Gaustad learns life lessons in Rochester

Ex-Winter Hawk develops his game, keeps an eye on NHL

Paul Gaustad turned 21 on Monday, but he was in no mood to party.

Something about having to play two or three games a week with the Rochester Americans, one step away from the National Hockey League, keeps his mind occupied. The last thing Gaustad wants is to wake up with a headache.

'I'm not as old as Willy, yet, but I'm getting old,' says Gaustad, issuing a jab at his former coach, Mike Williamson of the Portland Winter Hawks. Williamson will be 30 on Feb. 22.

Gaustad has been steady in his first year with the Americans, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. In 50 games, he has nine goals and 21 assists, a plus-4 rating and 89 penalty minutes.

He plays second-line center, on most of the power plays with league-leading scorer Jason Botterill, and on penalty kills.

Born in North Dakota, but raised in the temperate Portland area, the 2000 Beaverton High graduate could just as well be playing on Mars as in upstate New York.

'It's always cold here!' Gaustad says. 'It snows every day. I had to buy a parka and snow hat. It's a good thing I bought an SUV, too. It's a Tahoe, four-wheel drive all the time.'

No longer does Gaustad get to eat his mom Louise's home cooking, either. And no longer does he have people around to answer simple questions like, 'At what heat do I boil the pasta?' He has to fend for himself. He tries to drink plenty of water and eat healthful food. 'I'm not burning stuff anymore,' he says.

He gets $55 a day for expenses on the road. 'You've got to get up in the morning and get breakfast on your own. Same with lunch and dinner,' he says.

Bed checks are a thing of the past, too. 'In juniors, they hold your hand,' he says. 'Here, you've got to grow up quickly.'

He lives for after 9 p.m., when he can call home for free on his cell phone. At Christmas, he paid for family members and girlfriend Jessi Marcoff to fly to Rochester.

Gaustad says he doesn't get too lonely, though. He is being mentored by older teammates such as Botterill, Chris Taylor and Doug Houda, another ex-Western Hockey League player. 'He actually played for Medicine Hat, played there in like 1941,' Gaustad says with a laugh. 'He's like 36. Played in the 'show' for quite a bit, so he's got a lot of respect around the league.'

Minor league hockey has several tiers: The AHL usually features the NHL's top prospects and serves as the jump-off spot to the big league. Twenty-two former Winter Hawks have played in the NHL this year, not including Mark Messier, who spent the 1977-78 playoffs with Portland.

Eleven former Hawks have played in the AHL this season, including Jozef Balej and Josh Olson from last year's team and Marcel Hossa from the year before. Hossa has been called up by the parent Montreal Canadiens, and he scored five goals in his first four games.

'He's always been an awesome player, a natural goal scorer,' Gaustad says. 'He's bigger, stronger and faster.'

Gaustad does more weight lifting than ever but sheds pounds, anyway. He wants to add five pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame. For his role Ñ as a defensive, checking forward Ñ weighing 230 would be his ticket to the NHL.

He hasn't been asked to fight much on the ice and won't square off unless provoked or jumped.

'There are fighters who fight, players who play, scorers who score and checkers who check. It's totally different here,' he says. 'I've been totally shocked. Only one guy has asked me to fight. I'm kinda getting my name around and trying to agitate guys, though. As the year goes along, I'm sure they'll come at me.'

The rap on Gaustad has been his slow feet, a liability magnified with the jump to the AHL.

'It helped playing with Joe and Shawn (Roed) last year,' he says. 'They were fast, and I had to keep up. It's still hard because everybody's around that speed up here. I just have to play better positional hockey and try to outwork them.

'It's also the mistakes I could get away with in juniors I can't get away with here. The guys are much smarter, and they'll expose what you do.'

Gaustad can concentrate solely on hockey, however, because he doesn't have the duties of team captain as he did with the Winter Hawks last season.

'Last year, I probably put too much on myself. It burned me out,' he says. 'I'm not the captain or the leader now, I'm just a rookie trying to provide energy. It's keeping me fresh.'

Gaustad doesn't expect to be called up by Buffalo this season, unless a Sabre center gets hurt. He'll attend training camp next summer and hopefully be more effective there than he was in the last two years. If so, he could break camp with the Sabres ÑÊif they make it that far.

The team is in bankruptcy court, and Buffalo businessman Mark Hamister, the major bidder, has pulled out. Rochester billionaire B. Thomas Golisano is next in line.

Meanwhile, Gaustad has heard that some Sabres aren't receiving paychecks. However, he says, 'I've been getting mine, every two weeks.'

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