Cup hero Byfuglien's return looms large

CHICAGO -- They haven’t stepped on the United Center ice since June 6, 2010, when former Chicago Blackhawks’ forwards Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd helped their old team to a 7-4 victory in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Both players, dealt in a salary cap purged the team was forced to endure following a title run in 2010, return to the United Center on Thursday with the newly reformed Winnipeg Jets. Byfuglien, in particular, comes back with a larger than life imprint on the city of Chicago and the organization that selected him in the eighth round of the 2003. draft. (And it’s not just because of his physical size, which lists him at 6-5, 265.)

Known as “Big Buff,” he scored two goals and had two assists in that Game 5, but it’s his personality which is most remembered by his former teammates.

“He was the guy in the locker room who kept it loose and had fun,” Bryan Bickell said this week. “I know he’s going to have fun when he’s back here.

“He was a social guy. He didn’t turn anyone down or look at anybody differently. He kept everyone the same. He wasn’t in any groups. He was in one big group with his teammates.”

A professional locker room can be no different than a high school classroom. Sometimes there are clicks, and in the case of hockey, it can be defined by nationality. Byfuglien mixed easily with all and his personality never wavered.

“He was a fun guy every day,” Patrick Sharp said. “Win or lose. Good game or bad game. I get a lot of credit or blame for being the prankster but he was the guy behind 90 percent of it. He kept the room loose and got along with everybody.”

His laid back persona sometimes got the best of him, like when coach Joel Quenneville barked instructions during practice and Byfuglien happened to do the opposite.

“The coach would tell him to do something and he doesn’t do it,” Patrick Kane said. “He would get an ear full.”

“He always had something to say,” Sharp explained. “He’d have a smart comment for authority figures and for whatever reason everyone kind of just laughed it off where I think if I said it or someone else in the room said it we’d get in trouble. But Buff had that smile that just made you laugh.”

His folk hero status was solidified in two playoff series against Vancouver in 2009 and 2010. He became known as the “Roberto Luongo killer” for his fierce battles in front of the net. He couldn’t be moved. He has 25 points in 39 career playoff games, all with the Hawks.

But player after player wanted to relay stories of Byfuglien’s happy-go-lucky attitude, even on the ice.

“There would be times when I’m getting ready for a faceoff or whatever and he’d be yelling from the other point ‘c’mon, son. Let’s go son.’ And I’d look over and he has that big grin on his face,” Kane said.

“And with my dad he’d be up clapping in the stands and for some reason Buff would catch a glimpse and be laughing about it at the face-off circle. I would say ‘focus on the game Buff, don’t be worrying about that stuff.’”

Only on occasion would Byfuglien’s joking go too far, but even then, animosity never lasted.

“He did a lot of funny things around here and sometimes guys would get pissed at him but at the same time you couldn’t stay pissed at him because he was just Buff,” Kane said. “He did get away with a lot.”

When asked who the Hawks miss the most from their championship team many names come up but none had the combination of on-ice talent and off-ice chemistry with his teammates. The current Hawks have talked often of missing that ingredient. It will be on the ice come Thursday night.

“Buff is Buff,” Bickell said. “He was a great teammate, a good friend, and a lot of fun.”