Massive winger Dustin Byfuglien was too much for the Sharks to handle as he led the Blackhawks to their first Stanley Cup finals in almost two decades
This is an article from the May 31, 2010 issue
America, please welcome from the City of the Big Shoulders, the hockey player with the big rump and bigger game, the difficult-to-spell but impossible-to-stop Dustin Byfuglien.
After terrorizing the NHL playoffs—four game-winning goals, one hat trick—perhaps Byfuglien needs no further introduction, even if he still needs spellchecking.
Byfuglien, mercifully pronounced BUFF-lin, is widely known as Big Buff because he is immense, the same size as Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, give or take a pound, although the Blackhawks' revelation is more big than buff.
There still is suet on his upper torso, a reminder of his junior hockey days when the now 25-year-old colossus might have weighed as much as 280. (The 6'4" Byfuglien is now listed at 257.) The point: Byfuglien is off the scale for hockey, an inch taller and 37 pounds heavier than Elmer Vasko, the biggest Blackhawk in that grainy year of 1961, when Chicago won its last Stanley Cup. Vasko was so massive for his day that he was nicknamed Moose, but Byfuglien is the elephant in the room, which makes it inconceivable that last week the Sharks paid him so little attention even as he scored three game-winners and helped sweep San Jose out of the playoffs in four games.
In Game 3 Byfuglien slipped into the high slot on little cat feet, took a Dave Bolland pass from behind the net and buried a Hammer of Thor shot to give the Blackhawks a 3--2 win in an overtime classic. If that goal was not quite identical to his third-period winner in the series opener five days earlier—slot, slothful Sharks coverage, wicked blast—the two at least were cousins. "Biggest man and hardest shot I'd ever seen," recounts Blackhawks winger Kris Versteeg of his first sighting of Byfuglien, back in juniors. "And he had this do-rag. I thought that was pretty funny, a hockey player in a do-rag. Then he goes out and scores two against us with that shot. Honestly, he scared the crap out of me."
The formidable shot is added value for a player who, with defenseman Brent Seabrook out with an injury in March, filled in on the No. 1 blue line pair with Duncan Keith, and who, during the second-round series against Vancouver, was promoted to the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The handful of NHL players who toggle between defense and forward generally are third-pair defensemen who muddle along as fourth-line wingers, not big-minute plug-ins. Says Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, Byfuglien "probably came into the league as the rawest player in the game" but succeeds because "he's an athlete. He may not look like it, but he is."
Riding shotgun with the tactically astute Toews, who leads playoff scorers with 26 points, and the freelancing Kane is actually simple. Byfuglien merely concentrates on screening the goaltender, tipping pucks and retrieving a few rebounds. With six minutes remaining and the score tied 2--2 in Game 4 on Sunday, he pivoted that battleship body, flashed his righthanded stick to receive a pass from Kane and banged in a power-play goal from such proximity to the net that Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov probably could have guessed Byfuglien's brand of toothpaste. For Byfuglien, the series-winner was his team-leading eighth goal. He scored in all four matches and carries a streak of five consecutive games with a goal into the Stanley Cup finals. While scientists debate whether dust caused by the impact of a giant asteroid obscured the sun and wiped out the dinosaurs, there is no argument that a human eclipse made the Sharks disappear.
There are few pictures of Big Buff's childhood, at least beyond the formal poses taken when he played peewee hockey. Cheryl Byfuglien didn't own a camera then. For a single mother operating a forklift and making $30,000 a year, Kodak moments were luxury items.
She and her son lived in a trailer behind the tidy home of her parents in Roseau, a hockey town of 2,700 in northwest Minnesota hard by the Manitoba border. Byfuglien rented his skates—not uncommon among growing kids—but paying off a stick shaft in three installments at the local hardware store was out of the ordinary. When Byfuglien went off to play junior hockey, his mother borrowed $80 from her parents to buy him an all-purpose black suit. "And we never found a winter coat that fit because he had such long arms and big shoulders," she says. "I don't know how he [lived in Canada] without a winter coat ... but we couldn't afford it at the time." Cheryl is a 46-year-old blonde who a generation ago would have been described as vivacious. She is as effusive as Dustin can be reticent, viscerally proud of her son even if he forbids her to wear a number 33 Byfuglien jersey to his games. "That's because," he says, "I have no idea what she might say." Give her this: Cheryl plays hurt. In the only verifiable injury of the 2010 playoffs, she broke capillaries in her palms during the Canucks series—Dustin scored three times in Game 3—because of overclapping.
Dustin was born to Cheryl and Ricky Spencer, an African-American, in Minneapolis, but moved with his mother to Roseau when he was five. While she says it was challenging returning from what Dustin refers to as "down south" with a child of mixed race, the thought of ever leaving Roseau and environs had little appeal for her son. This was home. He had tons of friends. He had fistfuls of cousins. He had fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. The one thing Byfuglien didn't have as a teenager—at least temporarily—was hockey, which really was O.K. by him.
At age 14 the gifted Byfuglien—who had already been identified as a prospect—took a hockey sabbatical. Or hockey took a sabbatical from him. His low grades made him ineligible for the storied Roseau Rams, winners of seven state high school hockey championships, so he spent most of the winter of his sophomore year zipping around on a snowmobile. "I didn't really want to play anymore," Byfuglien says. "As a kid, you're always told you got to stay focused, that to be an all-star you got to stay with it the whole way. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do."
Seeing her son at the crossroads of a young life, Cheryl encouraged him to take the road down south. Byfuglien left Roseau for Chicago to play midget hockey. Cheryl calls it "the best choice I ever made. He even says, 'Mom, you saved my life.' And I'm like, 'I know I did.'"
Still, he could not shed his last ounces of ambivalence about hockey any more than he could the excess bulk that buried him deep in the 2003 draft. After Chicago took an eighth-round stab at a gambling defenseman with conditioning issues, the team couldn't reach Byfuglien for days. He was fishing. "Normally when they get that call, it's the happiest day, the biggest day in a kid's life," says general manager Stan Bowman, then a Hawks special assistant. "Buff didn't even know he'd been drafted."
"Even then Buff wasn't absolutely sure he wanted to do this thing," Chicago teammate Adam Burish says. "Now we always get on him. When he jumps in his nice car, we say, 'Glad you're doing this?' When he scores big goals, we ask if he's happy with the choice. He's really kinda unassuming. There's nobody with size like him who moves like him. If he's on, tuned in, he's unstoppable. Freakish."
With long-suffering Chicago only four wins away from its first Stanley Cup in 49 years, the stories should keep getting better for the man who grew up, and wide, in Roseau.
Now instead of the $29 sneakers he wore for three straight years in juniors, he has an overstuffed shoe closet that his mother says includes a pair of Kermit the Frog models. Instead of a single black suit, Byfuglien has a rack that features a snappy red number that he wore for the Hawks' season opener. And instead of terrorizing western Canadian lads two-thirds his weight, he regularly scores while playing left wing with two of the NHL's best young players, busting a capillary on somebody almost every game.
Now that is living large.