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Call Byfuglien a true diamond in the rough

Thursday, 05.27.2010 / 1:47 PM / Features
By Larry Wigge  - NHL.com columnist
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Call Byfuglien a true diamond in the rough
Dustin Byfuglien\'s rise from a late-round draft pick to an impact player in the Stanley Cup Final is a true diamond in the rough tale, says Larry Wigge.


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.

"His story is one of those true diamond-in-the-rough dramas that truly fits the meaning of the words," said former Blackhawks Assistant GM Rick Dudley, now the head man in Atlanta. "You know, long odds ... and big results."

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.

Cheryl would 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 said. "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, all 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.

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 back in 2007 after former Hawks coach Denis Savard moved him up to wing from defense. "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 to raise him. "They were there for me when mom had something to do after work.

"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."

Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist