“Gutjahr sucks! Gutjahr sucks!” chants the crowd in North Richland Hills. The chant follows every goal the visiting goalie surrenders. However, by the end of the night, Max Gutjahr gets the last laugh as he leads the Wranglers to their fourth straight win, sweeping the Lone Star Brahmas.
Gutjahr was born in Appleton, WI. Being the younger brother of a hockey player Max was relegated to stopping pucks from his older brother when he first discovered his love of the position. He would play his way up the ranks through the state of Wisconsin before joining the Amarillo Bulls in 2019 for his first season of junior hockey.
“They had some older goalies in Amarillo, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to crack the roster,” Gutjahr says. “I kept a chip on my shoulder and took it one day at a time,” the goalie explains.
In his rookie season, Gutjahr captivated Amarillo fans with a 20 win season. In a season where Gutjahr looked poised to make an impact in the playoffs, the pandemic hit, and the Bulls could not cap off their impressive season.
The NAHL started the next season at the end of October. Along with all other teams in the league, the Bulls started the season with many question marks on how to play a season amid a global pandemic. With minimal preseason training and postponed games, the star goalie from the previous year couldn’t find his footing in the early going.
With a slow team start and fierce competition for the starting spot, Gutjahr found himself in Mason City, IA, to play for the North Iowa Bulls. Max helped lead the team to the West division title. In the process, Gutjahr regained his footing and confidence between the pipes.
“I think coach Sandan really helped me find the fun in the game again.. he told me that I was more than capable of playing in the NAHL and told me, ‘do what you need to do here, and I’ll help you out, so that was a huge help,” Gutjahr says.
This past summer, the newly minted Amarillo Wranglers faced the task of putting together a roster entirely from scratch. For brand new teams, there is pressure to find the right mix of talent and chemistry. Finding strong locker room leaders can make all the difference.
“We are very fortunate as an expansion team to have a first-class individual like Max in our locker room every day,” coach Mahood says.
The goalie proved to be a valuable veteran presence for the Wranglers during the NAHL Showcase. Gutjahr again ran into choppy waters early this season but got help from coach Mahood which has helped him dial in and rebound in his last four starts.
“After the Wichita series Hoodie really instilled that you have to prepare all week for the games and right before the game to dial it in,” Gutjahr says. “You work all week in practice, so when you play in the game, you don’t have to overthink; you can just focus solely on the game,”
The change in approach has yielded head-turning results for the Wisconsin native. In ten starts this season, the Wranglers goalie has posted a 7-and-3 record, and a .919 save percentage which is eight best in the 29 team NAHL. These stellar numbers might shock others around the league but come as no surprise to those around Max every day.
“Max has been focused on his weekly preparation and enjoys the competition in practice as much as games. This has translated to strong performances since the Blaine Showcase,” coach Mahood says.
It’s a position that requires top physical shape and vigorously tests the mental fortitude of young athletes. This aspect challenges those at the top of the game and is a skill the 20-year-old is still improving.
“It’s hard especially going into places like Shreveport or Lone Star. Sometimes I get really nervous right before the game, but when the puck drops, I flip a switch… it’s all instinct,” Gutjahr says.
That flip of the switch was on full display in North Richland Hills. As the rowdy fans chant not-so-kind words at the goalie, Max stands on his head and leads the Wranglers to a 3-to-2 shootout win and a sweep of the Brahmas. The Wranglers are off to a 9-and-3 start in their inaugural season. Gutjahr has been a large part of the early success, not just on the ice but in the locker room.
“We talk every day about being “the culture” you want to see. No one personifies this idea more than Max, and his teammates are the prime benefactors,” Mahood says.
Gutjahr seems poised for another successful campaign in Amarillo, and as for the rude chants from opposing fans, the 20-year-old wins that battle too.
“I just kinda shrug and laugh at it. I find it pretty funny,” Gutjahr says.
Max ends the night with loud claps and cheers from Wranglers fans who made the trip and two more points to keep the upstart Wranglers at the top of the league.