Byfuglien's a rock star in Winnipeg
KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency
|Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien fires a shot on net during practice at MTS Iceplex in Winnipeg, September 24, 2011. (Brian Donogh/QMI Agency)
WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets players who travelled to North Carolina on Saturday afternoon had one final practice at MTS Iceplex a few hours before leaving.
You didn't have to see Dustin Byfuglien to know the defenceman was on the ice.
The kids who were either showing up for their own hockey games or had just finished playing or practising on one of the other three rinks at the facility just wanted a glimpse of the big man.
"They just want to see Byfuglien," one dad said to his wife as the kids dashed into the rink.
"There's Byfuglien!" a youngster shouted after seeing him on the ice.
"Dustin Byfuglien gave him his stick!" one young man shouted breathlessly to a parent after his friend was the lucky recipient of one of No. 33's composites after the skate had concluded.
There were 23 players on the ice, but the one name that kept coming up time and time again among the fans was Byfuglien's. Yep, Big Buf has already hit rock star status in Manitoba, and he's played a grand total of one pre-season game.
Byfuglien made quite the impression when he had two big hits and a fight on his first shift in Winnipeg's 6-1 win over Columbus on Tuesday night. Even though he's facing four charges in Minnesota, Byfuglien is already Winnipeg's No. 1 celebrity.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound blue-liner agreed his popularity got a substantial boost after Tuesday's opener.
"It's definitely gone up," Byfuglien said with a smile. "It's something I'm going to have to get used to still. It's fun to be able to see the kids and have them point at you, because it doesn't feel like too long ago you were the kid pointing at players.
"It's good to see the kids enjoy it, and hopefully I can stay on top."
Byfuglien will be in the lineup on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C., when the Jets take on the Carolina Hurricanes in an exhibition clash. Even though it's only Winnipeg's third pre-season contest, Byfuglien believes the Jets can send a message against their Southeast Division rival.
"You can," he said. "You can come in and say it's going to be a grinding year, we're going to battle all year long, and it's not just going to be an easy pre-season game.
"We're going to work. It's good to get off to a good start, too. The other teams will think twice about wanting to come here or playing against you."