One of the most underrated players of the 1980s was Washington's Swedish center Bengt-Ake Gustafsson.
Gustafsson was a quiet, unassuming player. Part of that was because he was a European pioneer. Much of it was because he starred with the Washington Capitals. In the days before every game was on television, nationally broadcasted Washington Capital games were rare.
In The 6'0" 185lb native of Kariskoga, Sweden reminded was very similar to Vancouver's Swedish standout Thomas Gradin. Both were incredibly skilled players on teams without a lot of gunslingers. They were very solid in most facets of the game, even excellent in some. But outside of local fan memories, history has all but forgotten both of them.
Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was a superb skater and puck handler. The lanky Swede had a long, fluid stride combined with great balance, making him surprisingly tough to knock off of the puck. He had breakaway speed, capable of reaching full speed in less than three steps.
"Gus" had the stick skills to match his skating gifts. He was capable of doing everything within his arsenal of puck tricks while at top speed, making him a natural threat on both specialty teams. He had excellent vision and anticipation, which he combined with his one-step quickness to create passing lanes.
Though not a noted physical player, Gustafsson was definitely not intimidated by the rough going. He was never afraid to do the dirty work in the corners or in the front of the net, though he was smart enough to dart in and out of these work zones. He wasn't afraid to initiate contact either. Some will remember one devastating hit in particular when "Gus" knocked New York Ranger Rob Ftorek out of a game with a thunderous check in retaliation for an earlier Ftorek spear.
A conscientious two way player, it there was one true fault to Gustafsson's game was his desire to pass rather than shoot, a trait extremely common of European trained players in the 1980s. Gustafsson had a good shot, particularly his snap shot that he released quickly and accurately. He was deadly within 10 feet of the net, particularly in his favorite power play perch at the base of the left face-off circle.
In the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, the Washington Capitals selected Gustafsson 55th overall. After helping Sweden capture a silver medal at the 1978 World Championships, Gustafsson headed to North America, but joining the WHA's Edmonton Oilers instead. Gustafsson would play just two playoff games in the Alberta capital. After scoring 1 goal and 3 points, he was ruled ineligible to play by the WHA since teams could not add European free agents so late in the season.
The following season saw the Oilers and other remaining WHA teams merge with the NHL. Gustafsson was initially one of four players protected by the Oilers in the merger, along with goaltenders Ed Mio, Dave Dryden and a teenage forward named Wayne Gretzky. Gustafsson was on record as wanting to stay in Edmonton.
The Capitals weren't going to let Gustafsson slip out of their hands that easily, and argued that Gustafsson was their property. On June 9th, 1979 the Caps further strengthened their claim by selecting Gustafsson in a special reclaim draft. The matter would eventually be sorted out by NHL president John Ziegler.
Gustafsson would move to the American capital, and enjoy a fine 9 year career which ranks him among the best players in franchise history. He would score 196 goals, and 555 points in 629 career games.
His best season came in 1983-84 when he scored a career high 32 goals and 75 points while playing with linemates Dave Christian and Mike Gartner. Gustafsson had a particularly memorable game on January 8, 1984 in Philadelphia. He tied a club record for most goals in a game with 5! Gus scored on every shot he took that game.
A pulled left hamstring plagued Gustafsson the following season, but he would rebound nicely in 1985-86 by leading the team in assists and equaling his career high of 75 points. Late in the season, however, disaster struck. Gustafsson's right leg was broken in a spectacular spill involving New York Islander defenseman Denis Potvin. Not only did Gustafsson miss the rest of the season and the playoffs, but he would not play in the NHL the following year either.
Feeling he lost a significant step of speed, Gustafsson returned home for the 1986-87 season, playing for Bofors, essentially a development team in his hometown. Gustafsson used the season to reinvent his game after breaking the leg. By the end of the year he was back to top condition, leading Sweden in the world championships to a gold medal, the first for the country in 25 years. He also led the Swedes in the Canada Cup that September.
Gustafsson returned to Washington in 1987 and picked up where he left off. His scoring totals were off slightly, but his playmaking abilities were a definite shot in the arm of the Washington power play.
Gustafsson returned to Sweden for good in 1989-90. He would play in his hometown until 1993, and continued playing for the national team, including in 1991 when the Swedes recaptured gold at the world championships, and in 1992 at the Olympic games.
He would later find a home in Feldkirch, Austria. Unbeknown to most North American fans, he continued to play until the conclusion of the 1998 season. In his final season, at the age of 40, he led Feldkirch to a stunning European League victory.
Gustafsson would turn to coaching following his playing days, manning benches in Austria and Switzerland before returning home to Sweden. He would lead his Farjestads to victory in his first season.
In 2003 he would be elected into the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame, though his contributions were far from over. In 2006, he was head coach of the Swedish national team that finally won Olympic gold.