By Steve Gunn
He was small – which was unavoidable, due to his 5-foot, 10-inch height – but he was also skinny with little in the way of a muscular frame, spoke no English at all, and had little knowledge of the North American style of hockey.
“He’s grown so much in his time here,” said Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton. “We joke around about it. We still have a mental picture of what he looked like when he showed up here. He was 16 when he first came, and he was literally a little boy.
“He’s put on a ton of weight since then. He’s developed into being more of a man and a complete hockey player. His English was terrible when he first came, but luckily we had four guys on the team at the time who spoke both English and Russian and could translate. Now he speaks full sentences. The words still get a little confused occasionally, but he’s pretty fluent now.”
Gushchin’s offensive skills have always been very fluent, which was why he became a junior hockey standout at an early age in Russia, and his agent directed him to play in North America at the first opportunity, because his big league potential was obvious.
He started scoring right away for the Lumberjacks and hasn’t stopped. Using his quickness, elusiveness and superior puck-handling skills, he broke into the league by accumulating 16 goals and 20 assists in 51 games in 2018-19, and helped power the Lumberjacks to their last playoff appearance.
Gushchin was headed for really big numbers last season, with 22 goals and 25 assists in only 42 games. He may have reached the 30-goal mark if the season hadn’t been stopped early due to COVID-19.
Those numbers gained the attention of NHL scouts, and he was selected in the third round of last year’s NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks.
This year Gushchin is on his way to having his best season, with 20 goals and 25 assists through 45 games. His play has helped the Lumberjacks push for first place in the USHL’s Eastern Conference, and will be a big factor in the coming league playoffs.
Two of his goals this season, which came on March 7 in Chicago, gave him a proud spot in the Lumberjacks’ record book.
The first goal left him tied with former Lumberjacks forward Matej Paulovic for the franchise all-time point record at 119. His second made him the all-time point leader.
Gushchin said he had no idea he was closing in on the record until Coach Hamilton informed him.
“I was happy about it, for sure,” he said. “Every year I have good teammates, good partners, so I can score goals. I can say thank you to them for supporting me.”
Gushchin’s jaw-dropping offensive skills leave Lumberjacks fans shaking their heads on a pretty regular basis.
One example came in a game last season against Waterloo, when he scored all four goals in a 4-3 victory. The manner in which he scored the last three landed him a spot on ESPN SportCenter’s Top 10 Plays of the Night list.
Waterloo led the Jacks 3-1 with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, then Gushchin went to work.
He redirected a shot from linemate Oliver MacDonald into the net to cut the lead to 3-2 with 1:24 left. Then he took a centering pass from Luke Mobley as the clock ran down and scored from close range with only four seconds left, tying the game and sending it to overtime.
Then in overtime, he stick-handling the puck past a defender, broke in on goal from the left, and scored the game winner.
In a game earlier this season, he wowed the crowd by skating with the puck behind the Team USA net, balancing it on the end of his stick, and getting a wrap-around, lacrosse-style goal.
Last Saturday he scored a three-goal hat trick, with two in the third period, leading the Jacks to an impressive 7-5 comeback win over first-place Chicago. That came in his second game back from a concussion injury, which kept him sidelined for seven games.
Hamilton said he could spend an entire day talking about Hamilton’s offensive abilities.
“He’s very skilled,” the coach said. “He’s strong on his skates, sneaky fast and very shifty, so he’s hard to put a good hit on and hard to defend. He rarely skates straight, so he’s tough to throw off pucks.
“He’s a phenomenal passer. The guys love it when they are on his line, because he sees the game and has the ability to give those free goals where all they have to do is tap it in. He can almost be too selfless. I’d love to see him shoot more, but he’s a pass-first type of guy.”
Home away from home
Becoming a good defensive player took longer for Gushchin, because the European game is more wide open with larger rinks, and offensive skills are most stressed. But he has listened to the coaches, worked hard to improve his defense and has become a far more complete player with true NHL potential.
“You need to play D zone too,” Gushchin said. “Every time coach tells me. I think I’ve improved every day. Now I think I play good defense. If you want to play next level – AHL or NHL – you need to play both ways.”
Gushchin said he’s also come to grips with more physical style of North American hockey, which can definitely be challenging for a little guy.
“When I was 16 I was a little small,” Gushchin said. “Russian hockey is faster and American hockey more physical. I don’t know how many times you get hit in a game.
“I go to camp in Buffalo in the summer, and I have a workout coach. I work out with weights and eat more food. I don’t feel like a small guy any more. Now I don’t care about this. If a guy hits me I can hit him back.”
Gushchin has been living away from home to play advanced junior hockey since he was 14, when he moved to Moscow from his native Yekaterinburg, Russia. As a result, living across the ocean to play doesn’t bother him that much. He’s been happily living with his billet parents, Greg and Jennifer Bouwman, for all of his three seasons in Muskegon.
He said he’s grown to love Muskegon and considers it a second home.
“Good organization, good coaches, good teammates, good everything,” said Gushchin, who added that his parents have traveled here from Russia several times to visit and watch the games.
Hamilton predicts great things in the future for Gushchin, and thinks Muskegon hockey fans will be reading and hearing about him in coming years, as he makes his mark in the pro ranks.
He could be the biggest thing to come out of the Lumberjacks’ organization since fellow Russian Andrei Svechnikov, who played in Muskegon in 2016-17, and his now a star with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“He will be making some money in this game at some point,” the coach said about Gushchin.