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It took all of five seconds for Dustin Byfuglien to win the hearts of hockey fans in this province.
The date was Sept. 20, 2011. The puck had just dropped on the first pre-season home game in the 2.0 era of the Winnipeg Jets and No. 33 wasted absolutely no time announcing his presence, catching poor Matt Calvert in the trolley tracks right off the opening draw.
You couldn't have scripted a better first impression as Bell MTS Place came unglued. A star was definitely born that night, a larger-than-life presence who would dish out plenty more big hits and highlights over the next eight years while becoming one of the most unique, most beloved athletes we've ever seen around these parts.
I bring this all up today as a reminder to all those who now want to cast Byfuglien as the villain, the result of an contract ongoing saga with the Jets that finally concluded on Friday. Sadly, his time with the Jets ended not with the bang of his initial debut, but with a whimper.
There was a short media release from the team, the NHL and the NHLPA that sounded like it was written by lawyers and announced a mutual termination. There was a telephone scrum with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, where his side of the story was explained in detail. And, not surprisingly, there was nary a word from Big Buff himself, which is just the way he likes it.
As the story goes, Byfuglien deserves ridicule and scorn because he turned his back on the team during training camp last fall, taking his puck and going home and leaving Cheveldayoff in the most precarious position — with a gaping hole on his already depleted blue line and no ability to immediately fix it heading into a most important season for his club.
Forgive me if I have a hard time painting anyone who willingly walks away from US $14 million as selfish. True to form, Byfuglien remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma to the very end.
There's no question his timing wasn't great, but as the old saying goes, the heart wants what the heart wants. In the case of Byfuglien, his apparently no longer wanted to play professional hockey.
He was 34, coming off a frustrating season in which he suffered three different injuries and missed half the games. Byfuglien was butting heads at times with captain Blake Wheeler, the other alpha male in the room. He already had a Stanley Cup ring from 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks, had pocketed more than US$50 million in career earnings, had a wife and three young kids at home, and is known for enjoying some of the simpler things in life, such as fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.
In other words, it's easy to understand why Byfuglien might consider hanging up his skates.
If Byfuglien was truly the self-absorbed egomaniac that some now want to paint him as, the easy thing to do would have been to report to camp, keep cashing his hefty cheques and go through the motions, likely on the injured list the majority of the year. Or, demand a one-way ticket out of town.
But as Cheveldayoff noted on Friday, this clearly wasn't about the money. Nor was it about finding a fresh start in another NHL city, something the GM said he broached with Byfuglien and his agent on multiple occasions. Byfuglien loved it here, which he proved in 2016 when he signed a five-year contract extension rather than hitting the open market that summer as a prized free agent.
"Dustin's choice was to be true to himself and not put himself and maybe the team and everybody in a difficult situation. If he really didn't have it in him to continue to play, that's probably the most honest thing that he could say," said Cheveldayoff.
In that sense, this was truly a case of Buff being Buff, a phrase I've heard many times around the team over the last few years. It typically spoke to him dancing to his own beat.
"Dustin's choice was to be true to himself and not put himself and maybe the team and everybody in a difficult situation. If he really didn't have it in him to continue to play, that's probably the most honest thing that he could say." — Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff
We saw that on the ice when he'd enter a scrum and single-handedly pull out two, or more, opposition players on his own. We saw that when he'd sit in the penalty box singing along to the arena music. I'd see that when he'd reject interview requests by the club's PR staff, who were powerless to convince him otherwise and often told where they could go if they tried to get him to change his mind.
And now we're seeing it one last time. The fact he hasn't filed retirement papers at least leaves the door open for an NHL return next season, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that happening.
"Dustin played the game and a lot of times played it on his own terms. In this situation here, he did things on his own terms again," said Cheveldayoff.
During this soap opera, there's been an inclination to want to draw a line in the sand and take sides. In my eyes, no legacy has been tarnished here, nor should it be.
Byfuglien's US$7.6-million cap hit will be a valuable asset for Cheveldayoff going forward, either to try to add to his roster or hang on to some of the valuable assets he has, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic threatening to bring the salary cap tumbling down.
The big defenceman's absence also allowed for the emergence of other Jets this past season, with Neal Pionk and Tucker Poolman both benefiting directly. And the Jets almost seemed to use the adversity of Byfuglien's situation, along with countless other things that happened in the course of this season, to rally around as part of their "stay in the fight" motto.
For local hockey fans, Byfuglien provided countless priceless memories, beginning with that memorable first shift on that magical night at the downtown rink. He gave the Jets his all, until his heart wasn't in it anymore. Don't begrudge him for that.
At some point down the road, I expect to see Byfuglien flashing that trademark cheeky grin as he stands on the ice soaking up a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, watching his jersey deservedly get raised to the rafters along with other franchise greats while a package of his greatest hits plays on the screen.
After winning so many hearts around here, there's no doubt Byfuglien has now broken more than a few as well. But as the great Dr. Seuss once said, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Saturday, April 18, 2020 at 3:20 PM CDT: Clarifies first pre-season home game.
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