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Stepping Stones: Gustafson Savors World Championship Opportunity

By Steve Mann, 06/14/24, 11:45AM MDT


For any aspiring hockey official, getting the chance to work the gold medal game of an IIHF World Junior Championship would be a huge accomplishment. For Illinois native Shane Gustafson, it ended up being a stepping stone to an even bigger and brighter stage. 

Gustafson recently returned from Czechia, where he patrolled the ice in his first IIHF Men’s World Championship. He was chosen to serve as a linesman for the quarterfinal matchup between Germany and the eventual silver medal-winning team from Switzerland. 

Gustafson took the time to describe his World Championship experience and also his career journey as an official. 

USA Hockey: What made officiating the World Championship experience so special?

Shane Gustafson: For me, what made the experience so special is the tight-knit group of guys. I knew some of them from previous tournaments that I have worked. We came in early and had meetings right away, did team building and got to hang out together for three weeks. It was also my first time being in Czechia. Prague is one of my favorite cities that I’ve been to. It’s a beautiful city. We went to the city center of Prague on the first day to see some of the sights and try the food. It was a great host city and the fans were great.

USA Hockey: How did the tournament go? 

Gustafson: It was pretty smooth. A lot of the prep that we do at the start helps us get on the same page. With two venues, they really strive to have unified tournaments, so it doesn’t feel like two different events. We did have some complicated situations arise, with video reviews and some back-and-forth discussion around things like goalie interference. At this level, with how fast the game is and how skilled everyone is, there will always be moments like that, when you have to talk things through and make decisions in real-time.

USA Hockey: How did you get this opportunity? What was your reaction to getting the assignment?

Gustafson: I had a somewhat unique path to get here. I got my license back in 2019 and worked my first tournament in Switzerland at a Youth Olympic Games in 2020. Then COVID threw a wrench into the international opportunities. So, there were a couple of years where I didn’t get a tournament. But I worked pro hockey back home, then worked the Under-18 Men’s World Championship last year in Switzerland and this year got to work the World Junior Championship in Sweden. Then, I was selected to come to Czechia a couple months later. It was a slower start for me, but a lot has happened in the last 12 months. 

My reaction was over the moon excitement. I was really working hard towards the opportunity and it was one of my huge goals that I was extremely excited to be able to achieve. I was very proud to represent the IIHF and USA Hockey!

USA Hockey: What makes the World Championship Tournament different from other big events you’ve worked for?

Gustafson: This tourney is unique in that it’s a lot larger, there are 16 countries that are competing for a championship and just the amount of very skilled NHL players, like Connor Bedard, Cole Caufield and Trevor Zegras, guys who are consistently playing night in and night out in the NHL. So, to get to be on the ice with them is not something you get to do all the time. And the support from the host country and fans, pretty much every game was sold out, whether in the afternoon or at night. When you take the chance to step back and think about the magnitude of it all, you just feel so fortunate. 

USA Hockey: When you’re not traveling overseas to officiate huge tournaments, what’s your job during the rest of the year?

Gustafson: It’s a part-time schedule between the ECHL and the AHL. I live down in Greenville, South Carolina, and split my time between those two leagues. I worked the finals in the ECHL the last few years and now I’ve got a 9-to-5 job but continue to work a pretty consistent hockey schedule. I’ll work a couple games each week between the two leagues and it’s a good balance, that has also allowed me to prepare for these tournaments when the opportunities arise. 

USA Hockey: How long have you been officiating hockey? How would you describe your journey?

Gustafson: I grew up in Chicago and started officiating locally when I was about 12 to stick with the game and make a little of my own money. I’m 28 now, so this is my 16thseason. My parents would drive me around to my games and after a while I realized I was really enjoying it, so started to work some high school games, and then low-level college games, and then was introduced to the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program. I was there for four seasons and worked the USHL and NAHL. I worked a full-time schedule while going to school at Northern Illinois. It’s been a long road but an amazing journey. I’m going to places I never would have dreamed to go any other way.

USA Hockey: Was there someone you looked up to when you were younger that helped create the passion for this job for you?

Gustafson: There are a ton of people who helped me, especially out in the Illinois area. One person I looked up to is my late friend, Ben Allison. USA Hockey actually has an award named after him. He introduced me to who I needed to talk do at the ODP. That was my starting point. I owe him so much for that opportunity and never take it for granted. It was a huge thing to me, to be able to pursue and make a career out of it.

USA Hockey: What kind of training or education did you receive from the ODP to get you ready to be an official? 

Gustafson: The ODP is great. You go over rules and video and take different tests to make sure everyone is prepared and on the same page heading into the season. One avenue that really helped me was collaboration with other officials. You spend a lot of time in the car, talking on the phone, just talking about situations and that’s how you learn. The second was the coaching managers that come out, they give us feedback and let us know what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on. We practice by getting our noses in the rule book and working games, but getting that feedback is great. Having that many officials that were there for us, watching games and helping us is a huge part of our success.

USA Hockey: What's the best advice you've received about officiating along the way?

Gustafson: I’d say there are a lot of things that are out of our control as officials and what happens during a game. And one of the biggest things I’ve been told is to control what you can control. That’s your knowledge of the rules, your fitness level and more. If we control that and are prepared and ready to go, we’ll have success on the ice as a team. If we aren’t prepared, we won’t know how to react and that’s how things can go south quickly. 

USA Hockey: What do you like most about being an official?

Gustafson: I think it’s the brotherhood that comes with it. When you are on the ice with 3-4 officials who you have a ton of respect for, in very high pressure, intense situations, it creates a unique bond with one another. It creates some tight friendships. I have friends in almost every state in the country through officiating. It’s my favorite part of the job.

USA Hockey: What message or advice would you have to others who may have never considered officiating as a job? 

Gustafson: I’d say it’s a great way to earn some extra money and also develop as a person. I don’t think people realize how many great people skills and communication skills you can get through dealing with conflicts. There are so many things you can learn from officiating that can translate into your personal life beyond hockey. It’s a great way for teenagers to grow up, while also making some great friendships and have a blast staying in the game of hockey. As a player, your competitive days will come to an end, but officiating allows you more longevity on the ice.

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