Byfuglien has found emotional side
VANCOUVER -- As Chicago Blackhawks forward Dustin Byfuglien skated along the boards Wednesday night, staring at opposing fans with his hands raised and mouth open to celebrate his second goal of the game, the emotional connection was felt more than 1,000 miles away in the tiny town of Roseau, Minn.
Dustin's mother, Sheryl Byfuglien, and stepfather, Dale Smedsmo, enjoyed seeing their son play with such emotion.
"For some reason, when he gets to Vancouver he lets it all out," Sheryl said via phone on Thursday. "I wasn't surprised he got like that.
"I liked it because he's a laid-back kid, like mama. We don't get mad. I like the fact that he shows he has [emotion]. It's good for him."
Smedsmo, who had a short stint in the NHL, playing a total four games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1972, admired the emotional evolution of his stepson.
"He's gone from a kid so quiet he'd hardly say hello, to a fun-loving and personable man," Smedsmo said. "It almost brings tears to my eyes."
Smedsmo knows all too well about Byfuglien's laid-back style. Dustin used to work for him at his sporting goods store in Minnesota.
"When I first met him, he was so lazy I wanted to give him a kick in the butt," Smedsmo recalls. "I had to get him out of bed.
"I threw away his cell phone. I was hard on him, but I have nothing but admiration for him."
Byfuglien doesn't disagree with Smedsmo's memory.
"Who wanted to go to work, right?" Byfuglien said with a smile Friday morning. "I knew I wasn't going to do that for my life. I was a kid. I didn't want to get up for work. Yeah, he dragged me there, but I went and slept somewhere else when I got to work."
There were 244 players taken ahead of Byfuglien in the 2003 draft. Despite his size and abilities -- he's 6-foot-3, 246 pounds -- there were still doubts he could play at the NHL level.
His agent, Ben Hankinson, recalls talking with then-Hawks brass Bob Pulford and Mike Smith about Byfuglien. They expressed concerns about his attitude, but not because he was a bad guy. They wondered if his commitment would be there. It goes back to that persona.
"Buff has a perfect blend of not taking himself too serious," Hankinson said. "It's never about him. He'll always turn the attention to someone else."
After watching Game 3, Hankinson thinks Vancouver has stirred something up in Byfuglien.
"The biggest danger is they woke up a sleeping giant," he said. "If you push him too far, he'll push back. He's not afraid of anybody."
Byfuglien's mother and stepfather don't disagree, and the celebration after his second goal indicated a fire had been lit. Byfuglien went on to complete a hat trick in the Hawks' 5-2 win.
"I never thought I'd see that [kind of celebration] from Dustin," Smedsmo said. "That's about as much emotion as I've ever seen. We loved it."
"It was pretty emotional for me," Sheryl continued. "[During the Hawks' 4-2 win in Game 2], I popped some blood vessels in my hands from clapping so much, so it hurt every time Dustin did something well."
Dustin understands the response to his celebration.
"People like it when I do things like that," Byfuglien said. "I guess because I'm laid-back."
Like all players, Byfuglien appreciates the family backing.
"You always know you have the family support," he said. "It's always a nice thing to have, obviously. You know you get the phone calls, and Mom gets a little emotional, so it's funny."
And the call after Game 3?
"I woke them up because I waited so long," Byfuglien said. "Just a quick congrats, and that was it."
Byfuglien's biological father wasn't around while he was growing up, so it fell to his mother and his grandfather to raise him until Smedsmo entered the picture when Dustin was 13. His grandpa is as proud of him as anyone.
"Grandpa was my partner," Sheryl explains. "He's gotten a lot of phone calls from all over. He must have called me three times telling me who's called. He's pretty proud. He hasn't left his kitchen counter."
Sheryl says she "never dreamt" her son would walk in the house one day and say he wants to be a professional hockey player. She remembers when he decided to get serious about it and began to work for that goal.
Byfuglien sees it slightly differently.
"I probably wouldn't say I flipped the switch from lazy mode to work-hard mode, I just switched it from lazy to maybe just work a little bit more," Byfuglien joked.
Either way, his mom became a believer.
"I watch every game," Sheryl said. "Even if we're out of town, I make Dale drive me somewhere to watch."
One of the first things people notice about Byfuglien is his size.
"[Thursday] at the grocery store, a woman asked how much does he really weigh? And you know what, we don't know," Sheryl said.
When he first came up, playing near Vancouver for Prince George in the Western Hockey League, Byfuglien weighed close to 280 pounds, or more. He was the biggest defenseman in the league, by far, but at that weight his skating was suspect. Now, his versatility is eliminating many doubters.
There aren't many players who have been able to make a midseason -- and sometimes midgame -- transition from offense to defense, and back again, the way Byfuglien has done this season. Earlier this season, Byfuglien said he prefers defense. What does his biggest fan say?
"Defense, for sure," Sheryl said emphatically. "He gets more ice time and has the puck more."
"Kane and Toews tell me to hold on the puck, and then they yell at me to get rid of it," Byfuglien joked. "I just go out there and play and not worry about anything."
Byfuglien has tried to lay low since his Game 3 performance. He said he has stayed in his hotel room in Vancouver but did go out for a walk Thursday morning.
"An older lady chased me down for a while [Thursday]. It was pretty funny," he said. "She just pulled on my shirt and just wanted to say 'Hi,' and, 'You did a good job last night.' That sort of thing."
Byfuglien was asked if he's enjoying the spotlight.
"It's not too often you can be in the spotlight, like Kane and Toews," he said. "So might as well take it and stay with it."
A typical laid-back response.
Jesse Rogers covers the Blackhawks for ESPNChicago.com.