"I'm someone with a big body so I feel it's something I have to do. But, at the same time, I still need to get out there and show a good presence. I feel that I just need to keep it simple and not go out of my way to make a big hit, but if it's there take it."
-- Dustin Byfuglien
Before the NHL was even a remote possibility, Chicago Blackhawks
forward Dustin Byfuglien
remembers watching Calgary's Jarome Iginla
and thinking, "What if?"
"Jarome is an amazing player and I've watched him since I was really young before I really even seriously followed the NHL," Byfuglien, 24, said. "I always knew who he was and he's been great and now when I watch him out there I think, 'Why can't I do that?' "
While Byfuglien might not be as skilled as his idol and doesn't have a captain's "C" stitched to his jersey as does Iginla, the Minneapolis, Minn. native does possess the same zest, enthusiasm and toughness as his boyhood idol. Byfuglien had a coming-out party, of sorts, during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he posted 3 goals and 9 points in 17 games while averaging just over 17 minutes of ice time per game.
This season, he has 7 goals and 9 points in 20 games, and he's averaging 16:49 of ice time per game. And as an example of his toughness, he's second on the team with 60 hits and leads Blackhawks forwards with 9 blocked shots.
While those numbers may seem a bit pedestrian, Byfuglien's approach to the game goes much deeper than statistics on the score sheet. When he begins throwing his weight around, opposing players have little choice but to concern themselves with his whereabouts and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville
"He's a big body and big presence and helps the power-play," Quenneville said. "He forces loose pucks on the forecheck. He's one of those guys where there's an awareness when he's out there and Buff's a guy we need to set the physical tone for the game."
After finishing first among forwards with 169 hits during the regular season, Byfuglien led the Blackhawks with 78 body checks in the playoffs.
"I feel like I was a bit more physical in the playoffs than in the regular season and I guess that's what playoff hockey does," Byfuglien said. "I'm someone with a big body so I feel it's something I have to do. But, at the same time, I still need to get out there and show a good presence. I feel that I just need to keep it simple and not go out of my way to make a big hit, but if it's there take it."
The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Byfuglien was selected by the Blackhawks in the eighth round (No. 245) of the 2003 Entry Draft as a defenseman, but was moved to forward to provide the club with a larger body in the slot.
Byfuglien never goes out of his way to look for the big body check but, instead, has a genuine feel for the game and players seem to be looking out for him providing ample opportunity to pick and choose his spots. He was a one-man wrecking crew during his team's six-game elimination of the Calgary Flames
in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. Byfuglien's thunderous open-ice collisions usually sent the always-rowdy United Center crowd into a frenzy.
Byfuglien concluded 2008-09 eleventh on the team with 31 points in a career-high 77 games. It may come as a surprise to know that he ranked third on the team with 202 shots while generating 2 goals and 5 points over his final seven regular-season matches. Byfuglien also became the first Blackhawks player in over 32 years to record a game-winning goal off a penalty shot (Cliff Koroll, 1976) in a victory against Detroit on April 11.
His improved play certainly aroused the interest of the managerial staff at USA Hockey, which invited Byfuglien to the team's three-day Olympic Orientation Camp in August. Byfuglien and fellow Team USA camp invitee Kyle Okposo
(St. Paul, Minn.) are hoping to become the first African-American players to compete for the United States at the Winter Olympics.
"It was quite an honor to be invited to Olympic camp," Byfuglien said. "I thought I would have a shot and so did a few people in my family, but I didn't really give it much thought. But when I got the phone call I got really nervous and couldn't hang the phone up quick enough to call gramp."
"I definitely think I'm one of those guys who could come in and play a physical role and if that's what (Team USA) needs me to provide, I'm going to go out there and give it all I got," he added. "It'd be an honor -- unreal actually -- for me to put on a USA jersey and be in the Olympics."
The Blackhawks signed Byfuglien in 2005 and assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk, where he earned a spot in the AHL All-Star Classic two straight seasons. He made his NHL debut in 2005-06, recording 3 goals, 5 points, 45 shots and 40 hits in 25 games.
When asked if he sometimes gets the urge to emulate Iginla's all-around game, Byfuglien shook his head.
"Not really, I play my own game and have my own style," he said. "I'll do what I'm capable of doing, just like Jarome would do for his team. If it helps us win some games then I've done my job."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com