The good, the bad & the Byfuglien: 'He's not perfect, he makes mistakes'

WINNIPEG — Dustin Byfuglien did not want to speak to reporters Tuesday. But the NHL media policy required him to be available, so the Winnipeg Jets’ staff pulled him out of the dressing room. He stood in front of a Stanley Cup playoffs curtain, back against the wall, surrounded by notebooks and recorders and cameras, and pulled a Marshawn Lynch act.

“As long as we stick together as a team,” he said, “we’ll be all right.”

That, or something close to it, was his answer to every question – from what happened with the Anaheim Ducks’ Corey Perry on Monday night to whether playing defense was different from playing forward in the playoffs. Like Lynch at the Super Bowl, he was just there so he wouldn’t get fined.

We base our perceptions on what we see and hear, and in that sense, Byfuglien has only himself to blame if the public thinks he has a lack of discipline, maturity and accountability.

Just look at recent history: He took a career-high 124 penalty minutes in the regular season. He received a four-game suspension with five games to go and the Jets fighting for their first playoff berth since moving to Winnipeg in 2011, after he cross-checked the New York Rangers’ J.T. Miller in the back of the neck. He was lucky Miller wasn’t injured and he didn’t get more – it was dangerous, as he came down on Miller viciously with all of his 260 pounds – and he was lucky the Jets made the playoffs, anyway.

After Perry scored in the second period Monday night, Byfuglien came up from behind and sucker-punched him in the back of the neck. Even if you think Perry embellished, it was a dumb move by Byfuglien. This was the first NHL playoff game in Winnipeg since 1996. The fans had been waiting 19 years for this. The Jets were trailing in the series, 2-0, and the game, 2-1. And he takes a two-minute minor for roughing, leaving his team shorthanded. He was lucky the Jets killed it.

Jets coach Paul Maurice on Byfuglien: ''I absolutely love the guy.'' (Getty)
Jets coach Paul Maurice on Byfuglien: ''I absolutely love the guy.'' (Getty)

“The penalty, he can’t take,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice.

Now, with zero points in the series and the Jets facing a 3-0 deficit, he refused to answer simple questions, let alone take ownership, let alone show leadership.

But we also have to recognize that we don’t see and hear everything. What athletes say to reporters isn’t the whole story – for better and for worse. Some guys tell us what we want to hear and are totally disingenuous. Some guys come off like jerks and are beloved behind closed doors.

I don’t know Byfuglien. So I asked Maurice if the perception of Byfuglien matched the reality. We had an honest, interesting exchange that said a lot about Byfuglien, how the Jets feel about him and how the reporter-player dynamic works sometimes. Here is an edited version:

“I think he’s got an awesome sense of humor,” Maurice said. “You won’t like that. Don’t underestimate the investment that the players make. Here’s where I’m losing this argument before it even starts.

“You’re going to find one of 650 other NHL players who would’ve handled that nicely and been contrite, and everybody would’ve thought that was good. He’s a very, very competitive man, not particularly happy about the result, more than anything else wants to win badly, did everything we asked him to do.”

Maurice pointed out that some people feel players are obligated to answer for everything because players are fortunate to be in the NHL and make so much money. Byfuglien does indeed have an obligation to be available. But just as we have the right to form our own opinions, he has the right to say whatever he wants.

“I want you to fully appreciate the number of F-bombs that he dropped on you in the back of his brain that didn’t come out, out of the sense of civility he [has],” Maurice said, smiling a little. “He’s a kind and civil and giving man, so the fact that he didn’t tell you how he really felt, I think, is mature. I’m not winning this argument. I’ll get killed for that. I don’t care.

“There’s been lots of days that I’ve come out and wanted to tell you what I’d like to invite all of you to do. It has nothing to do with you personally. It’s just, you’re not in a good mood that day, you don’t want to talk about it, somebody 3,000 miles away has told you [that] you have to do this and somebody’s getting fined and we might. But he did do what he had to do. He spoke to the media. You didn’t like the answer. He’ll probably get over that.”

The real issue, though, isn’t the answer or our feelings about it. The real issue is whether the answer reflected what Byfuglien is really like. Does he hold himself accountable behind the scenes?

“Now I’m getting my back up,” Maurice said. “How would that look, holding yourself accountable? How would a player? In your head, you have to know, because you’ve asked me to describe it to you, and I’m asking you. How does a player hold himself accountable in a room?”

Byfuglien makes some bad decisions at times but his overall impact on the Jets can't be denied. (Getty)
Byfuglien makes some bad decisions at times but his overall impact on the Jets can't be denied. (Getty)

By being upset at himself. By talking to the coach. By saying he screwed up.

“That’s a fair question, and my answer to that would be, those conversations that I have with players are private,” Maurice said. “This is a full-time job for me. I got up at 5:30 in the morning, did the video, so you can fairly assume that I’ve addressed most things that you might think I should. I also think I need to keep that private.”

Fair enough.

The key, though, is what Maurice said next. He didn’t have to say it.

“I absolutely love the guy,” Maurice said. “I’ve moved him up front, back. He scored an overtime winner against Minnesota. He keeps that room light, and he’s not perfect. He makes mistakes. I deal with them. We talk. He came out and has the right to say what he wants to you, and I’m jealous. …

“I’m glad he came out and did what he did. It’s not perfect, and sometimes things aren’t right. But that’s Dustin, and we love him.”

Hear that? Maurice loves the guy. He’s glad he did what he did. He’s jealous. That isn’t a perfunctory defense of a player. That’s an endorsement.

Byfuglien does bad things. The Jets address them. But the good outweighs the bad, and he has a defiant, bleep-you attitude that, at least in Maurice’s mind, reflects that he cares, not that he doesn’t.

Don’t like it? You don’t have to. That’s Dustin, and the Jets love him.