It took all of four seconds for Dustin Byfuglien to tattoo himself on the brains and hearts of Winnipegers.
He did it in the first shift of the first pre-season game played by the Jets 2.0 when the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defenceman hammered Matt Calvert of the Columbus Blue Jackets with a thundering hit. Seconds later he dropped Tomas Kubalik. Moments after that he ended his shift by dropping the mitts and rag-dolling Cody Bass.
The arena exploded. Jets fans went mad. It was love at first sight.
Byfuglien created more excitement in that first shift of an NHL pre-season game than the city’s previous 15 years of AHL and IHL hockey. No disrespect to those leagues or the players therein, but Winnipegers were in a better position than anyone to discover the difference between the minors and “the big league.”
“The big league” contains the type of skill, achievement and superhuman strength that elevates athletes to the status of Gods among men. And when Byfuglien put on that Jets jersey, the Gods trembled.
I’ve always marvelled at the way opponents talked about Byfuglien. No one ever bad mouthed him. Even boxer Mike Tyson took lip from the likes of Peter McNeely in an attempt to make a name for themselves. No one dared with Byfuglien.
I once asked Washington’s TJ Oshie if he had played against Byfuglien as a kid. Oshie grew up in Warroad, Minn., just 26 minutes down the road from Byfuglien’s hometown of Roseau. The two were just a year apart in age.
He paused slightly to ponder the question, a far away look creeping into his eyes. A wistful smile grew on his face.
“No,” he said. “I never got to play him as a kid. But I grew up hearing the stories. The mountain of a hockey player who could skate like the wind.”
The way Oshie said that sounded as though he was speaking of a myth. Like Paul Bunyan come to life.
And that’s what it will sound like when you tell your kids stories about Byfuglien. The man who grabbed two professional athletes at once and shook them like they were unruly school boys. The playful giant was so in control of the play he could pause amidst a puck battle to mug for the camera on the other side of the glass. He was a force of nature who could hit tough guys like 6-foot-4, 233-pound Luke Gazdic and launch them in the air like a helicopter propeller.
In Byfuglien it was clear you were witnessing a player the likes of which had never been seen before. Whenever he decides to hang up the skates and announce his retirement, whether that comes this year or after a return to another team, his type will never be seen again.
In this ugly divorce that took months to unfold, I’ve seen many speculate Byfuglien’s exit from the Jets will forever tarnish him in the eyes of Manitoba’s sports fans; that he’s fallen from the pantheon of the Jets greats.
I don’t buy it.
Sports resonate and lives on through iconic imagery. We remember it in tiny moments. Like GIFs. Bobby Orr diving through the air. Mario Lemieux splitting the D.
It’s no different in Winnipeg. Teemu Selanne shooting his glove out of the air. Dale Hawerchuk’s 50th goal on a spin-o-rama backhander. But in the end there’s no Jet, past or present, who gave us a higher volume of lasting imagery than Byfuglien.
One of my favourites has nothing to do with goals, hits, fights, celebrations or penalty-box-sing-alongs. It was Oct. 9, 2011, Winnipeg’s first regular season game. The players were introduced to the fans, one by one, gathering at the centre ice circle. Around them rained down adoration in thunderous cheers so loud it shook the ribs in your chest. It was joyous. It was magical. It was cathartic. It was deafening.
It was Winnipeg at its best.
In that moment Byfuglien looked up at the crowd with an awed smile. That wonder in his eyes, that figurative tip of the cap meant something. It gave Winnipegers permission to realize the city and its fans aren’t just another hockey crowd; they are something special. They’ve known it ever since.
Break-ups are the worst. And let me tell you Jets fans, if Byfuglien does put on another NHL jersey, it’s going to hurt. And it should. Because when he was a Jet he gave you everything he had. And you loved him for it.
Would it have been better to watch him play out his contract and ride off into the sunset? Of course. But as the saying goes: it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.