He’s a true example of perseverance.
“I try to be,” Red Deer Rebels defenceman Blake Gustafson said Thursday, prior to a practice session at the Centrium.
The 17-year-old rearguard was a 10th round bantam draft pick of the Rebels in 2017 and two years later has pretty much sewn up a roster spot with the Western Hockey League squad.
The fact Gustafson was selected at all is a credit to the Rebels scouting staff, considering the Ardrossan native suffered a broken arm during his draft eligible season with the major bantam Sherwood Park Flyers.
Due to the injury, he appeared in only 21 games that winter — eight of which he wore a cast — collecting seven points, all assists, in the process.
“I wasn’t able to shoot the puck at all, so honestly being drafted was kind of a relief,” he said. “It was also a surprise for me because I hadn’t really talked to many (WHL) teams and I didn’t really expect to be drafted because I was out (injured) so much that year.”
Gustafson attended the Rebels prospect camp in June of 2017 feeling rather unsure of himself, a feeling that persisted two months later when he checked in for rookie camp. Words of advice and wisdom from his father helped ease his nerves.
“I was nervous for camp because I was behind, I was coming back from injury,” he said. “My dad said there are no expectations, just try your hardest.
“I like to be a darkhorse. I kind of looked past being a 10th-round draft pick and did my best to fit in with the rest of the guys.”
So far, so good. Gustafson hasn’t looked out of place while appearing in all three preseason games with the Rebels this fall.
“It’s definitely a different level. It’s not midget hockey anymore,” he said.
That he seldom ventures outside of his comfort zone is one of Gustafson’s attributes.
“I’m a defensive defenceman. If you give me a guy to lock down I can lock him down,” said the 188-pound blueliner, who stands just a shade under six-foot-three. “I like to block shots, make the first pass and battle in the corners. I get up in the rush when I can.”
Brent Sutter signed Gustafson to a WHL standard player agreement earlier this year and the Rebels GM/head coach has never second-guessed himself regarding that decision.
“He’s been steady Eddie, he’s been exactly what we thought he’d be” said the Rebels boss. “He’s not going to be a big offensive guy but a guy who’s really good defending, a good positional player who can skate, move the puck and has size. He’s also a real smart player.”
Sutter appreciates the fact that Gustafson plays within himself, that he realizes his limits.
“He’s an awesome young man and he has a great attitude about it,” said Sutter. “That’s a big part of it, his attitude and his confidence in his ability. But he also knows what he is as a player and tries to build from within that.”
Gustafson played with the midget AAA Sherwood Park Kings last season and credits head coach Leo Reagan and his staff for helping him and several of teammates — including incoming Rebels forward Jace Isley — realize their potential.
“Leo was great last year. We had a bunch of guys who are at camps now,” said Gustafson, who scored three goals and added one assist in 34 games with the Kings.
“The five of us, we all kind of pushed each other,” he added of himself and fellow WHL campers Isley, Braden Miller, Cole Carrier and Brendan Kuny.
The Rebels host the Medicine Hat Tigers Friday and conclude their preseason schedule Sunday versus the Hitmen in Calgary.
Red Deer’s WHL regular-season opener is Sept. 21 against the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings.