***This piece was originally published on Mar. 7, 2016***
There’s no one else like him.
Dustin Byfuglien: The burly, rugged outdoorsman whose playful, yet powerful personality is every bit the match of his play between the boards. The shot. Those body checks. That seemingly impossible speed a man of his build can achieve, combining the two to construct a 6-foot-5 wrecking ball.
The man better known as ‘Buff’ around here is a four-time NHL all-star.
He’s a winner.
A Winnipeg Jet.
No. 33 is here for the long haul, committing to both the franchise and the city of Winnipeg by signing a five-year, $38 million extension to remain the Jets until 2021.
“I’m excited to be a Jet,” he said immediately after signing back in early February. “My family and I are very happy to stay here. It never really crossed my mind about going anywhere else.
“It’s nice to finally settle down and know that we’ve got a game plan for the next five (years).”
Byfuglien and his wife, Emily, have made Winnipeg their home. They have two young children, Kai and Kira, and have fully immersed themselves in what the city and surrounding areas have to offer.
The proximity to his hometown of Roseau, Minnesota, isn’t so bad, either. Byfuglien, the son of a devout single mother, spent his youngest years there, eventually developing a passion that led him just a two-hour drive north in a similarly hard-working town.
He’s a Winnipegger, all right. He just didn’t know it until the team moved here five years ago.
Byfuglien is an avid fisherman. His summers are spent on the water, where he can relax and get away from the bright lights and big cities of the NHL. On a mid-season off day, chances are he’s out somewhere around town, bundled up in the bitter cold, scavenging the province’s frozen canvases for the Trophy Greenback Walleye.
Fellow defenceman Mark Stuart joins on occasion. Others, too. It’s but another example of Byfuglien’s impact as a leader, a friend, and an ambassador in our community.
“Dustin is a guy who is connected to everyone in the room. Buff is a man of the people,” Head Coach Paul Maurice said. “He can go to the All-Star Game and hang out with the best of those guys, and go for dinner with the fourth line guys and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. He’s a real regular guy, because of that he has a connection to everyone in the room.”
Byfuglien won the Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2010, and he has every intention of doing the same here with the Jets. The way he sees it, with what the organization has in place both now and in the pipeline, they’re close to achieving perennial contender status.
“I’ve been here five years now, and where we started and where we’re at now, I don’t feel as an organization or as a group that we’re far off,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of guys here. With what we’ve got coming, I believe in what they’re trying to do around here.”
Best of all, he insists, he’ll get to be part of it in his prime. The soon-to-be-31-year-old is a gifted offensive artist with the physical and defensive tools few at this level are blessed with. Leading the team in a number of different categories, including average ice time per game, hits, penalty minutes and points from the back end, his game – and the uniqueness of it – is improving with age.
“I believe so,” he said, when asked if his best hockey is in front of him. “As the years have gone by, I feel every year I've got a little better and better, matured more and figured out how to be a pro better.”
Byfuglien has had three 50-plus point seasons with the organization, and was on pace for another in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign with 28 points (8G, 20A) in 43 games. With more than 375 career points, he is the third highest-scoring defenceman from the 2003 draft class, behind only Minnesota’s Ryan Suter and Ottawa’s Dion Phaneuf. Both were first-round picks, while Byfuglien – who played his junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Prince George Cougars – was drafted in the now-defunct eighth round, six spots after the Atlanta Thrashers took Toby Enstrom 239th overall.
“He’s more than just what you see on the ice for our group,” Maurice said. "He’s such a big personality in our room. … Knowing that he’s going to be here, and he wants to be here and has made that commitment to being here, that’s a great feeling in the room.”
Guys like that are just too valuable, to both the city and the very fabric of the franchise.
“The conversations we had with him and believing in the direction we were going certainly added to the excitement level of our part, realizing that we were going to get a deal done,” said General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was an assist general manager with the Blackhawks and they won the Cup in 2010. “Everyone knows Dustin on this team. Both on and off the ice, he’s a real character and important part to this group moving forward.
“I’ve seen the evolution of Dustin as a person, and there’s lots of things that the average person doesn’t get to see. To see him grow into the family man that he is, and is proud to call Winnipeg home for the foreseeable future, those are (signs) of maturity. He’s obviously a very smart hockey player. … But I think it’s that maturation as a person that has helped him understand how he could take his game to another level.”
That’s what excites Byfuglien the most: Knowing that he’ll continue to play a significant role in the team’s case for its first Stanley Cup.
“How fast are we going to win? From what I see, I think it can happen at any time. This year we’re [not] sitting where we want to be, but we’re not out of it. As a group we have the pieces. It’s just little things that can change and I don’t feel that this organization is far from one.”
With an elite No. 33 in the fold long term, the future, indeed, looks bright.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com