Crystal Lake South alum now works ECHL, AHL games
By Ross Forman – Shane Gustafson went on a 17-day overseas business trip in January – with his skates, whistle and black & white striped uniform.
Gustafson – who graduated from Crystal Lake South High School in 2014, a few months after officiating the combined division high school state championship game at the United Center – was the lone Illinois officiating representative at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games, held in Switzerland.
His journey abroad started last summer, when he attended USA Hockey’s Elite Experience Camp in Plymouth, Mich., to obtain his International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) certification. In October, Gustafson received an email from Matt Leaf, the director of the officiating education program for USA Hockey, asking if he’d be interested in applying to work the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I was extremely honored by this opportunity and immediately sent in my resume,” Gustafson said.
At the end of November he received an email that he had been accepted to officiate the 2020 Youth Olympic Games – and he soon was announced as one of three officials from Illinois assigned to work international tournaments this season.
Riley Bowles (Willowbrook) officiated the World Junior Championship, Dec. 26 – Jan. 5 in the Czech Republic. Erika Greenen (Romeoville) is officiating the Women’s World Championship March 29 – April 4 in Spain.
“I was beyond excited to learn that I had been accepted to work the 2020 Youth Olympic Games,” he said. “This was my first international tournament and I had no clue what to expect, but I was thrilled. It’s extremely humbling when you get selected for something like this and I began counting down the days.”
Gustafson, 24, who now lives in West Chester, Ohio, is in his second season working full-time for the ECHL and his second season working part-time in the AHL. He lived in Greenville, S.C. last season in an ECHL league apartment and now is in a league apartment near Cincinnati. He works four or five games per week.
“The Youth Olympic Games (rank) extremely high on my officiating (resume),” Gustafson said. “Being in Lausanne for 17 days, working such an amazing event was something I will never forget. It was an incredible experience with amazing officials from all over the world. We had referees and linesman from 10 countries on both the men’s and women’s side. It was extremely cool to see how hockey can bring people together and form lifelong friendships.”
The first half of his trip was the first-ever mixed country 3-on-3 tournament. The Olympic Committee was trying something new, with players from all over the world playing together in a 3-on-3 split ice tournament. “We worked about 10 games each,” in this mini-tournament, Gustafson said.
On January 17, the 6 Nations Tournament began and he worked 4 games, including the bronze medal game.
“I was extremely grateful to represent Illinois in Switzerland. I wouldn’t be where I am and definitely wouldn’t have any of the opportunities I have now if it wasn’t for IHOA and AHAI,” Gustafson said. “It was really cool to share stories about IHOA (with) officials from around the world and share with them the development opportunities we are fortunate to have in Illinois.
“Working the bronze medal game on the last day of the tournament between Canada and Finland was incredible. It has always been a dream of mine to work a medal game at an international event and to live out that dream in a very intense game was second to none.
“The Youth Olympic Games (were an) amazing event. Every game was sold-out and the atmosphere was incredible.”
Gustafson was one of 20 officials in Switzerland, along with two officiating coaches. “I formed friendships that will last a lifetime. It’s very cool to see what amazing things officiating can bring you, on and off the ice.
“This tournament was something I will remember for the rest of my life,” Gustafson said.
Eric Cowsill, IHOA president, said: “Shane (has) worked hard to hone his craft and this was a well-deserved assignment. His hard work, dedication and give-back attitude has, rightfully, earned him an assignment as one of three (Illinois officials) selected for international tournaments this season.”
Brad Baumruck, AHAI Officials Advanced Development Program Director, added: “Shane is a remarkable young man (who) has moved on to higher levels of hockey, but has come back to (this area) to help train Illinois officials. His commitment to officiating is outstanding.”
When not on the ice overseas, Gustafson said the officials explored Lausanne and Bern, trying many local foods. “We (had) a great group of officials (in Switzerland) that got along so well, and (we) were constantly looking for fun things to do,” he said.
Gustafson said his most memorable moment from the Switzerland trip came in his final game, when Canada slipped past Finland, 3-2.
“(All of) the games were a blast, (with) the best 15- and 16-year-old players from those six countries,” he said. “(The games) were fast paced and showcased some very talented players. Working with officials from different countries was a first for me and added some extra fun and challenges to the game.”
Gustafson truly cherished the friendships made on the trip. “We (still) talk on a daily basis and have plans to get together in the future. It’s awesome to think that I now have friends in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, (the) Czech Republic and Russia.”
But now he’s back in the U.S., focused on the ECHL season, with the playoffs rapidly approaching. “I hope to work the Kelly Cup Final this season in the ECHL, and am determined to do so. I also hope to work some games in the (AHL) Calder Cup playoffs,” he said.
Gustafson played for the Crystal Lake South varsity team for three seasons and before that skated for the Yellowjackets. He was a right-handed shooting center who won a few state championships in youth hockey and finished in the top 10 in points in league play as a junior and senior.
He began officiating during the 2007-2008 season at age 12.
“My absolute dream is to officiate in the NHL,” Gustafson said. “I have moved around the country multiple times chasing this dream because of how passionate I am for officiating hockey, and I wouldn’t change a thing. I became IIHF-certified to work international hockey and have hopes and dreams to someday work the World Juniors, World Championships (and) an Olympics. International hockey is incredible and I look forward to the opportunities that come with it.”
Yet he never forgets IHOA, AHAI or the countless local officials who have helped him along the way.
“There are so many people from Illinois (who) have helped me get to where I am,” Gustafson said. “A couple that I want to mention are Nicole Davis and Erin Blair. I have known both for years and they have always been there for me, pushed me to be the very best I can, on and off the ice. I got into the ADP program in Illinois because of Erin and Nicole and that is where I started my journey, working higher levels of hockey.
“Another person I want to mention is Joe Prescott, (who) has been a mentor of mine for so many years. The knowledge that (Prescott) has passed on to me has been second to none. He put on an entire (training) camp for myself and a bunch of other IHOA officials many summers ago all on his own time just to make us better officials.
“The final person I want to mention is, unfortunately, no longer with us … (the late) Ben Allison was one of my very close friends (and) is the reason I began to work junior hockey. I didn’t even know the opportunities that were out there for officiating until one day many years ago Ben was telling me about his weekends driving around working junior hockey games. Ben gave me the contact information for people to get my foot in the door for junior hockey and later that season I was traveling around the country working hockey for the first time.”
Said Blair, the former director of IHOA’s development program: “Shane is such a great kid. He has shown true potential from the beginning, and his hard work and determination were present from day one. It’s great to watch him progress through the USA Hockey system. I am excited to see what great things the future holds for Shane.”
That includes the AHL, home to the Chicago Wolves.
“Getting to officiating in the AHL is, honestly, a dream come true,” Gustafson said. “The skill level of the players night in and night out is unbelievable. The (arenas) have incredible atmosphere, and sometimes you find yourself just realizing how lucky you are to be skating such tremendous (level of) hockey.
“I have so many memories over the years that I would deem as career highlights, such as getting to skate the Robertson cup for the NAHL, working the Clark Cup playoffs for the USHL, skating the conference finals in the ECHL, and working games in the Calder Cup playoffs for the AHL,” said Gustafson, who also signaled out a Wolves game this season at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
“(That) was an incredible day for me as I got to skate in a building I grew up watching games at with so many of my friends and family in attendance. It was extremely special to me and the support from IHOA and AHAI at the game was amazing.”
Gustafson was the first-ever recipient of the Ben Allison Award from USA Hockey, created to honor the late CLS graduate who passed away five years ago. “Receiving this award meant so much to me and is something I will forever cherish,” he said.
Gustafson is still a registered IHOA official and helps annually at the pre-season seminars.
“Working full-time in the ECHL (doesn’t allow me much time) to skate many games in Illinois, but I try my best to still help with seminars and work a few games here and there whenever I am home,” he said.
“Officiating has opened doors for me that I will be forever grateful for and has taught me life lessons that have shaped me into the person I am now. I hope to inspire up-and-coming officials to follow their dreams, no matter what they may be, and work as hard as they can to make them a reality. There will be many people along the journey that tell you you’re crazy or that your dream isn’t possible, but you just need to use those comments to fuel the fire and keep pushing forward. Cherish the journey and everything that comes with it.”
Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at Rossco814@aol.com.