Minnesota kid matured in Chicago

By David Haugh
Updated: May 21, 2010

Dustin Byfuglien

Dustin Byfuglien

CHICAGO — It took Darren McClusky about 10 minutes inside the Arctic Ice Arena in Orland Park to figure out the 280-pound teenager on skates from Minnesota was worth all the time and effort people were investing in his future.

“I watched Dustin shoot a bucket of pucks and could see then the skill set was phenomenal so I immediately called the guys who asked me to help get him ready and said, ‘I’m taking this kid,’ ” said McClusky, the rink’s hockey director.

The kid was Dustin Byfuglien, the playoff villain to the Canucks and scourge of the Sharks whose experience turning heads in Chicago didn’t start when the Blackhawks drafted him in the eighth round of the 2003 NHL draft.

Go back to when Byfuglien was 15 and struggling to stay focused on the books and on the ice in Roseau, Minn., a town of 2,700 people about 10 miles south of the Canadian border.

The son of a Norwegian mother and African-American father, Byfuglien’s grades started to slip around the same time he took a year away from hockey to hunt and fish.

“I just wanted to try the outdoor stuff,” the Hawks’ winger recalled Thursday after practice preparing for Friday night’s Game 3 in the Western Conference finals at the United Center. “Yeah, I guess I made a good choice coming back.” The comeback included McClusky. As coach of a Chicago-based major midget team, a couple of scouts who had seen Byfuglien play in Minnesota contacted McClusky to gauge his interest in helping redirect the career of a skilled young player who lacked motivation.

Intrigued after Byfuglien’s initial tryout, McClusky found a host family — the Szypuras of Warrenville — willing to take Byfuglien in for his junior year at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School and promised Cheryl Byfuglien her son would be in good hands 750 miles south of home.

“My job was to get him fit and that could be a struggle,” McClusky said Thursday. “I saw a big guy who showed a passion on the ice who was a whole different person off it. I kept saying, ‘Dustin, you have to commit yourself more because you have too much damn talent to waste it.’ ” That talent has surfaced when the Hawks have needed it most during the last two series when Byfuglien again has proven to be as versatile in May as a bag of mulch.

He changed the complexion against the Canucks by moving in front of the net to fluster goalie Roberto Luongo enough to shave his playoff beard. Against the Sharks, Byfuglien’s disruptive presence on the Hawks’ top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane has been as important as his six playoff goals.

“I have confidence to stand there and read off what they are going to do, find an open area where you’re stick can get down and find the puck,” Byfuglien said.

He has created more traffic this spring than construction on the Eisenhower. When the 6-foot-4, 257-pound Byfuglien plants himself just in front of the crease, anybody who ever has sat behind a pillar at a ballpark can relate to the goalie’s obstructed view.

“He seems to be the disrupter and really comes to the forefront in the playoffs,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said.

Thrusting himself into the epicenter of a Stanley Cup run is a long way from growing up in a trailer home in Roseau, near where his mom and step-dad, Dale Smedsmo, still live.

But ask Byfuglien if he is surprised by how far he has come since those days of uncertainty, as I did Thursday, and he will respond with a stare usually reserved for goaltenders.

“Nope, not at all,” Byfuglien said. “I just kept working and working and that’s what happened. I never stopped.” Byfuglien’s improved NHL work ethic makes McClusky even prouder than his stick work. But maybe McClusky’s most touched that Byfuglien never has forgotten the lasting impact he had on his life.

McClusky named his Basset Hound “Bubba,” to reflect Byfuglien’s “real nickname before he was ‘Big Buff,’ ” McClusky said. And just three weeks ago, Byfuglien showed up to help McClusky’s ice rink open a new weight room.

“It was just something to change it up a little bit and give me a chance to change the crowd,” Byfuglien said of his year in Chicago as a teen. “It got me back on track and I ended up going straight to Canada (to the Western Hockey League) and it took off from there.” Back in Warrenville, Laurie Szypura just laughed describing the pride her family takes in seeing their former houseguest within six victories of achieving Chicago hockey immortality. Like he is on the ice, Byfuglien never was afraid to help do the dirty work around the house and “always did so with an infectious smile,” she said.

That made the year Byfuglien lived with them go as well as Szypura hoped the first day she saw her hockey-playing son, Matt, walk through the doors with his hulking new roommate.

“The only adjustment we really had to make was that I went out and bought the biggest refrigerator I could find,” Laurie said.

By the time Byfuglien returned north to resume a hockey career that eventually would lead him back to Chicago, nobody worried about his hunger anymore.