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NHL playoffs: For Byfuglien, it's been a long journey

CHICAGO -- As she cheered for her son's latest "big" goal during the NHL's Western Conference finals, Cheryl Byfuglien couldn't help but think about how far her son had come.

"This is really emotional for me," Cheryl says. "Lots of tears the last month. Lots of pain actually. I burst a couple blood vessels in my hands clapping so much. I watch these games and I have such a good feeling in my stomach."

Ten years ago, Cheryl's son was flunking out of Roseau High School. Hockey had come naturally to the big teenager. It's all he wanted to do.

Yet, her son was academically ineligible to play for the storied Roseau Rams, and completely bored listening to teachers, doing homework and taking tests.

So Cheryl made the toughest decision of her life. She let her 15-year-old son move to Chicago to play midget hockey. Way back then, Cheryl never could have imagined that a Chicago Blackhawks playoff hero would emerge from that excruciating choice.

Cheryl's son is Dustin Byfuglien -- aka "Big Buff" -- and all he has done this postseason is deliver big goals by crashing the net with his linebacker-like 6-4, 257-pound frame.

He has been an immovable object. After opening the playoffs as a defenseman, Byfuglien has been downright dominant since moving to left wing on the first line with young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Byfuglien has eight playoff goals, sharing the team lead with Patrick Sharp, as the Blackhawks take on Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals. Although blanked in the Blackhawks' Game 1 victory, Byfuglien had scored in the five previous games and picked up a point in Monday night's 2-1 win against the Flyers.

He shares the league lead with four game-winners -- three coming against San Jose, including the Game 3 overtime winner and Game 4 series clincher. If he scores clutch goals in the Finals, Byfuglien could be a contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the playoff MVP.

"I just asked him, 'Are you for real?" Cheryl said, proudly. "He just laughed. He's so humble."

Hometown pride

The limelight is shining brightly on Byfuglien, 25, something to which he's still getting accustomed.

"So far it's all right," he said. "It's something as a kid you don't think about. Now that it's here, it's definitely a change and good experience. Usually it's a little easier for me to fade in the background, but right now, I can't."

As for Cheryl, she couldn't be prouder. As a kid, Dustin wasn't known as the notorious "Big Buff." He was "Dust," or "Pain in the Butt," Cheryl said, laughing.

Dustin was a quiet, shy child, one who grew up living in a trailer behind his grandparents' home. Cheryl, a former forklift operator at the Polaris snowmobile factory, had to get bank loans to buy Dustin hockey equipment.

She once bought him an $80 aluminum shaft at True Value Hardware. She needed to pay it off in two installments. He wasn't allowed to break that shaft, and to this day, "I still have it."

What really warms Cheryl's heart is the people of Roseau, a town of 2,800 that sits 10 miles from the Manitoba-Minnesota border. Residents are so excited with Byfuglien's success, they honk their car horns at Cheryl if they see her on the street.

"They make me smile. That's where I get this big grin from," said Cheryl, 46. "I want to do a little dance."

'Silent prejudice'

It wasn't always this way though. Born in Roseau as the seventh of nine children to Kenny and Crystal, Cheryl Byfuglien, a white woman, moved to St. Cloud. There she met a St. Cloud State football player named Rick Spencer, who was black.

Together, they had Dustin. Rick and Cheryl never married, and eventually Cheryl moved home to Roseau.

"Dustin's really a rags-to-riches story," said Cheryl's boyfriend, Dale Smedsmo, 59, a Roseau hockey legend who played in the old World Hockey Association and is basically Dustin's stepfather. "It wasn't very well-accepted at first -- a homegrown girl, a single mom, coming home with a colored baby.

"She's kept it together really well, and so has he," said Smedsmo, referring to "silent" prejudice. "Small communities can be pretty nasty at times."

Hooked on hockey

Byfuglien's second home from the time he was 3 was Roseau's Memorial Arena. For more than 10 years, he would skate until he could barely walk.

"I wanted nothing to do with school though," he said.

"One day I was like, 'Dustin, what's going on? What can we do?'" Cheryl said. "He didn't cause problems. He just wouldn't apply himself, wouldn't talk, wouldn't study. Finally, I was like, 'We have to do something.' That's when life turned. We turned toward hockey. He moved to Chicago."

In Chicago, Byfuglien played midget hockey for an elite youth team that traveled throughout North America and attracted scouts from Canadian major junior leagues.

"I've told her over and over, she made the decision that absolutely made him what he is today," Smedsmo said. "It took a lot of courage."

Byfuglien eventually played for Prince George of the Western Hockey League, and that's when Smedsmo discovered how good he was.

"Cheryl and I took Grandpa Kenny up to Prince George, and I remember I sat by myself and watched two games," Smedsmo said. "I came back to Roseau and people asked me and I said, 'This kid's the real deal. He's going to go a long way and make a lot of money.'"

Byfuglien is now a $3 million-a-year hockey player, but even with Smedsmo's forecast, there was tough love along the way. Smedsmo owns D & E Sports Shop in Roseau, and Byfuglien worked at his shop during the summers.

"The first year I had to wake him up every day," Smedsmo said. "I'm a tough businessman, and I would give him heck. That cell phone, I absolutely hated it. It went into the Dumpster once."

Smedsmo still loves that Byfuglien had to climb in to retrieve it.

Changing his ways

Byfuglien also had a reputation of being lazy, not committed and overweight. His weight soared to 287 pounds in Prince George.

"It was just the way he lived," agent Ben Hankinson said. "He'd get up at noon, have some fun up in Roseau, go hang out with his buddies, play some hockey. He'd go to bed at 2 o'clock in the morning after having a steak dinner and some eggs and probably a lot of adult beverages and do it all over again the next day.

"So," Hankinson said, laughing, "It was pretty easy to figure out what the problem was."

Hankinson set Byfuglien up with a nutritionist, and former NHLer and fellow agent Chris McAlpine began training Byfuglien. Undoubtedly, there's been maturing. He eventually earned a GED.

"When he was young, if you could get him to say hello to you and look at you at the same time, you were doing well," Smedsmo said. "And it wasn't because he was a little snot. He was just shy. He just didn't have self-confidence. But between 17 and 18, he came back from Prince George and the confidence oozed out of him. That's why we're so proud he's evolved into this star and celebrity from where he was as a young kid."

Cup to Roseau?

The Blackhawks are two victories from their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years. If they win, Byfuglien, taken after 244 other players in the 2003 draft, will spend his day with Cup in Roseau and on Smedsmo-owned Brush Island in Lake of the Woods.

Neal Broten is the only Roseau native to win the Cup, but he didn't bring it back. So this could be the first time the Stanley Cup is in Roseau.

"It's a town of 2,500. I bet it will be 10,000 for a day," Smedsmo said.

"I think more," said Byfuglien, especially when one considers his grandparents have 21 grandchildren and 25 great grandkids alone.

Imagine if the kid who never got to play for the Roseau Rams returns home with hockey's most cherished trophy.

"His dream was to play his senior year against Warroad," Cheryl Byfuglien said. "His dream never came true. But I think this is a big dream."

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