Ams' Gutierrez doesn't back down from challenges

February 6, 2013 

Growing up in a family of 11 children, Justin Gutierrez had to battle every day for bathroom time, the last scoop of potatoes and five minutes of peace and quiet.

“The shower thing was real big,” said Gutierrez, the third youngest of Verlana and Moises Gutierrez’s brood. “If you wanted hot water, you had to get up early.”

As a rookie in the Western Hockey League, Gutierrez still is battling, but now it’s for playing time with the Tri-City Americans.

“I knew that coming in, ice time would be tough to get,” said Gutierrez, whose playing time has increased with a rash of injuries that have hit the team. “Jim (Hiller, head coach) has let me prove myself. He’s let me run with it. It sucks for the guys who are hurt, but I have to run with the opportunity.”

Gutierrez, a 6-3, 182-pound native of Anchorage, Alaska, was the final player cut by the Americans last year, but the young forward impressed enough this year to earn a jersey.

“He has made a lot of progress,” Hiller said. “It’s a situation that if not for our injuries, he may not have gotten the opportunity to show us what he can do. Because he has played so much, he’s been able to show us what he can do, and he’s been consistent, which is what he struggled with earlier.”

It took 30 games before Gutierrez scored his first goal — on Jan. 13 against Seattle. It was his third WHL point. Since then, he has scored three goals and had two assists for eight points this season. He had a two-goal night Jan. 22 against Seattle.

“I think he has earned his minutes and deserves the ice time,” Hiller said. “What I like best about Gutz is he is playing an aggressive, in-your-face type of game, and that’s the biggest challenge for guys like him (tall and lanky). You expect that from him, and he gives us that. He has the making of a really strong player.”

With four fights to his credit, he’s making a name for himself early in his career.

“A number of times, he’s been willing,” Hiller said. “When you do that, you let everyone in the building know what you are about.”

Gutierrez grew up watching his older brother Moises play. Though there almost is a 10-year age difference between the two, Justin always has admired his brother, a former WHL player.

“From Day One, he was my role model,” Gutierrez said. “I’d sneak in the garage and try on his gear when I was younger. I watched him play in Kamloops when I was 6 years old. From then on, I just wanted to follow him. We keep in touch, and he’s always asking how I’m doing.”

Moises Gutierrez played five years in the WHL — four for the Kamloops Blazers and one for the Everett Silvertips. He came into the WHL at 6-3, 195 pounds. By the time he finished, he was a bruising 6-4, 225 with 29 career fights.

He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the sixth round of the 2004 NHL draft.

“Kamloops wasn’t the best fit for him,” Justin Gutierrez said. “He went to Everett, and he skated on a line with Peter Mueller and Kyle Beach. That was a good year for him.”

Gutierrez played high school hockey with his brother Trevor, 19. They led South Anchorage High to a Class 4A state title in 2011, with Justin scoring a goal and Trevor making 25 saves in the title game. Trevor now attends Boise State.

Justin, however, has followed in Moises’ skates right down to the rookie season stats.

While Justin has eight points, four fights and 33 penalty minutes in 41 games, Moises had nine points, four fights and 50 penalty minutes in 60 games with Kamloops.

“Moises was like me when he first started out,” Gutierrez said. “He got drafted in the NHL with 29 points and 10 fights his second year. You have to be mean and chirpy. I chirp out there. I’m trying to get my feet wet in the fighting ring to up my draft status.”

Because Gutierrez is a young 17-year-old, he falls into the 2014 draft, which he said plays in his favor.

“I’m happy for that,” he said. “It gives me a better chance and time for me to mature.”

He has the perfect role model on his team.

“I really like watching (Jesse) Mychan,” Gutierrez said. “He’s like an older me. He can score, and he’s a presence out there.”

Gutierrez has a good handle on the physical part of the game. Now he just has to work on his scoring touch.

“My shot is kind of weak,” he said. “I need to work on that in the offseason.”

That battle might be easier for Gutierrez to win than fighting four sisters for a hot shower.

w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; afowler@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @tchicequeen

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