FANS IN THE CITY OF THE BIG SHOULDERS, AND NOW THE Enlarged Trophy Case, please nod in gratitude to the hockey player with the big rump and bigger game, the difficult-to-spell and impossible-to-stop Dustin Byfuglien.
After running roughshod over Chicago's playoff opponents (five game-winning goals, a hat trick), Byfuglien was many people's favorite Hawk—and everybody's favorite typo. Mercifully pronounced BUFF-lin, Byfuglien is widely known as Big Buff because he is immense, the same size as Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, give or take a pound, although the Blackhawk is more big than buff. There still is suet on his upper torso, a reminder of his junior hockey days when the now 25-year-old colossus might have weighed as much as 280. (Today the 6' 4" Byfuglien is listed at 257.) The point: Byfuglien is off the scale for hockey, an inch taller and 37 pounds heavier than Elmer Vasko, the biggest Hawk in that grainy year of 1961, when Chicago won its last Stanley Cup. Vasko was so massive for his day that he was nicknamed Moose, but Byfuglien is the elephant in the room: Ignore him at your peril.
Consider Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against San Jose. Byfuglien slipped into the high slot, took a Dave Bolland pass from behind the net and buried a Hammer of Thor shot to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 overtime win. If that goal was not identical to his third-period winner in the series opener five days earlier—positioned in slot, slothful Sharks coverage, wicked blast—the two at least were cousins. "Biggest man and hardest shot I'd ever seen," recounts Hawks winger Kris Versteeg of his first encounter with Byfuglien, in juniors. "And he had this do-rag. I thought that was pretty funny, a hockey player in a do-rag. Then he goes and scores two against us with that shot. Honestly, he scared the crap out of me."
The formidable shot is added value for a player who in March, with defenseman Brent Seabrook out with an injury, filled in on the No. 1 blue line pair with Duncan Keith, and who, during the second-round playoff series against Vancouver, was promoted to the top line to join Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The handful of NHL players who toggle between defense and forward generally are third-pair defensemen who muddle along as fourth-line wingers, not big-minute plug-ins. Says Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, "[Byfuglien] probably came into the league as the rawest player in the game" but succeeds because "he's an athlete. He may not look like it, but he is."
Playing shotgun to the tactically astute Toews and the freelancing Kane was actually simple for Byfuglien. He merely concentrated on screening the goalie, tipping pucks and retrieving rebounds. With six minutes remaining and the score 2-2 in Game 4 of the series against the Sharks, he pivoted that battleship body, flashed his righthanded stick to receive a pass from Kane and banged in a power-play goal from such proximity to the net that Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov probably could have guessed Byfuglien's brand of toothpaste. It was Buff's fifth straight game with a goal. While scientists debate whether dust caused by the impact of a giant asteroid obscured the sun and wiped out the dinosaurs, there is no argument that in 2010 a human eclipse made the Sharks disappear.
THERE ARE FEW PICTURES OF BIG BUFF'S CHILDHOOD, at least beyond the formal poses taken when he played peewee hockey. Cheryl Byfuglien didn't own a camera. For a single mother operating a forklift and making $30,000 a year, Kodak moments were luxury items.
She and her son lived in a trailer behind the tidy home of her parents in Roseau, a hockey town of 2,700 people in northwest Minnesota hard by the Manitoba border. That Byfuglien rented his skates is not unusual for growing kids; having to pay off a stick shaft in three installments at the local hardware store was. When Byfuglien went off to play junior hockey in Brandon, Manitoba, at 16, his mother borrowed $80 from her parents to buy him an all-purpose black suit. "And we never found a winter coat that fit because he had such long arms and big shoulders," she says. "I don't know how he [got by] without a winter coat...but we couldn't afford it at the time." Cheryl is a 46-year-old blonde who is as effusive as Dustin can be reticent, viscerally proud of her son even if he forbids her to wear a number 33 Byfuglien jersey to his games. "That's because," he says, "I have no idea what she might say." Give Cheryl this: She plays hurt. She broke capillaries in her palms during the Canucks series—Dustin scored three times in Game 3—because of overclapping.
Dustin was born to Cheryl and to Ricky Spencer, an African-American, in Minneapolis but moved with his mother to Roseau when he was five. While she says it was challenging returning to her hometown with a child of mixed race, the thought of ever leaving Roseau had little appeal for her son. This was home. He had friends. He had fistfuls of cousins. He had fishing, hunting and snowmobiling. The one thing Dustin didn't always have then was hockey, which really was O.K. by him.
When Byfuglien was 14 his low grades made him ineligible for the storied Roseau Rams, winners of seven state high school hockey titles, 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 route south. Dustin left Roseau for Chicago to play midget hockey on a team that practiced just 22 miles from the United Center. 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.' "