March 12, 2012
The Byfuglien phenomenonCamera-shy Jet huge hit with fans
By PAUL FRIESEN, QMI Agency
WINNIPEG - The WHA edition had Bobby Hull. The early NHL edition, Dale Hawerchuk, the later one, Teemu Selanne.
Each Jets era had its own icon, that instantly recognizable face that strikes a chord with fans from eight to 80.
Is there any doubt who carries that handle for the NHL Jets, V. 2.0?
There wasn’t at the Tuxedo Park Shopping Centre on the weekend, when hundreds of fans lined up for hours for a chance to meet defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
Considering how little this event was publicized, it was quite a turnout. Then again, the lack of publicity suited the occasion just fine.
Byfuglien is the reluctant superstar, as uncomfortable in a media scrum as he’d be in a Mini Cooper.
But park the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder at a table, eye-to-eye with a young fan, and he looks as natural as he does on a pair of skates.
“He looked right into my eyes and talked to me,” 12-year-old Luke Cockerill said after getting an autograph and picture. “It’s so cool to be that close to somebody who’s actually played in front of so many people.”
Byfuglien may have played in bigger cities, but it’s safe to say he’s never endeared himself to the locals quite like he has, here.
After getting off on the wrong foot with Winnipeggers, his first big headline a run-in with the law on a Minnesota lake, he took full advantage of a second chance to make a first impression.
If ever there’s been a debut shift with staying power, it was Byfuglien’s first as a Jet, a rock ’em, sock ’em pre-season twirl that would have made Don Cherry proud.
Never mind that he hasn’t dropped the gloves, since.
Ask fans why Byfuglien is the man, and they inevitably mention his brawn.
It’s not just the boys who get a kick out of the big guy, either.
Scott Cawson, 39, got Byfuglien to sign an autograph for his better half.
“Happy wife, happy life,” Cawson explained. “That’s her favourite player.”
Cawson came to the signing with his 14-year-old son, Malik.
“There’s just something about him that lots of people like,” the kid said. “He’s a very likable player.”
“He’s got personality to him,” dad added. “In Winnipeg we heard a lot about swagger last year, with the Bombers. He’s got swagger. He’s got what hockey fans like.”
Others say there’s not an ounce of cockiness to Big Buff.
“He’s a lot like Winnipeggers,” 30-year-old James Smith said. “Down to earth. We’ve tried to get autographs from other players, and they’re not all like that.”
Even in the Jets dressing room, No. 33 is a hit.
Monday, forward Jim Slater tried to explain the Byfuglien phenomenon.
“He’s got that personality about him,” Slater began. “He’s pretty easy to spot, too. He’s one of those guys that’s really carefree and just enjoys the game, enjoys life. I don’t know. People just feel a connection with him.
“In the locker-room, he’s just a very likable guy. He’s always talking, making guys feel really welcome.”
Like he did in that three-hour autograph line, Sunday.
“I don’t like standing in line for anything,” Harv Penner, a Harley-riding grandpa, said after getting Byfuglien to sign his jersey. “I like his personality. I like the glove in the face stuff. A no-crap type of attitude.”
Even Byfuglien’s flaws seem perfect for us.
After all, who does like a bunch of cameras and microphones in their face? Who hasn’t made mistakes?
And who doesn’t feel like taking the puck and going end to end with it, damn the consequences?
Byfuglien will leave jaws dropping and heads shaking, drawing praise and ridicule — sometimes on the same shift.
He’s imperfect as hell. A big-time player, with a small-town, laid-back attitude.
Until the puck drops.
Then you don’t want to miss a shift.
“He could stay back a bit more,” Cockerill, the 12-year-old, allowed, a tad sheepishly.
Actually, he did.
Half an hour past the end of his planned signing session, Byfuglien was still at it.
The lineup was shrinking.
His fan club wasn’t.