In a day of banged-up economies, collapsing housing markets and difficult daily challenges, if you are searching for an inspirational story, look no further than the Chicago Blackhawks forward Dustin Byfuglien.
Since being chosen in the late rounds of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Blackhawks, the 23-year-old Minneapolis native has beaten the odds and evolved from NHL prospect to becoming a permanent fixture on a revitalized Blackhawks’ roster.
While the ’Hawks dress the youngest roster in the NHL and are building a winner around young superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Byfuglien is becoming a vital piece of the puzzle.
Looking to use Byfuglien’s hulking 6-foot-3 frame to create traffic in front of the net, Chicago moved the rugged defenseman to forward, and the move has paid huge dividends. Byfuglien responded with a breakout season in 2007-08 tallying 19 goals and 17 assists in just 67 games, finishing fifth on the team in scoring. That same season, he recorded his first career hat trick in a span of just 5:39 against Phoenix on Nov. 30.
“At first I didn’t like the move because I didn’t have experience playing forward. I had no choice but to adapt so I did,” said Byfuglien. “Playing with good players like we have, I adapted quickly and now I’m pretty much there to stay.”
When asked about Byfuglien, Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville had nothing but praise for his young winger.
“Buffs is one of those guys who no matter what line he’s on he gives us a contribution,” said Quenneville. “He’s got NHL size and ability. He’s a physical presence. We utilize his size around the net, and he’s got a tremendous shot. Buffs gives us versatility; we have played him on defense as well as forward and use him on the power play.”
The journey to the NHL was full of challenges for Byfuglien. He grew up in a single-parent family, living in a trailer behind his grandmother’s house. While his mother supported the family working in a blue-collar job at a local plant, Dustin spent time with his cousins, skating on the two local outdoor rinks in the neighborhood after getting his first pair of skates when he was about 4 years old.
With American players now commonly going high in the draft, Byfuglien attributes that to the quality of today’s hockey programs.
“The U.S. is coming around in their programs for young kids,” said Byfuglien. “When I was growing up, there were some players from the U.S. getting drafted but not like now. Before, if someone [from the U.S.] got drafted high it was really talked about. Now it’s more common. Many of the top players and top picks are coming from here and that’s great for the kids who want to try to make it.”
In a competitive league like the NHL, it is a difficult challenge even for the top picks to develop and make an NHL roster. Despite being a late round pick, Byfuglien was determined to make it.
After his first call-up from the AHL Norfolk Admirals, Byfuglien stepped onto an NHL sheet of ice for the first time on March 1, 2006 and responded by netting his first NHL goal, the game-winner in a 3-0 win over Nashville. He still refers to that game as his most memorable hockey moment.
When asked about mentors and childhood idols, Dustin is quick to credit his family for guiding him to where he is now.
“Neal Broten was the hometown hero when I was growing up, but I looked up to my cousin Derrick more than I did any of the NHL players at the time,” he said.
“My grandfather had a lot to do with my development, too. He always stayed close to me, making sure I was the best player I could possibly be.”
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