time than he's fallen down, he's pushing through to do what would make his parents proud.
That part of his heart is stronger than ever.
No one can question his drive. The fact that he comes to work every day and gives it his all without complaining. It's probably his way of fighting through the pain and dealing with the loss.
He's not trying to forget—he's trying to push forward.
Maybe hockey is Gustavsson's escape. Maybe this game, the game he loves, is his way of stepping aside for just a moment from the daily anguish he deals with, while focusing on a small, rubber puck.
And though this weekend was no doubt a tough reminder of what he's lost in his life, maybe, just maybe, the fact that he gets to play hockey through it all is exactly what he needs to get through it.
Maybe, sometimes, this game actually matters more than we think.
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