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Rough and Ready Byfuglien Grows His Game

10/15/2009 2:11 PM

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Before the NHL was even a remote possibility, Chicago Blackhawks forward
Dustin Byfuglien remembers watching Calgary's Jarome Iginla and thinking, "What if?"

"Jarome is an amazing player and I've watched him since I was really young before I really even seriously followed the NHL," Byfuglien, 24, said. "I always knew who he was and he's been great and now when I watch him out there I think, 'Why can't I do that?' "

While Byfuglien might not be as skilled as his idol and doesn't have a captain's "C" stitched to his jersey as does Iginla, the Minneapolis, Minn. native does possess the same zest, enthusiasm and toughness as his boyhood idol. Byfuglien had a coming-out party, of sorts, during the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he posted 3 goals and 9 points in 17 games while averaging just over 17 minutes of ice time per game.

While those numbers may seem a bit pedestrian, Byfuglien's approach to the game goes much deeper than statistics on the score sheet. When he begins throwing his weight around, opposing players have little choice but to concern themselves with his whereabouts and Chicago coach Joel Quenneville realizes that.

"He's a big body and big presence and helps the power-play," Quenneville said. "He forces loose pucks on the forecheck. He's one of those guys where there's an awareness when he's out there and Buff's a guy we need to set the physical tone for the game."

After finishing first among forwards with 169 hits during the regular season, Byfuglien led the Blackhawks with 78 body checks in the playoffs.

The 6-foot-3, 246-pound Byfuglien was selected by the Blackhawks in the eighth round (No. 245) of the 2003 Entry Draft as a defenseman, but was moved to forward to provide the club with a larger body in the slot.

Byfuglien never goes out of his way to look for the big body check but, instead, has a genuine feel for the game and players seem to be looking out for him providing ample opportunity to pick and choose his spots. He was a one-man wrecking crew during his team's six-game elimination of the Calgary Flames in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. Byfuglien's thunderous open-ice collisions usually sent the always-rowdy United Center crowd into a frenzy.

Byfuglien concluded 2008-09 eleventh on the team with 31 points in a career-high 77 games. It may come as a surprise to know that he ranked third on the team with 202 shots while generating 2 goals and 5 points over his final seven regular-season matches. Byfuglien also became the first Blackhawks player in over 32 years to record a game-winning goal off a penalty shot (Cliff Koroll, 1976) in a victory against Detroit on April 11.

His career-best season certainly aroused the interest of the managerial staff at USA Hockey, which invited Byfuglien to the team's three-day Olympic Orientation Camp in August. Byfuglien and fellow Team USA camp invitee Kyle Okposo (St. Paul, Minn.) are hoping to become the first African-American players to compete for the United States at the Winter Olympics.

"It was quite an honor to be invited to Olympic camp," Byfuglien said. "I thought I would have a shot and so did a few people in my family, but I didn't really give it much thought. But when I got the phone call I got really nervous and couldn't hang the phone up quick enough to call gramp."

This season, he's tied for the team lead among Hawks forwards with Troy Brower in hits (15) and is tied with
Patrick Kane for second on the team in goals (3) through five games.

"I definitely think I'm one of those guys who could come in and play a physical role and if that's what (Team USA) needs me to provide, I'm going to go out there and give it all I got," he said. "It'd be an honor -- unreal actually -- for me to put on a USA jersey and be in the Olympics."

The Blackhawks signed Byfuglien in 2005 and assigned him to their American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk, where he earned a spot in the AHL All-Star Classic two straight seasons. He made his NHL debut in 2005-06, recording 3 goals, 5 points, 45 shots and 40 hits in 25 games.

When asked if he sometimes gets the urge to emulate Iginla's all-around game, Byfuglien shook his head.

"Not really, I play my own game and have my own style," he said. "I'll do what I'm capable of doing, just like Jarome would do for his team. If it helps us win some games then I've done my job."