I can recall a former NHL scout telling me how other scouts laughed at him for thinking that a big, lanky, somewhat raw American kid playing for the Prince George Cougars could actually be an NHL regular. During the 2003 NHL entry draft however, the Chicago Blackhawks eventually took a ‘flyer’ on that same WHL prospect in the 8th round.
The Prince George Cougar player? The one and only, Dustin Byfuglien. The 6’5 right handed defenseman eventually transformed his game – from that slightly uncoordinated junior player into an NHL force to be reckoned with.
Especially in today’s more polite NHL style of play, Byfuglien became an extremely valuable asset within the league. ‘Big Buff’ was a player that could man handle multiple players defensively, but could also be an offensive threat with a bomb of a shot.
Big Buff and the Jets
The rest of the league would recognize the value in Byfuglien’s game. After winning a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2010, Byfuglien was moved to the Atlanta Thrashers later that summer. After a single season in Atlanta, the Thrasher franchise and Byfuglien moved their act to Winnipeg in time for the 2011/12 season.
As such, Winnipeg would become Byfuglien’s home away from home for eight seasons. It seemed as though he and the Jets were a perfect match – close to Byfuglien’s home state Minnesota, a legitimate contending team, and a big new contract extension in 2016. Things seemed to be going swimmingly for Byfuglien as a player and the Jets as a team.
Absent for 2019 Training Camp
It was a bit odd then when, prior to the 2019 season, Byfuglien announced he was taking a leave of absence from the game of hockey and would not attend the Jets training camp. It was first reported that Byfuglien had lost his passion for the game, but then it was announced that Byfuglien would require ankle surgery in October of 2019.
Since that time the Jets and Byfuglien agreed to terminate the remaining terms of his contract (April 2020). I am no mathematician but that means Byfuglien lien walked away from roughly $10 million. It also means that Byfuglien is now a free agent.
At 35, Byfuglien could likely still add value for an NHL team. With free agency about to get busy, things have been quiet on Byfuglien – until this weekend. On Saturday evening, Sportsnet’s Elliottte Friedman, reported that Byfuglien’s agent had said that it is unlikely that the big defender will play again.
While this is unfortunate for the NHL the biggest issue in this case is the human element. What went wrong with Byfuglien and made him walk away from a good Jets team, the game and big money? Personally, I get the feeling that Byfuglien’s decision did not necessarily have anything to do with the ankle injury, or the Jets but something larger. Maybe it was a loss of passion for the game, but why?
Only Byfuglien really knows, and maybe one day we as fans will also hear what actually transpired. For now, I sincerely hope that everything is okay with Byfuglien and his family.
Dustin Byfuglien will be missed as an NHL hockey player, but life comes first.
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