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.