Matt Kustra saw his hard work and dedication payoff last week when he inked his contract with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.
“I was excited to make it official,” says Kustra, the Cougars’ 167th pick in the 2012 WHL bantam draft. “We never talked with Prince George much about it, but then they contacted my family like two weeks ago and said they want to sign me.”
The 5-foot-8, 170-pounder worked vigorously as a youngster with his father, former Saskatoon Blades and Spokane Chiefs netminder Damon Kustra, to hone his talent in the crease.
“My dad helped me with the fundamentals,” says Kustra. “He use to play, so he helped me with positioning and the basics. It definitely was an advantage for me to have a dad that was a goalie.”
Kustra moved away from Yorkton last year at the young age of 14 for the highly regarded Notre Dame Hounds hockey program in Wilcox, Sask.
“It was hard at first, being away from family and friends,” says Kustra. “The first two months I was a little homesick. But after that I got use to it here. Since I’m doing what I love, it was easy to start to love it here.”
Taking into account the Hounds program has helped groom elite NHL superstars such as New York Rangers star Brad Richards, Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Vincent Lecavalier, Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier, Toronto Maple Leafs first-rounder Morgan Rielly, and retired NHL puck-stopper Curtis Joseph – Kustra knew Notre Dame was his best bet to help get him to the next level.
“Having guys like that play here, you know you are in good hands,” he says. “They have great coaches here. I’m happy I made the move.”
After spending his 14-year-old season with Notre Dame’s bantam AA team, Kustra returned to Wilcox this year to suit up for the midget AAA Hounds. Throughout 16 contests in the blue paint, he maintained a .846 save percentage and a 5.29 average for the 12-26-4-0 Hounds.
“I had to adjust to the speed of AAA, but I think my season was pretty good,” says Kustra. “I thought I got better as the season went on after a bit of a slow start.”
Kustra’s highlight of the 2012-13 hockey season was when he represented Team Saskatchewan at the U-16 Challenge Cup. He had a great showing, being named Saskatchewan’s player of the game in their B.C. matchup.
“I had a lot of fun,” says Kustra. “I thought I played really well and it gave me a lot of confidence. I think when I came back to Notre Dame I played better after that tournament.”
Kustra, who turns 16 in June, hopes to make the Cougars next season in his first year of major junior eligibility. But he knows it won’t be easy and another season with the Hounds is a strong backup plan.
“Anything is possible, so I want to make the Cougars next year,” says the Yorkton native. “Playing another season in Notre Dame would be good for my long-term development, too. I should get a lot of games and can just continue to work on things in my game.”
Kustra recently got a taste of the Dub. He dressed as the Cougars’ backup goaltender on their February Alberta road swing.
“It was a good experience,” he says. “Even though we lost that game (6-0 to the Edmonton Oil Kings on February 18), it was great playing in Rexall Place in a packed house with all of the fans. I got to see how fast the players are at ice level and just how talented some guys are.”