In the early 1980s, I was a 15-year-old living far away from Washington in Edmonton, Alberta. Many may not remember that Bengt Gustafsson, before coming to Washington, also played a grand total of two games for the World Hockey Association’s Edmonton Oilers.
That brief time in Edmonton was all it took for me to land upon him as my boyhood hockey idol. When he left for Washington, my hero-worshiping heart went with him.
In sports, it is often the most ordinary of moments away from the game that resonate and endure. For me, the magic that transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary was nothing more complicated than a hockey player taking time to show generosity to a wide-eyed kid.
I found myself in the Winnipeg airport in February 1980 with my mother waiting for our flight home to Edmonton. The Capitals had played the Jets the night before. I went to the game and, in the morning, was stunned and excited beyond belief to see the entire Caps team waiting to get on our plane.
I was still wearing my No. 16 Capitals jersey and the name ‘Gustafsson’ stenciled on the back. It was my pride and joy, and I wore it like a tuxedo.
I quickly gathered a piece of paper and pen. As I approached a small group of Caps players who were milling about, I held out my pen and paper. One of them gestured in the direction of the seating area at the gate and said, “Your hero’s that way.” Another called out, “Hey, Gus, someone to see you!”
He came over wearing a beige suit and a smile. He took my pen and paper and gave me his autograph. If I could have stepped out of my own body, I am sure that all I would have seen were my own eyes as big as harvest moons.
I made one request that any Canadian boy makes when he meets his hockey idol — that one thing that will make your life complete, that single item that justifies existence and is your Holy Grail — his hockey stick.
The Caps had a game in Edmonton the following week. I told him I had a ticket for it and, afterward, could I please have his stick. He agreed without hesitation. I backed away, trying to keep the moment alive as long as possible.
Things got better for me halfway through the flight when Ron Weber, the team’s radio play-by-play man, walked down the aisle and, without a word, but with a wink and a smile, dropped a Caps pennant and puck on my lap.
The Capitals were thumped by the Oilers in that game, 8-2, but losing in no way threatens the unbreakable bonds of adolescent devotion. I dutifully waited outside the locker room, knowing that at any moment Gustafsson would emerge with my promised prize.
Emerge he did, fully dressed in street clothes, hair still wet, hands in pockets, head down and walking purposefully towards a waiting bus. I caught up with him, he turned, recognition dawned and he snapped his fingers and said, “I forgot.” He ran back into the locker room and my face fell when he emerged empty-handed. All the equipment had already been packed away. He apologized and, walking backward, pointed at me and said clearly, “Next time, I promise.” Then he was gone.
I didn’t cry, but it took all my faltering teenage-boy resolve not to. The “next time” the Washington Capitals would come to Edmonton would not be until the following November — nine months away.
I dutifully crossed the days off the calendar and again went to the Coliseum on Nov. 1, 1980.
After the game, I went downstairs to where the players came off the ice. Most of the Capitals were already in the locker room. Not to be foiled twice, I got the attention of one straggler — Pierre Bouchard. I quickly mumbled my story and he nodded in understanding.
Less than a minute later, already stripped of his jersey and skates, dressed only in a soaking wet gray T-shirt and hockey pants, out came Bengt Gustafsson with a big smile, carrying his hockey stick. “I remembered!” he said. I probably grabbed the stick with all the subtlety and grace of a climber grasping for a rope as he tumbles off the side of a cliff.
I walked home in the dark, carrying the hockey stick of my hero and feeling for one small moment like the happiest person in the world. And on that night, I did cry.
Thirty-six years have passed and age has given me perspective. Gustafsson then was no more than 22 years old. In the intervening years, I have moved a dozen times, but I still have that hockey stick standing in the corner of my office. When I look at it, I am reminded of the boy I was and the way a young man — not much older than I — made me feel good about the world I lived in and the people in it. For one small but shining moment, no dream seemed beyond reach.
The memory endures for me not because of Bengt Gustafsson, the hockey player, but because of Bengt Gustafsson, the young man. It endures because his simple kindness towards a boy left a lasting impression and reminds me to this day that a hero is not always the person who does something beyond belief, not the person who stands apart from the rest through his singularity. No, a real hero is that person who shares a humanity and a compassion so simple that it can be consummated with a gift from one young man to a boy.
Gavin MacFadyen lives in Jamestown, NY. He writes about politics and sports.