Kyle Gustafson finds himself coaching a team he grew up watching
by: David Ball Winterhawks assistant coach Kyle Gustafson, in his eighth season with the team, keeps an eye on the action during a recent game against the      Vancouver Giants.

Kyle Gustafson is the eye in the sky for the Portland Winterhawks, perched 20 rows up at center ice with a laptop open in front of him and a notepad at his side. It is his job to find the nuances on the ice. Are the wingers shooting only from the left side, does No. 27 skate quickly through the neutral zone, what flavor sport drink is in the goaltenders water bottle?

Okay, maybe not that last question.

'You go into each game with a general game plan, but there are quite a few adjustments that are made during the game,' Gustafson says. 'I'm looking at their tendencies and how they are creating scoring chances. I go into each intermission usually with three or four points to get across.'

Gustafson, a 1999 graduate of Centennial, grew up in a hockey home taking regular shifts on the ice along with his older brother Derek, who spent 12 years as a goaltender in various professional leagues on the east coast. Kyle was a solid player in his own right, ending his playing days as the career scoring leader in the NorPac junior B league.

'It didn't matter what it was, going to the movies, fishing, whatever, if going to the rink was an option that's what they would pick every time,' father Tom Gustafson says.

After a childhood spent pursuing hockey, a 21-year-old Kyle faced entering the job market. But that didn't mean leaving his passion behind.

A crash course in coaching followed soon after.

'He's one of the lucky people who get to go to work every day doing something he loves,' Tom says.

Gustafson was named an assistant on the Eugene Thunder's staff, but just before the season was set to begin head coach Jason Quinn left for a job with another franchise. A month into his coaching career, Gustafson was given headliner duties albeit with an interim tag. After a successful rookie campaign, the tag was dropped.

In his second season, Gustafson led the Thunder to the Cascade Cup - the NorPac championship. While his career was off like a rocket, the Eugene franchise was floundering and shut down operations after its banner season.

Gustafson explored his possibilities and landed as an assistant with the Winterhawks where he is now in the middle of his eighth season. A sign of his value to the franchise is the fact that he has survived two coaching changes during his time in Portland.

'When we came in we wanted to make decisions from a distance,' Winterhawks coach and GM Mike Johnston said. 'Kyle was in a position where we were best-suited to keep him on staff, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we could have made.'

'I grew up around the Winterhawks, so it was an honor to be a part of the team,' Gustafson says.

Gustafson wears many hats for the franchise, working closely with the players on a day-by-day basis. He is the point person on staff for the billet system, making sure that players are fitting in with their host families. Gustafson also monitors the daily classroom sessions - junior players are high school or college-aged.

'His rapport with the players is very good,' Johnston says. 'He can be strict with them when he needs to, but he's also able to communicate. It's a balance between being a coach and being a friend to them.'

Gustafson's arrival to Portland was met with a series of sub-par seasons before Bill Gallacher took over ownership in 2009.

'It was a change in culture and expectations,' Johnston says. 'If you don't have the resources available then everything slips. I was fortunate enough to come in at a time with a new owner who was willing to create the right environment for success. Now the challenge is to keep the bar there.'

The last three seasons have seen the Winterhawks win better than 60 percent of their games under Johnston, highlighted by a run to the Western Hockey League finals last year.

'You have to cherish those moments, they don't come around every year,' Gustafson says. 'We brought in coaches with great track records and they've done a great job turning the ship around.'

The talent on the ice doesn't hurt either. Eight players off last year's team were selected in the 2011 NHL Draft, including a pair of first-rounders.

'We get these guys at 16 years old, two years later they're getting drafted and a couple years after that I'm seeing them on TV,' Gustafson said. 'That's a big transition going from high school to making millions of dollars. The best part of my job is seeing these kids develop during those years both on and off the ice.'

Portland is in the mix again this season, setting a franchise-record 19-game home-ice win streak (see graphic). The Winterhawks are second in the U.S. Division, one point behind Tri-City, heading into the final month of the regular season.

Gustafson's work doesn't end with the team's final playoff game, as he and the rest of the staff stay active throughout the off-season.

The highlight for Gustafson comes in running the team's summer 'Hockey School' program - a week-long youth camp that introduces beginners to the sport and sharpens the skills of more experienced players.

'When I was in school there was maybe another kid or two who knew much about hockey, so I'm always trying to spark interest in the sport,' Gustafson says.

Portland's next home game is 7 p.m., Wednesday, against Tri-City.

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