If the Red Deer Rebels had a most improved player award for the abbreviated 2021 season, a worthy recipient would have been Blake Gustafson.
The big defenceman was a rock on the Rebels blueline in his sophomore season, playing a shutdown role while tracking down opposing forwards with his impressive stride and moving the puck with authority.
“I felt I developed,” the 19-year-old said Thursday. “I definitely felt like I found a role on the team. That’s something that Brent (GM and former head coach Sutter) talked to me about when I was a rookie — that everyone has a role and if you play the way you do, you get rewarded.
“I felt like I concentrated on my defensive game, blocking shots, making first passes . . . not trying to be too fancy with the puck. It paid off and I got rewarded by the coaches. It was nice to have a role, be respected by my teammates and just do my job.”
Gustafson, who stands a shade over six-foot-three, appeared in 38 games as a rookie in 2019-20, collecting five assists. Last winter he picked up a pair of helpers in 18 games and was a minus-7 in the plus/minus department, a respectable number considering the Rebels were outscored 59-106.
“He made a huge step last season,” said fourth-year assistant coach Ryan Colville. “His 17-year-old season here he came in and made our team and didn’t play a whole lot to start. Then he kind of earned his way into some playing time late in the season.
“Then last season he comes in and plays more of a regular role for us. He’s a really good skating defensive defenceman who’s really responsible.”
Gustafson and his teammates lived in the Centrium during the pandemic-shortened 2021 season — which ran from late February to early May — an experience he will never forget.
“It was definitely an experience of a lifetime,” said the 202-pound Ardrossan native who was selected by the Rebels in the 10th round of the 2017 WHL bantam draft, 207th overall.
“A lot of it was really fun, there was a lot of highs and lows. You miss your family, I missed by brother and sister and my parents. But it was fun to be with the boys.
“Although our season didn’t go as well as we wanted it to with wins and losses, as a group of guys it was the tightest team I’ve ever been on. I know these guys more than anybody in my life, other than my immediate family.”
That camaraderie is still there, Gustafson insisted, adding that there’s an added sense of optimism in the dressing room regarding the upcoming season.
“All the boys are excited, I think the coaching staff is excited,” he said. “We look really deep and we’re all competing.
“The nice thing is everybody’s good so everybody is competing for those top spots and are pushing each other. Even guys who have been here two or three years are worried about having lower roster spots. Now it’s a complete competition. We have that on the back of our shirts — ‘Everything is a competition’. That’s more true this year than ever.”
If the Rebels are to take a major step forward in the 2021-22 season, Gustafson will play a key role on and off the ice.
“He’s definitely mature. He knows what it’s all about,” said Colville. “He knows what his role is and how the team should function. He’s definitely a leader among the group.
“He’s a guy you want to be able to play with a younger defenceman. He’s kind of perfect for that.”
The Rebels host the Calgary Hitmen in a preseason game tonight at 7 p.m. at the Peavey Mart Centrium, then visit the Hitmen 24 hours later.
Red Deer’s preseason schedule will conclude with a home-and-home set with the Lethbridge Hurricanes next weekend.