After he scored two goals in the Washington Capitals' NHL season opener Thursday, Bengt Gustafsson was saying that hockey was "fun" again. At the time, though, Gustafsson was holding an icepack to his sore left wrist.
Today, after a sleepless night, Gustafsson conceded that the wrist, which he had jammed into the boards during the first period of the 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers, was "not good." He abstained from any stick handling in today's practice and is questionable for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. game against New Jersey.
Once again, Gustafsson must be wondering whether he is cut out to be an NHL player. Nobody questions the Swede's skills, but after six years in which injuries have overshadowed achievement, a sore wrist is hardly the best way to start another season.
Two years ago, Gustafsson enjoyed his best season, with 32 goals and 75 points. But last year he suffered a hamstring pull in the Canada Cup and never got untracked, scoring only 14 goals in 51 games. It was Dec. 16 before he scored his second goal and Jan. 1 before he got No. 3, so, at least in that area, he is well ahead this time.
The slow start and recurring hamstring problems proved so discouraging that Gustafsson seriously considered staying in Sweden. To persuade him otherwise, Capitals General Manager David Poile tendered Gustafsson a new long-term contract, with the understanding that at the end of any season he could obtain his release to play in Sweden.
"Yes, there was a problem," Poile said. "His wife has a business in Sweden and that is an obvious concern and interest to them. I was able to convince him that he could play here and she could run her business there."
Gustafsson indicated the situation was somewhat more complex. Asked how close he came to ending his NHL career, Gustafsson held his right thumb and index finger together, with no daylight showing, and said, "Very close. My wife was part of it, but I just don't think it's fun any more. I get bored.
"Now it's fun again, but we'll see how long it lasts -- maybe a week, maybe a month. We'll see what happens."
Gustafsson's playing pleasure has increased in part because of his assignment as a center, where before he played principally at left wing.
"I get involved in the game now and I don't have to wait along the boards until somebody else does something," Gustafsson said. "I have more freedom to take off with the puck, to jump in the holes and make things happen. And I don't have to worry about defensemen running me into the boards all the time."
Edmonton tried to keep Gustafsson when the World Hockey Association merged with the NHL, but the Capitals gained his services on a legal technicality. He scored at least 20 goals in each of his first five seasons, but there always has been wonder that he does not collect 40 goals and 100 points each year.
"Gusty has always been a cool player in a panicky situation," New Jersey General Manager Max McNab said today. "When everybody else is losing his head, Gusty stays calm and makes the play. He's like (Wayne) Gretzky and (Gordie) Howe in that respect."
In Thursday's opener, Gustafsson not only scored twice but also made a sensational defensive move to deflect a goal-mouth pass by the Rangers' Dave Gagner and also set up teammate Rod Langway on a give-and-go that came close to tying the game late in the second period.
"Gus had a great training camp and it carried over," said Coach Bryan Murray. "Gus getting off the mark like that hopefully will be a real factor as we head into the heavier part of our schedule and Bobby (Carpenter) and Mike (Gartner) get going."
Before the Rangers game, Poile said, "Gus is a creative player and he's probably been the best player we've had from day one in training camp. He's been plagued by injuries in the past. Maybe skating at center, he won't be so vulnerable along the boards."