In the summer of 2006, my friend Dave started working for Delaware North. Eventually that job included working at HSBC Arena, which meant serving people in the luxury boxes and not watching a whole lot of hockey. Still, it was a job at HSBC Arena, and the Sabres were going to play hockey for the first time since falling just shy of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Naturally, when Dave got his first check he cashed it and went straight into the Sabres Store. The Sabres had just announced new jerseys, and despite the fact that they were awful, Dave wasn’t going to be denied. He preordered a Paul Gaustad jersey before we had the chance to convince him otherwise.
Now at the time a Gaustad jersey was a rare sight, but this was Dave. This was a guy who had been pimping Gaustad since the lockout, calling him Goose and joking that we should put up signs at the arena as a tribute to a local restaurant and our favorite new player. None of us had seen much of Gaustad outside of a few Amerks games, but it only took a few games as a Sabre before we were sold.
It’s safe to say that Dave was on the ground floor when it came to cheering for Paul Gaustad and, by association, so was I. It was hard not to love what the guy brought to a team, and even though he spent most of his time on the fourth line you could tell he had something more. So yeah, some signs were put up here and there, and Dave wore that jersey proudly as, very slowly, a few others popped up around him at games.
Of course, it didn’t help that Goose seemed to follow a guy like Chris Drury. We’ve all read the stories about him trying to beat Drury to the rink before games, and that work ethic was easy to fall in love with. Anyone who likes Gaustad call tell you about a moment at practice or during a game where you appreciate the way he handles himself, and more and more we saw those examples on a nightly basis.
Suddenly Gaustad is entering his fifth full season as a Sabre, and he has “veteran” status on a young team. We’ve talked about Goose’s leadership time and time again, and getting an ‘A’ this year is a huge accomplishment. It’s a new role for a guy so many Sabres fans have hoped he was capable of, and so far he seems to fit the bill.
More importantly, his numbers on ice have improved dramatically this season. With eight goals in just 27 games, Goose will easily break his career-high in goals and leads the league in faceoff percentage. He has solidified his role as one of the team’s top centers, and his situational utility makes him invaluable on set plays. All of a sudden, Paul Gaustad is worth the 4-year, $9.2 million contract extension he signed last summer; a not-so-small feat on a perpetually cash-strapped team.
It’s easy to be a fan of Paul Gaustad. Anyone who saw him four years ago could have fell in love with his effort or admire his work ethic on the fourth line, and he plays with that same intensity and drive on the power play today. As Sabres fans we’ve seen the growth of a role player into a true asset to the team, and today we might get to see him become a true asset to his country.
Sometime around 4pm today USA Hockey will announce the 2010 Men’s Olympic Team. It’s not official, but there is a very good chance Paul Gaustad will be on that team. If it happens it will be the best moment of his career, and an important moment for a lot of Sabres fans. Gaustad’s talents in the faceoff circle and the assets he brings can round out a very talented team with exceptional goaltending in Ryan Miller, and it would give Sabres fans quite a bit to cheer for come February.
Most of all, it will be quite a moment for a lot of Goose fans. It’s easy to love a guy like Paul Gaustad, but seeing him play for Team USA would confirm a lot of what we’ve felt about Goose from the onset of his career. We can talk about his faceoffs and ability to screen a goaltender, but the reason we love Paul Gaustad is that he plays hockey the way we imagine we would in the NHL.
I know that’s why I like him so much. Goose will never be your first pick in the shootout but he plays every game like he might get sent back to the minors if he lets up. He finishes every check, plays to every whistle, and defends his teammates well beyond that whistle. He’ll stand in front of slap shots and work on his faceoff technique until it’s perfect, and the numbers prove all that hard work has paid off.
Simply put: Goose making the Olympic team would give hope to every lanky boy who has ever picked up a hockey stick. To see a kid from Fargo work his ass off and represent his country in Vancouver would be one of the coolest moments I have ever seen as a sports fan. They may not win gold or medal at all, but watching Goose hit the ice in red, white and blue would be something I had never dreamed of five years ago. Short of winning a Stanley Cup, playing for your country in the Olympics is the greatest honor a hockey player can have; and watching your favorite player do it is something else, too.
It might not happen. There are a whole lot of American players with more ability than Paul Gaustad, and he wasn’t even invited to tryouts before the season started. Still, there is a small part of me that just knows his name is somewhere on that roster. That small part of me might be eight years old and holding a wooden hockey stick on a snowy street, but he knows it’s there.
He has to be, right?