Monster remains strong

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be Jonas Gustavsson.

Being far away from home for the very first time. With his heart playing tricks on his life and his game. Having lost his mother to cancer just months ago. With both parents now gone and his National Hockey League career two months and two procedures old.

Some of us would be nervous or afraid. Some of us would go to the telephone, like we do after losing a parent, and want to call home. Some of us wouldn’t know to deal with the present, the expectations, the future, and the uncertainty, all at the tender age of 25.

“I think he’s doing all right,” Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said after Gustavsson spoke publicly for the first time since his second heart ablation of this very young season. “He seems to have it together. He and I were kidding around yesterday. He kiddingly said: ‘Coach, stop giving me a hard time. I put my life on the line every time I play for you.’”

That could be a comment on the state of the Leafs’ defensive game.

Maybe every goalie who plays for this team puts their life on the line, so to speak. But this is different. This is something Gustavsson is trying to understand and defeat, the heart beat of the Maple Leafs future. His heart went aflutter in Montreal — the beats as high as 180 a minute, he admitted — and he wanted to keep playing.

The doctors told him he couldn’t.

“I was so pumped to play,” Gustavsson said. “And when I start a game I always try to finish, no matter what. This was the first time in many years (he didn’t finish). I was pretty tired (at the end of the first period). It was like I was working out for 30 minutes the whole time without rest. I had to fight to get some energy. During the breaks, I couldn’t get my energy back.

"I thought maybe the big break between periods should help me but it didn’t. They thought it was better for me to go to the hospital.”

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be Jonas Gustavsson.

This is his shot, and boy, do the Maple Leafs need him. There was a good reason why so many teams pursued the free agent from Sweden. His talent is immense, although he has much to learn about playing in the NHL. All he wants is a normal life. No speeding of the heart. No being belied by his own ticker. Just a chance to play goal without interruption, without invasion, without questions about his health and his status.

He does call home to Sweden, but when you lose your parents, like he has, the phone calls are different, more distant. Less personal. He lives in Toronto with his girlfriend, Emily. The Leafs signed his friend, Rickard Wallin, almost for the purpose of keeping the so-called Monster who doesn’t look like any Monster, comfortable. There was also another Swedish friend, Carl Gunnarsson, now injured himself, part of the Gustavsson support group.

“I worry about a lot of other kids,” said general manager Brian Burke. “I don’t worry about him. I think he’s handled himself very well. He’s a strong and mature kid.”

If Gustavsson is worried about his heart, he isn’t letting on. If he’s nervous about his future, he doesn’t show it. If he’s concerned about the direction his career is taking — before this year, he never had any kind of heart issues — he is almost casual about the difficulty.

Other players, other people, would have melted down by now.

“I can’t think about if it will happen again,” said Gustavsson. “It should be all right now. I have to trust the doctors. They told me it was a pretty easy procedure and everything went fine.”

Yesterday, he rode a bike. Within a few days, Gustavsson hopes to be back on the ice. Baby steps, all of this.

“Hopefully, it’s gone now,” Gustavsson said. “I’m hopeful to be back as soon as possible ... It’s not what you want. You don’t want to have those (health) breaks all the time. You want to keep working hard and try to be a goalie. Now I have to start over a little bit all the time.

“Of course, I’m frustrated, but what can I do?”


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