Dustin “Big Buff” Byfuglien
Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced buff-lin, not bye-fug-leen) was a member of the Chicago Blackhawks from 2005 to 2010, and a part of the Stanley Cup Winning 2010 team. His flare for the dramatic and physical play made him a fan-favorite and a constant source of concern for opposing defensemen.
“Big Buff” was drafted by the Hawks in 2003 and played for the club’s minor league affiliates, The Prince George Cougars, Norfolk Admirals and Rockford Ice Hogs. During his stint in the minors he earned a reputation for being a gritty player who wasn’t afraid to battle along the boards and lay a hit on the opposition. Dustin made the Blackhawks roster in 2007, amassing 19 goals and 17 assists in his rookie year.
Needing more bodies in front of the net, Coach Denis Savard moved Byfuglien from defense to wing, hoping to capitalize on his size and aggression. Buff didn’t disappoint, terrorizing goal tenders and earning the affectionate title of a “poor man’s Tomas Holmstrom.” As the Hawks’ popularity soared at the end of the decade, so did Dustin’s.
His legend grew during the 2009 playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks, as he tortured star goalie Roberto Luongo, deflecting shots and blocking his line of sight. The Canucks seemed so consumed with retaliating against him that it gave the Hawks’ more finessed players more time and space with which to pepper the net.
Buff never fully developed into the consistent player the Blackhawks brass envisioned him as, but he did show flashes of that ability during the playoffs the following year. In a rematch with the Canucks, Byfuglien again harassed Luongo, netting himself a hat trick in Game 3 and racking up game winning goals during the series. His showy post-goal taunting of Canucks fans instantly demonized him in Vancouver and elevated him to cult-status in Chicago. With so many more people paying attention to the Blackhawks, Byfuglien couldn’t have picked a better time to shine.
Team captain Jonathan Toews, in addressing reporters, mused on the catalyst for his line-mate’s success, “A lot of you guys like to talk about him this time of the year; maybe it gets him going a little bit.” Byfuglien’s take on his play was a little more direct: “They’ve got to be worrying about me coming and worrying about getting hit.”
Heading into the ’09-10 Stanley Cup Finals against the Philadelphia Flyers,the media paid much attention to the match-up of Byfuglien and Flyers’ veteran d-man Chris Pronger. Pronger had earned the ire of Blackhawks fans during the series for his perceived cheap shots and dirty play, which only made it sweeter when Byfuglien bulldozed him into the boards during Game 5 in a hit that was made for YouTube and will surely find its way into the next Don Cherry DVD.
With attention swirling around him for his timely mix of bravado, muscle and scoring touch, the typically laid-back Byfuglien had this to say: “Kane and Toews tell me to hold on to the puck, and then they yell at me to get rid of it. I just go out there and play and not worry about anything. It’s not too often you can be in the spotlight, like Kane and Toews, so might as well take it and stay with it.”
After only scoring 17 goals during the regular season, Buff tallied an impressive 11 in the Hawks run to their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Unfortunately, with a $3 million dollar salary cap hit, Byfuglien became a casualty of finance. A mere two weeks after hoisting the Cup, Dustin, along with teammates Ben Eager and Brent Sopel, was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers in a move that netted the Hawks draft picks and some much needed fiscal relief.
The move was no doubt difficult for Blackhawks fans to swallow, especially with many newer fans becoming so fond of the young star. Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith admitted he had a hard time accepting the trade, saying, “It’s too bad it had to be like this… it’s not going to be fun.”
Byfuglien possessed the perfect Chicago combination of skill and toughness, securing his place among the legends of A.J. Pierzynski, Bob Probert and Dennis Rodman, figures that are as ingrained in the Chicago sports mythos as the Jordans and Hulls and Sandbergs. Regardless of how the rest of his career plays out, Chicago fans will cherish the image of Big Buff skating on one leg, arms spread wide, smiling and jawing at irate Canucks fans.