- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

For some, coaching the Swedish national hockey team is like sitting in an electric chair waiting for the inevitable while some technician replaces a bad fuse.

For Bengt Gustafsson, the former Washington Capital, it is almost the dream of a lifetime. His ambition from childhood had always been to play Division I soccer for his country, but he wasn’t good enough. Now he coaches its hockey team after signing a two-year deal this week.

Gustafsson is certainly one of the top three centers, along with Adam Oates and Dale Hunter, to play for the Caps. Had he put his heart into the matter every night, there would have been no question he was the best Caps pivot ever.

As it was, Gustafsson played 629 games in two stints with Washington, scoring 196 goals and assisting on 359 for 555 points. He was plus-31 defensively on some pretty porous teams. He added nine goals and 28 points in 32 playoff games.

Gustafsson was a classic European center iceman: He believed it was almost sinful to score a goal. In Europe, centers maneuver the puck into a spot where it is easier for a wing to shoot. Centers, in the European school, shoot only when a rebound happens to land on their stick and no one else is open.

It was that mentality that drove Washington coach Bryan Murray (and plenty of fans) crazy. He would prod the easy-going Swede during practice (which Gustafsson always left early) and again during games to make more of an offensive contribution. From the skill level he demonstrated when he chose to, it was obvious he could score almost at will.

Finally, on Jan.8, 1984, in Philadelphia, Murray really got under Gustafsson’s skin. The center went out and scored five times (a Caps record that still stands) and played with such determination it appeared he could have scored more had he wanted. But five was enough to get Murray off his back.

Fed up with the brutal nature of the North American game, Gustafsson quit the NHL at the end of the 1985-86 season after leading the club to 107 points, its best finish ever. He left with a broken right leg because of an illegal check from New York Islanders defenseman Jean Potvin, ending perhaps the best chance the Caps ever had to win a Stanley Cup. He later returned for two seasons but never was the same player.

Besides nine seasons with the Caps, Gustafsson was a European star, winning two IIHF World Championships with the team he now coaches. He also played in two Canada Cups and the 1992 Olympics. He has been coaching since he retired as a player 12 years ago, winning a Swedish national title three years ago and the European Hockey League title with an Austrian team in 1998.

Now he coaches a team that is under constant scrutiny from a country populated by 5million George Steinbrenners when it comes to patience and hockey. Coach Hardy Nilsson was fired last September after the team started slowly; Nilsson, in turn, had replaced Kent Forsberg, a legend in Swedish hockey circles and father of NHL superstar Peter Forsberg.

Eminger’s an all-star

Washington defenseman Steve Eminger is the lone Portland (Maine) Pirate who will play in the American Hockey League All-Star Game next month. Eminger, drafted 12th overall in 2002, will play for a Canadian squad that will have as its captain Nolan Baumgartner, the defenseman the Caps took 10th overall in 1994.

Baumgartner, now playing for Manitoba, a Vancouver farm team, was tabbed as a “can’t miss” prospect by the Caps but was not big enough to take the nightly pounding in the NHL. He played just 18 games for Washington.

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