"Big players play big in big games." That's a phrase that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup Playoff performances by players who command huge salaries. But Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien isn't big in the wallet ... just everywhere else.
"He could play linebacker for the Bears," teammate Colin Fraser said, and he was quite serious.
At somewhere upwards of 6-foot-3, 250 or 260 pounds, "Big Buff" always has had a big body, plus some big dreams. But a goal-scoring touch was lacking. Until May 9, that is, when he scored twice to lead the Blackhawks to a 4-2 victory in Vancouver in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
"The thing about 'Buff' is that he's not just a big guy," Hawks defenseman Brent Seabrook
said. "He has a heavy shot, skates well and is blessed with good hands. He's got the potential to be a dominating power forward. One of those X-factor-type players everyone dreams of having."
Before we get caught up in the hype, Byfuglien has only three goals in 11 postseason games this year. But he has suddenly become a focal point in the playoffs. His 49 hits are second only to Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik, who has 56. More important, "Big Buff" (his name is pronounced BUFF-lyn) has given Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo fits with his banging and trash-talking around the net. In many ways, he has set the tone for the series.
"Someone had to do it, and I just thought I'd get in front of him and start talking," Byfuglien laughed. "At first, he just kind of stared at me. But I think I'm starting to get in his head."
So when did Byfuglien change his ways?
"I don't know ... a couple of weeks ago," he said matter of factly. "Since the playoffs, I started banging more. I guess I thought it was pointless to do it all the time. But now I think the coaching staff is beginning to notice ... and that's always nice to see."
Said Luongo, "If he thinks he's getting into my head to the extent that I'm losing my focus, he's wrong."
That's just goalie speak for "I wish he'd get out of my way."
"His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that fits the meaning of the words," Chicago Assistant GM Rick Dudley said. "You know, long odds ... and big results."
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 that's just painting a picture that grew to Paul Bunyanesque proportions for Byfuglien in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Back in Byfuglien's formative years, 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 his 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 said. "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."
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," Byfuglien 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 and took a flyer on him in the eighth round, with the 245th pick out of 292 players chosen in the 2003 Entry Draft.
Going from defense to wing made him work harder.
"This playing up front, it's a big difference from what I've known," Byfuglien 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 father, 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 Byfuglien, who credits his grandparents with helping rear him. "They were there for me when mom had something to do after work."
These past two seasons has 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."
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist