Byfuglien, who won the Stanley Cup last season as a physically imposing forward on the Chicago Blackhawks and now patrols the blue line as a talented two-way defenseman for the Atlanta Thrashers, has become one of those rare NHL players who shows the versatility to be successful either up front or on the back end.
But while it's usually important for a player whose talent might one day result in a professional playing career to have an idea by his teens of what position he'll be most successful at, many believe that when a youngster is just learning to play hockey that he is better off channeling his inner Byfuglien and not committing to just one position.
That was the consensus of a pair of former NHL veterans, defenseman Jamie Macoun and center Perry Berezan, who played parts of five seasons together for the Calgary Flames and teamed up again last month as part of a Canadian Tire youth hockey clinic in Calgary.
"Once you get into bantam or midget, maybe you need to get more selective and say, 'hey, I want to strictly do defense or I strictly want to do forward.' But in many of the teams, they used to rotate even the goalies in and out -- they used to do that in lacrosse, as well. So I think it's fun. It's all about having fun and if the kids all know that in three days or three weeks I get to go in net or I get to play defense or I get to play forward, they're going to be that much more excited to be there." -- Former NHLer, Jamie Macoun
"So I think it's fun. It's all about having fun and if the kids all know that in three days or three weeks I get to go in net or I get to play defense or I get to play forward, they're going to be that much more excited to be there."
Macoun played 17 seasons for the Flames, Maple Leafs and Red Wings, winning a pair of Stanley Cups. By the end of his career he was known as a stay-at-home defenseman, but Macoun scored as many as 11 goals and 40 points in a season, and he spent time playing forward positions growing up.
"Especially at the younger ages, the person who skated the fastest had the puck -- he didn't necessarily score, he'd just run faster into the boards," Macoun said. "I would play forward, I'd play defense. Once we started playing on a traveling team I played defense for most of those years and it was strictly selfish -- I just got my math chart out right away and realized there were going to be nine forwards and four defense. I wanted to be on the ice."
Macoun also stressed that just because a kid starts out playing on defense or, say, right wing, they shouldn't feel stuck there if it's not working out or they aren't having fun.
"You can change, you can change guys even going into the NHL," he said, pointing to Byfuglien as an example. "If you're well-rounded and you've got the skill -- one thing they can't teach you is how to score. They can teach you how to try, they can teach you techniques, but you either have it or don't. But most other things you can teach. Hard work is hard work, and if that means you have to spend extra time learning how to stop and start, then you should spend that extra time."
Berezan, who skated in more than 400 regular-season and playoff games for the Flames, North Stars and Sharks, said that occasionally where a player grows up and the needs of the local team might influence the position he ends up at, but was also in favor of variety winning out.
"Goalie, that's optional," Berezan said, laughing. "For sure, it's optional, because that's real specialized. But I don't think kids should be goalies at early age and that's all. They should be playing all the different positions, defense, forward."
Berezan raised a variety of interesting points as to why it's in the best interest of everyone involved -- parents, coaches and players -- not to pigeonhole a youngster into one specific role.
"When I hear parents of 8-year-olds say, 'My kid's a centerman and that's the only place he's going to play,' that's wrong. It's wrong," Berezan said. "If he doesn't understand what a defenseman needs to do, then he's not going to be a better centerman. How do we know he's not the best defenseman if he never played there? You need to learn all the positions, understand all the positions, and then as you get older and leagues and teams that you're on need you in a specific area, then you can fall into it."