Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Byfuglien: Big players play big in big games

By Larry Wigge

All Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice could do was shake his head in amazement.

"It's so unusual for a man that big to do some of the things that he can do, at high rates of speed," Maurice gushed at how nimble defenseman Dustin Byfuglin on putting the Jets up with a backhanded goal with 1:28 remaining.

"The second half of that game," said Maurice, "he was really good all over the ice. ... In his own end and making plays."

Byfuglien forced an offensive-zone turnover by Calgary forward Johnny Gaudreau, carried the puck across the blue line before backhanding a shot from the left-wing board that slipped past goaltender Karri Ramo.

"I never worry about Buff," chimed in captain Andew Ladd, responding to several questions about Byfuglien's weight.

"For us, it's a non-issue. I've worked out with him and the things he can do are just incredible, for a man of his size.

"Just watch him skate, he's not slow out there."

Big players play big in big games.

That's a phrase that is usually reserved for playoff performances by players who command huge salaries. But  Byfuglien isn't big in the wallet ... just everywhere else physically.

At somewhere upwards of 6-3, 250 or 260 pounds, Big Buff has always had a big body with big dreams.

The story of Dustin Byfuglien didn't begin on some backyard rink or pond in Canada. It began more modestly at the door of a trailer on a 10-acre trucking farm behind his grandparents' house five miles outside of Roseau on Minnesota Route 11, where Byfuglien was the son of a single mother who drove a forklift at a snowmobile plant.

But then ... that's just painting a picture that grew to Paul Bunyanesque proportions for Byfuglien in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Byfuglien might be confused with a baggage handler by some folks, but not those who have seen him play for the Chicago Blackhawks and win a Stanley Cup title in 2010.

His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words. You know, long odds ... and big results. Byfuglien came from nowhere. He was an eight-round pick, 245th overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft

But ... back to the beginning.

The big kid didn't get too excited about anything in life. He played hockey because that's what all the kids in Minnesota seemed to do. Money was tight and he was growing so fast that it seemed ridiculous to Dustin's mom, Cheryl, to buy skates that he'd soon grow out of. So, she worked out a deal with a sporting goods store down the road in Grand Forks, N.D., to rent skates for her son.

She'd leave for work about 5:30 each morning and drop Dustin off at the rink. Often times, he'd be sitting on the steps in the dark and bitter cold for more than a half-hour waiting for the coach for a 6:30 practice.

School? That was a bad word.

"I just wasn't into school. I hated it, didn't see a need for it," Byfuglien told me. "After ninth grade, I really didn't think about it anymore. Teachers were always yelling at me to pay attention, and I just kind of sat there. I wouldn't participate or give an effort. Nothing."

The problem? Dustin didn't meet academic requirements, so he couldn't play for the Roseau Rams, follow in the footsteps of his cousin ... and the more famous family in town that included Neal, Aaron and Paul Broten, each of whom made it to the NHL.

"Looking back on it," he said wistfully, "I wish I had spent more time paying attention in school. I missed doing the things my cousin did when he played for Roseau High School against Warroad in the state championship."

Byfuglien eventually made his way to a midget team in Chicago when he turned 16. That's where a scout saw him and invited him for tryouts with the Brandon and Prince George teams in the Western Hockey League. He made enough of an impression in Prince George to earn a spot on the team -- and, in the process, earned his high school diploma.

"It seemed like I had a gift for the sport," Dustin said. Then he laughed and added; "Hockey was beginning to look like a chance to me to do something with my life, although some will tell you that I was far from NHL material back then when I weighed about 275 pounds and never worked out.

"I remember guys always telling me that they thought I'd be quicker if I'd lose about 20 pounds, so ..."

Byfuglien says he was brought up on hot dogs and other assorted junk food he could get at the rink or across the street at the American Legion Hall, where his grandmother worked.

Eating better and working out started to round the big kid into hockey shape. Still, NHL scouts were leery of his bulk. But the Blackhawks saw a big man with soft hands.

Going from defense to wing made him work harder.

"This playing up front, it's a big difference from what I've known," Dustin said. "There's definitely a lot more skating. Since I made the move, I've been watching some of the other bigger guys in the League. I've noticed how they use their size to make room for their teammates. I can do that."

Dustin came by some of his size and athletic ability from his dad, Rick Spencer, who once drove for the Byfuglien Trucking Co. Rick met Cheryl when he was playing baseball and football at St. Cloud State. With no father around, Big Buff looked up to his older cousin, Derrick, who was drafted by Ottawa 122nd overall in 2000.

"It was just hard, not to have a dad," said Dustin, who credits his grandparents with helping rear him. "They were there for me when mom had something to do after work."

The next two seasons with the Black Hawks have been more than NHL 101 for Dustin Byfuglien.

"When I left Roseau to pursue my hockey career, I told myself I'd never look back," he said. "But now everyone seems to want to make me look back.

"To me, it's not the rags-to-riches story people want to make it out to be. My mom and I got along fine. I grew up cheering for the North Stars and dreaming that I might grow up to be a player just like Mike Modano, like a lot of kids in Minnesota. I don't look at my upbringing as a hardship. I grew up the same as most everyone did."

Trailer park. Hated school. Loved his hot dogs too much.  All the ingredients for a real rags to riches story.

"Buf is a big guy, all right," whistles Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. "He has a heavy shot, skates well and is blessed with good hands."

The 33-year-old Byfuglien already scored 11 goals in 22 in 22 games for Chicago -- playing forward.

"His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words," said Rick Dudley, who was with Chicago then became the G.M. with the Atlanta Thrashers. "You know, long odds ... and big results."

Dudley said he had thing long-winded conversation with Denis Savard about Byfuglien in Chicago. Dudley knew that Big Buff wanted to play defense.

It became an argument for Dudley ... that he would win.

"In Chicago, Denis Savard needed Dustin up front and he moved to forward and did pretty well, obviously," continued Dudley. "He's an inordinately talented guy. I won't deny that. He's very effective.

"I once had this conversation with Savvy. 'Dud's, he's a forward. He's got 19 goals as a forward.' But then, I said, 'What if he had a 15-goal season as a defenseman?' "

Now, that's the kind of story we all seem to like on Dustin Byfuglien.

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