Breaking the ice

A year ago, his career seemed doomed, but Dustin Byfuglien is now one of the NHL’s rising stars

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Breaking the ice
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

By all logic, we should have long forgotten Dustin Byfuglien. After wreaking havoc in front of the net in Chicago’s run for the Stanley Cup last spring—tying the team lead with 11 goals—Byfuglien, who rounded out the Blackhawks’ first line with captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, was shipped to the feeble Atlanta Thrashers in a trade. There, the winger with the body of a linebacker and hockey’s strangest name—pronounced “Bufflin”—made the shock move back to defence. Lunacy, hockey’s talking heads quietly agreed. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” said radio host and former Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick. “I would love to play against Dustin Byfuglien as a defenceman,” he told his weekly audience. “A defenceman? Maybe that’s why the Thrashers are 0-3. It’s crazy. What are they thinking?”

Cooler heads than Roenick agreed the twin moves threw a wet blanket on Big Buff’s rising star power. At best, the abrupt switch to the back end defied hockey logic, and the Chicago star was decamping for a Sunbelt squad that had missed the playoffs every year but one.

But as he gears up for his first All-Star appearance in Raleigh, N.C., next week, Byfuglien—the league’s top-scoring defenceman, Atlanta’s leading scorer, and a leading contender for the Norris, a trophy awarded annually to the league’s top defenceman—has got a lot of analysts eating crow. It’s not the first time. Byfuglien was drafted 245th overall in 2003, at the end of the eighth round, and after he let his weight balloon to almost 300 lb. as a junior, registering a body fat percentage in the high 20s (the NHL average is 9.7 per cent), scouts figured he didn’t have the discipline, drive or passion to make it. Seven years later, he was lifting the Cup over his head, a leader by example, and one of the most highly touted stars to emerge from Chicago’s run.

Byfuglien is another kind of rarity in the overwhelmingly white league: a black star. Alongside Jarome Iginla and rising black phenoms like P.K. Subban and Vancouver-raised teen Evander Kane, he’s part of a slowly changing landscape. On a recent stop in Ottawa, the Thrashers put four black skaters on the ice for the puck drop: Byfuglien, Kane, Anthony Stewart and Johnny Oduya, still a surprising sight in what must be North America’s least racially diverse sport, barring yachting. But at midpoint, Byfuglien is indisputably the breakout star of the season, black or white, leading all blueliners in points and goals and the entire league in game-winning goals—with three in overtime.

For an American, Byfuglien knows Canada well, he admits by phone from Florida, where Atlanta played the Panthers, winning 3-2. He got his first big break in B.C., and spent his childhood just 15 minutes from the Manitoba border, crossing regularly for games and tournaments. He was raised by his mom Cheryl, who’s of Norwegian descent (hence the name, pronounced “Bye-foog-lee-in” in the homeland), in Roseau, Minn., in a trailer behind her parents’ house. She’d moved home when Dustin was three, after splitting with his dad, Ricky Spencer, an Alabama native who played football and ran track for St. Cloud State University.

Cheryl, who worked the 5:45 a.m. shift at the local Polaris plant, put Dustin in his first pair of skates when he was four. From then on, he rarely took them off. Shy, quiet, and not even remotely interested in school, he essentially grew up in Roseau’s Memorial Arena where, when he couldn’t talk his way on to the ice, he’d sit for hours in the stands, watching and waiting his turn. The sport was a bit of a stretch, financially. Cheryl, who did most of the parenting, rented Dustin’s skates, and took out short-term loans for new equipment. She made the heartbreaking decision to let her only child move to Chicago at 15 to play AAA midget hockey. “I just wasn’t into school,” Byfuglien says. “I hated it. Teachers were always yelling at me. Thankfully, we both knew that something had to be done. We needed to take a chance.”

Byfuglien was drafted to the Western Hockey League, and landed in Prince George—“I didn’t even know there was anything up that far in B.C.,” he admits—where he played what may have been the most important game of his career, catching, purely by chance, the attention of a former NHL scout. Marshall Johnston, who was then in Chicago’s front office, was visiting a prospect in Portland, Ore. On a whim, he drove up to Seattle to catch their game against Prince George. He was just there as a fan, but the memory of Byfuglien, “who must have played 40 minutes—at forward, defence, skating, shooting the puck, passing the puck,” never left him. Fast-forward to Nashville, more than a year later, near the dirty end of the 2003 draft. “Anybody got anybody they like?” the Blackhawks manager asked his staff. “Nobody said anything,” says Johnston. “So I said, ‘Yeah. I got a guy I like.’ So we took him.”

Back then, most saw the 265-pounder as a winger, a grinder with limited utility, says Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, now an analyst for Rogers Sportsnet’s Ottawa Senators broadcasts. But last spring, Chicago promoted him to its top line, where his massive, hulking presence was immovable in front of the net. His matchup against Philadelphia’s Chris Pronger in the finals became “the story of the playoffs,” says Potvin—“the focal point to watch.” Still, Byfuglien wanted to move back to defence. These days, a forward’s shift is a 40-second sprint, and you might not touch the puck, he says; whereas on defence, it’s not a sprint, and you’ll always touch the puck in some fashion.

Show up at camp in shape, Thrashers GM Rick Dudley told him, and we’ll give you a shot at defence. “Our fitness testing was unmerciful,” Dudley says. “He’d worked his ass off. We could tell.” Next came Byfuglien’s re-education—ugly, by all accounts. He coughed up the puck, took too many gambles, says head coach Craig Ramsay. Most coaches, after a 0-6-1 run in training camp, like his, would have thrown in the towel. “The beauty of Craig is he accepts the fact that some people aren’t perfect,” says Byfuglien. “As long as they’re giving the team more good than bad, he will work with the bad and make it a little better. He lets me roam and take chances.”

So began Byfuglien’s rebirth as a defencemen. Few players have made the transition, perhaps none so successfully. Potvin, a three-time Norris winner, calls Byfuglien a top contender for the trophy this spring. “He’s going to lead in scoring; his team has become a real viable playoff contender; his numbers are phenomenal. The only question to ask is: is he an impact player? Has he created an impact on the Thrashers? Well, there isn’t anyone who has been as impactful to his team—and I’m putting him in a league with Crosby.”

There’s another reason people are taking a closer look at Byfuglien’s Thrashers. Atlanta started the season with a record five black players on the roster. Add two recent acquisitions to the Thrashers’ system, and you have 20 per cent of the league’s black skaters on a single franchise. It’s led to speculation in hockey circles and the blogosphere that the team is deliberately acquiring black players to broaden its appeal in Atlanta, a city known as the “black mecca” for its sizable, educated, middle-class African-American population. “Honest to god,” Dudley says, “I can watch a player five or 10 times and not know what colour they are. I couldn’t care less. As long as they can play hockey, I don’t care. To think that somebody would actually pick players on their race is ludicrous.”

Even if it was deliberate, is there anything wrong with a team reaching out to a vital demographic in the American South in this way? It’s a valid question, but the controversy underscores a more pressing and uncomfortable dilemma: why, even with the recent uptick, are there only 30 black men in the NHL?

Money, particularly for first-generation immigrants, is the first barrier, says Thrashers defenceman Oduya, a black Swede whose father, a journalist, emigrated from Kenya. According to The Hockey News, it’s not uncommon for a family in Toronto to spend a staggering $10,000 a year to keep a child in the highest level of minor hockey, factoring in the cost of registration, ice time, equipment, out-of-town tournaments, plus the $6 per head entry fee parents and players shell out to get into the rink on game days. A minivan was out of reach for Norman Stewart, whose sons Anthony and Chris now play in the NHL. The Jamaican immigrant was raising seven kids on a $10-an-hour job, so they took the bus. Once, trudging through a blizzard to get to a 5:30 a.m. practice, Norman carried both Anthony and his equipment on his back.

In a recent cover story titled “Is hockey dying in Canada?”, the magazine tackled the sport’s alarming decline among Canadian boys, especially in small towns. The game’s long-term success—and Canada’s continued dominance of it—will require proactive steps: tapping and better serving Canada’s thriving metro areas, which are crying out for more arenas, and finding ways to help open up the game to immigrant and minority communities.

“It can be very intimidating,” says former New Jersey netminder Kevin Weekes, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Barbados. Weekes got help from Skillz, a hockey program aimed at helping kids who might not otherwise be able to play. Parents pay what they can afford, says Weekes, who later underwrote the cost of the program throughout his 11-year NHL career. For some, fees are waived entirely. Skillz also provides mentorship and community for both kids and parents, some of whom don’t know atom from pee wee, or the benefit of a major junior career versus the NCAA. The program’s alumni roll, which includes Subban, Wayne Simmonds, Raffi Torres, Anson Carter, Jamal Mayers, Joel Ward and Anaheim prospect Devante Smith-Pelly, suggests, perhaps, that if the NHL is serious about attracting minority players, it can’t sit back and expect them to find their way there on their own.

Even with programs like it, not all black players have felt the sport’s warm embrace. Weekes, now an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada, blames racism for the rough ride being given Montreal rookie P.K. Subban, perhaps the league’s hottest young defensive prospect. Don Cherry, Subban’s fiercest critic, has repeatedly singled him out for being disrespectful, “needing to smarten up.” “Everybody dislikes him in the league,” Cherry said on Coach’s Corner in December (he also stumbled, on two occasions, over his name—“P.K., or whatever he’s called, Subban”). Subban has distanced himself from the controversy, but Weekes, who once had a banana thrown at him while in net in Montreal, sees a coded meaning in words used to describe the rising star, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica and tiny Montserrat: too flashy, too arrogant. “You can’t hold him to a different standard because he doesn’t look like everyone else,” he told Maclean’s, rattling off a half-dozen young players guilty of the same apparent crime. “You can’t do a character assassination every Saturday night. If we can have a black president, we can have a black defenceman in Montreal.”

Byfuglien, media shy and soft-spoken, says he can no longer remember the sting of any prejudice he may have faced coming up. Rather, what’s stuck with him is the kindness of the minor hockey folks who protected him from it. He was, in the words of one Minnesota scout, “the only coloured kid within 200 miles,” and well aware of that fact. But if ever anything was said, on the ice or in the stands, the parents tried to prevent him from learning of it. When he did, “they made sure I knew they were always on my side.”

The future is bound to only get brighter: there’s Raleigh and the All-Star Game most immediately, perhaps an Olympic appearance in Sochi, if the league allows players to go to Russia. “The more responsibility you give Dustin, the more he responds,” says Dudley. “So now he’s an important guy. And he feels there’s a certain responsibility involved in being a star player.” Last summer, Byfuglien brought the Stanley Cup home to Roseau, where he addressed some of those loyal parents. “When I left home, I left with a purpose,” he said in a speech at Memorial Arena. “And every time I went home, I wanted to come home with a better story.” Well, right now, there’s no one in the league with a better story than his.