Shane Gustafson, a linesman who honed his officiating skills on rinks throughout Illinois, stepped on the ice in Sweden in early-January for the gold medal game of the annual World Junior Championship, commonly called the World Juniors, organized by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) for national under-20 hockey teams from around the world. The 10-team tournament finals came down to the United States against the host country, Sweden.
The U.S. had last skated in the World Juniors finale in 2021, when the Americans celebrated. Sweden last skated for gold in 2018 and had not won since 2012.
“Shane, who coming into Sweden had quite a bit of IIHF experience, really distinguished himself by earning an assignment to (officiate) the gold medal game,” said Scott Zelkin, a Buffalo Grove resident who serves as the Director of Advanced Officiating Development for USA Hockey. “What makes this assignment even more impressive is that, as an American official, he was assigned to work with the U.S. team being involved.
“Though this can happen from time to time, it is a unique thing for officials to work medal games involving their own country.
“This assignment speaks to the confidence the officiating management overseeing the team of officials in Sweden had in the work Shane had put in leading up to the medal round.”
Now 28, Gustafson is a 2014 graduate of Crystal Lake South High School, where he played three varsity seasons as a forward, mostly as a center or right wing. He played for the Crystal Lake Leafs and Yellow Jackets before wearing the Gators’ jersey.
His officiating career has spanned the past 15 years, including four years working for USA Hockey’s Junior Officiating Development Program, or ODP, in the NAHL and USHL. He has worked the last five seasons in the ECHL and AHL.
Also during his career in black and white stripes, Gustafson has twice worked the Kelly Cup final in the ECHL; the Calder Cup playoffs in the AHL; the Robertson Cup final in the NAHL; the Silver Cup final in the NA3HL; the 2020 Youth Olympic Games bronze medal game in Switzerland, and more.
Gustafson also was the inaugural recipient of the Ben Allison Award from USA Hockey ODP.
“Working the World Juniors have been a very longtime goal of mine. I have wanted to work this tournament for as long as I could remember and (it) became a major goal of mine when I received my IIHF license in 2019,” Gustafson said. “When I found out I was selected for the assignment, it took me a second to process that I was going. I was over the moon excited, and the entire event lived up to the expected hype I had. I am extremely blessed and humbled to have been selected for such an amazing event and represent USA Hockey and the IIHF.”
Gustafson said working the gold medal game of the World Juniors “is probably at the top of my officiating career, along with my two Kelly Cup finals.”
“International events are unlike any other, as you get to travel to a new country, meet a bunch of awesome officials from all over the world, and enjoy a couple of weeks of amazing hockey together. Working the gold medal game between the U.S. and Sweden, in Sweden, in front of 11,000-plus fans, will go down as my favorite moment/achievement since my officiating career began.”
The U.S. defeated Sweden 6-2 in the championship game.
“The gold medal game was unlike any other game I had ever been on the ice for,” Gustafson said. “Our team (of officials) was ready to go out there and crush it, and I made sure to take a couple of moments to look around and take it all in because it was truly something special. I will remember those moments of the gold medal game for the rest of my life. I was fortunate to skate the gold medal game with my linesman partner, Oto Durmis from Slovakia, who I also skated the bronze medal game with in 2023 in Switzerland at the U18 World Championship. (Oto) and I have developed a great friendship over the last year, so it was special to share this game with him. This really goes to show how these friendships are developed through officiating, literally from all over the world.”
Gustafson and Durmis endured a large scrum with about :30 remaining, leading to “quite a unique ending” to the gold medal game.
“I was on cloud nine after the game,” Gustafson said. “We had a quick meeting with our officiating coaches to go over the game and make sure everything was in order. We confirmed that we handled business nicely, and then we all began celebrating a job well done and (an) amazing accomplishment. It was quite euphoric after the game, just taking a few seconds to take everything in and realize what all had just transpired. I was extremely overwhelmed with the amount of support I received from friends and family before, during and after the game. So many of my officiating friends were texting, letting me know how proud they were; it was truly humbling. The hockey world supports each other like no other.”
Gustafson even received two kind shout-outs from the TSN announcers during the game’s live TV broadcast.
“I had a very successful tournament and handled each game very professionally and gave them all the very best of my ability,” he said. “I was fortunate to skate a quarterfinal, semifinal and the gold medal game – and the feedback I received was very positive. It is great having such knowledgeable officiating coaches give valuable feedback after each game.”
Naturally, his tournament highlight was simply working the last game, which he said was “unlike any game I had ever been a part of.”
“I had the time of my life out there; it was a great hockey game, very fast, hard hitting, (with) unique situations, and our (officiating) team on the ice was ready and well equipped to knock it out of the park.”
The four-man crew used in the gold medal game was also together for a semifinal game the day before between Sweden and Czechia.
“The friendships made at each IIHF event are always very special and very important to me, so I couldn’t go without mentioning all of the outstanding officials I met and had the pleasure to work with there,” said Gustafson, who was joined in Sweden by fellow official Jack Young, who worked as a referee – and also cracked the officiating game in Illinois.
“One of the most valuable things, if not the most valuable thing, that USA Hockey can offer its advanced officials is the opportunity to officiate internationally with the IIHF,” Zelkin said. “Both Shane and Jack were given the opportunity to represent USA Hockey on one of the biggest stages of the season by officiating at the World Junior Championship in Sweden and personally I couldn’t be prouder of them. They are both first-class individuals and excellent officials, and their selection to be part of the officiating team in Sweden reflected that.
“As the youngest official at the World Juniors, Jack had a very good showing and gained valuable experience which is going to set him up for much more success in the future.”
Gustafson learned this past fall that he would be officiating the World Juniors, and it was Zelkin who informed him. “It came as a pretty big shock to me, and I had to take a few minutes just to process how awesome this was going to be,” said Gustafson, who was “extremely excited and extremely humbled” to be chosen for the World Juniors.
“Knowing that I was one of the few officials in the world selected for this event really goes to show that hard work pays off, and the opportunities within officiating are limitless. To see a dream like this unfold before your eyes is cool and was something I hoped for … for a long time.”
He arrived in Sweden on December 23rd after three long, grueling flights.
Overall, he officiated seven games at the World Juniors: four preliminary games, plus a quarterfinal, semifinal and the championship.
“The games were extremely fast and very fun,” he said. “Both arenas (where games were played) had great set ups and all games were broadcast on TSN.
“These hockey players are some of the best in the world; it was a whole lot of fun to be a part of,” this tournament.
Gustafson, who has lived the past five years in Greenville, S.C., officiated for IHOA for about 10 years before moving out of state.
“I have many great years working in Illinois, meeting so many great officials from around the Chicago area,” he said. “Looking back, my Illinois officiating highlight was skating the Illinois High School Hockey State Championship (Combined Division) at the United Center when I was 17 years old. This was kind of my first taste at the huge milestones this job could take you to, and really helped forge my love for this amazing profession.”
Gustafson and Young skated together one game in Sweden.
“I was extremely happy to represent IHOA/AHAI, USA Hockey, and the IIHF. I owe all my officiating success to my early years in Illinois and so many amazing mentors and friends who have helped and supported me along the way.
“Just to be selected, and representing Illinois, is a great feeling.”
Gustafson said the World Juniors was a “very humbling experience.”
The event “taught me that officiating accomplishments are a glass ceiling,” he said. “There are so many amazing routes you can take with this job, and I am extremely blessed for what I have been able to accomplish thus far. A big take away for me was just how many great people are involved in officiating from around the world. Some of my friends who I met at this event will continue to be great friends and I really hope to see (them) again at future tournaments. This event also taught me to aim big for your dreams because any goal is possible if you’re willing to work hard and remain dedicated to yourself.”
Gustafson’s next international officiating goal is to skate a Men’s World Championship and eventually land on Olympic ice.
“International hockey is an absolute blast,” he said.
Gustafson’s Sweden adventure also included a goal on the technology front. He was part of a project on eye tracking and decision-making.
“I wore glasses when we were on the ice in a real game that track exactly where (I was) looking at all times,” he said. “It was cool to see live exactly where you are looking and how that impacts your decision-making as an official. I could see this being used as a solid training tool in the future for all officials; it really was cool to be involved with his project so early on.”
Gustafson will work 50 or 60 games this season in the ECHL and AHL. Off the ice, he works in commercial trucking insurance as an underwriter.