Few are those in the junior A hockey world who get to head half way across Canada from their home to help coach the team that they once played for. But that is the extraordinary adventure that awaits Jake Gushue as the new assistant coach of the Dryden Ice Dogs of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League.
Not only will the 26-year old Gushue be heading 1,630 miles from his home in Maple Ridge, British Columbia to the northwestern Ontario town of Dryden to be an assistant with the Ice Dogs but he will be working under the man who once coached him. Gushue was a hard rock defenseman for Dryden when it won the SIJHL championship in 2016-2017 with current Ice Dogs coach-general manager Kurt Walsten at the helm.
Thus, once the 2022-2023 SIJHL season gets underway, Gushue will befittingly go from graduated Ice Dogs player to rookie assistant coach under Walsten. Adding to the serendipity is that Gushue will again live with Ice Dogs president Mike Sveinson and his family this season. When Gushue played for Dryden as part of the ’16-17 championship team, the Sveinsons were his billet family.
Notably, the effervescent Gushue said he is “beyond thrilled” to be going full circle.
“I live, breathe and sleep hockey and I have always wanted to be a full time coach at the junior A level and to be able to return to Dryden to do so is like a dream come true,” an excited Gushue told Hockey News North. “I loved playing for Kurt … I learned so much from him as a player and now I get to learn from him as an assistant coach. I can’t say enough about Kurt both as a good person and as someone who has so much hockey knowledge.”
As a 20-year old player, Gushue joined the Ice Dogs via trade with the Red Lake Miners midway through the ’16-17 season. He went from being mainly a defensive defenseman and a tough guy with the Miners to more of an offensive role under Walsten with the Ice Dogs.
“Kurt saw more in me than just a big, tough, stay at home d-man,” Gushue said of Walsten. “He still wanted me to play tough and take care of business in my own end of the rink but he also gave me a chance to contribute offensively. He saw the upside in me. That’s what good coaches do. They see things in a player that the average coach does not see.”
To be sure, in parts of two seasons with Red Lake, Gushue totalled one goal, 11 assists, 12 points in 58 games while piling up 169 minutes in penalties. The 6-foot-2, 205 pound Gushue then netted three goals, 15 assists, 18 points, 126 penalty minutes in 34 games with Dryden as the Ice Dogs skated to the SIJHL championship with an overall record of 53-7-4, regular season and playoffs included.
Besides playing for the Ice Dogs and being a big part of the championship team of ’16-17, Gushue said he “fell in love” with the town of Dryden, which has a population of about 7,700.
“I loved everything about Dryden when I was there,” Gushue relayed. “I got to play for a great coach in Kurt and win a championship and I got to stay with a great billet family like the Sveinsons. My parents will tell you that I was the happiest kid ever when I was in Dryden. It is a great little hockey town with great fans and I can’t wait to pack up and head out there for the year.”
After moving on from Dryden and junior A hockey in 2017, Gushue received a scholarship to play and attend school at Briercrest College, which is a member of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. He played there for two years before a serious hip injury ended his playing days at the age of 22.
He then returned home to British Columbia, coached minor hockey, helped out with the Langley Rivermen junior A team and started his own business, Gushue Athletic Development. And then came the recent call to ask if he was interested in returning to Dryden, this time as an an assistant coach.
“I was so nervous when Mike (Sveinson) sent me a contract to sign … I kept thinking, I can’t believe I am getting the chance to coach junior A hockey full time, which is something that I have wanted to do since I had to stop playing,” Gushue relayed. “And to be able to get my first full time coaching gig with the team that I played for, the Dryden Ice Dogs, is such an unbelievable feeling.”
Gushue said while he is away in Dryden during the upcoming hockey season, he will leave his athletic development company in the capable hands of his trusted side kick, Riley Murru.
“Riley and I have had an agreement that if I got the opportunity to coach junior A hockey full time and had to move away from Maple Ridge to do so that he would take over the business for the winter and I would be back to relieve him when the season ended,” noted Gushue, who confirmed that he has agreed to a one year contract to be the assistant coach under Walsten in Dryden.
“I am one for one winning a championship in Dryden and now I want to make it two for two,” summed up Gushue. “I am so super excited, man. I am so super excited to be headed back to Dryden to live with the Sveinsons and to be an assistant coach under Kurt Walsten. Kurt is a man who I have such immense respect for. I have thought of myself as an Ice Dog ever since I first got to Dryden. I never stopped being a proud Ice Dog. And now I get to live it again.”
Dryden is coming off of a ’21-22 term in which it finished in third place in the SIJHL regular season standings with a record of 26-15-4. The Ice Dogs then swept the Fort Frances Lakers in three straight matches in the opening round of the playoffs before losing to eventual champion Red Lake in six games in a hard fought semi-final set that could have gone either way.