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Size of Byfuglien's heart matters most

by Larry Wigge

Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Dustin Byfuglien grew up in a trailer on a 10-acre trucking farm behind his grandparents' house. Dustin Byfuglien highlight video
This 6-foot-3, 240-pound guy comes walking into the locker room after the morning skate in early November. He's got an equipment bag on his shoulders. The equipment man tells the big man; "There are a couple other bags out in the hallway just put them  ..."

The equipment man can't keep a straight face any longer while trying to play a joke on Dustin Byfuglien, the Chicago Blackhawks' big defenseman, er, make that winger, who had just been recalled from Chicago's American Hockey League farm club in Rockford, Ill.

"Oh, it's you Buff," he said, laughing loudly.

Byfuglien might be confused with a baggage handler by some folks, but not those who have seen him play for the Blackhawks this season. Size does matter in this case. The size of Dustin's muscular frame, plus the size of this late-bloomer's heart and love for hockey.

That night, "Big Buff" (the correct pronunciation of Buff-lin) scored a goal to lead the Blackhawks to a win against the Blues. He hasn't looked back. He contributed the team's first hat trick by a defenseman since Doug Wilson did it in January 1991, getting three goals against Phoenix on Nov. 30. Soon he was up to 10 goals. As his production and impact began to mount, coach Denis Savard decided to give Dustin a shot up front.

Now, he's become a dangerous weapon for the Blackhawks up front or on defense.

"His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words," said assistant GM Rick Dudley. "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 Dustin 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 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 for Big Buff.

"I just wasn't into school. I hated it, didn't see a need for it," the big kid 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.

"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." - Dustin Byfuglien
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.

"This playing up front, it's a big difference from what I've known," he 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, guys like Todd Bertuzzi and Dustin Penner. 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."

This season has been more than NHL 101 for Dustin Byfuglien. Sure, it's been a learning process for the impact player.

"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."

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