The Dustin Byfuglien era in Winnipeg is over, the result of a mutual contract termination with the Jets that sees the big defenceman with the even bigger personality walk away from US$14 million to face an uncertain hockey future.
“Obviously this was never our desired outcome or ending with Dustin. If it were the Jets writing the perfect script, it would’ve ended with Dustin holding a great, big silver trophy over his head at centre ice and flashing that great, big smile of his,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said Friday morning in a conference call.
“But we’re grateful for the time that we did have with Dustin here. He was a force of nature on and off the ice. He has a tremendously infectious personality that you can’t help but like the person. He played a significant role on our team for a long time.”
Byfuglien, 35, is now officially a free agent who could sign with any team for the start of next season. But that remains a long shot, since the Stanley Cup champion (with Chicago) apparently made it clear on multiple occasions he’s contemplating retirement after 935 regular-season and playoff games, including 555 with the Jets.
“There’s only one person and one person only who can answer if he’ll ever play again, and that’s Dustin,” said Cheveldayoff.
Byfuglien has yet to speak publicly, but his wife, Emily, thanked the Jets organization and the city Friday in a lengthy social-media post.
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After 8 years of playing for Winnipeg, this chapter of our life comes to a close�� �� I have nothing but gratitude towards the Jets for an amazing 8 years in Winnipeg. What an awesome experience it has been. From having our first baby here, to now raising 3 kids in this much loved community. We have grown up together and as a family here, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. The support from Winnipeggers has been overwhelming. I appreciate all of you that have reached out to me with support and kindness. No one can know for certain what their future may bring. I never thought for a second our time here would be cut short under these circumstances. The past 8 months have been the hardest of my life. I struggled to come to terms with the situation. I struggled as a wife and as a mother under the stress. I didn’t want any of it to be true. This has been the only life I’ve known for a long time, and I am beyond devastated to have to leave here. I love this city, and the people in it. I had the best 8 years of Dustin’s NHL career here in Winnipeg. I am going to miss every second of Dustin playing here. I’ll miss these amazing girls who are some of my absolute best friends. I’ll miss the schools, activities, and sports for the kids. There is just something about Winnipeg that is different. People feel like, and treat you like family, and I’m so grateful to have experienced this. I will always be a Winnipegger at heart. Thank you so much to this city and the Jets organization for everything. Xo
A post shared by ��EMILY BYFUGLIEN�� (@emily.byfuglien) on
“I have nothing but gratitude towards the Jets for an amazing eight years in Winnipeg. What an awesome experience it has been. From having our first baby here, to now raising three kids in this much-loved community. We have grown up together and as a family here, and I wouldn’t change that for the world. The support from Winnipeggers has been overwhelming,” she wrote.
“I never thought for a second our time here would be cut short under these circumstances. The past eight months have been the hardest of my life. I struggled to come to terms with the situation. I struggled as a wife and as a mother under the stress. I didn’t want any of it to be true. This has been the only life I’ve known for a long time, and I am beyond devastated to have to leave here. I love this city, and the people in it.”
Cheveldayoff shed new light Friday on the timeline of how this played out. Byfuglien first approached him on Sept. 11 — the night before training camp was going to start — with a surprising announcement.
“He informed me that he didn’t know if he had it in him to continue playing in the NHL. It was a very emotional time. It was something that I think is still somewhat of a private matter, and that’ll stay somewhat private. But it was emotional. It was tough on him to even come and talk to me,” said Cheveldayoff.
“At that time I did ask him if he wanted a trade and he said, no, it had nothing to do with a trade. He just didn’t know if he had it in him to continue playing.”
Cheveldayoff met again with Byfuglien on Sept. 21 with training camp well underway and roster decisions looming.
“He said he still didn’t want to retire but still didn’t know that he had it in him to continue to play. At that time I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to suspend you,’ and he understood and we left it at that,” he said.
The saga took another turn on Oct. 3.
“I received a phone call from his agent (Ben Hankinson) saying that he had good news, that Dustin wanted to play again but wanted to have surgery on his ankle. That was the first conversation that was any indication, one — that he wanted to play and, two — that there was some intervention with a surgery,” said Cheveldayoff, who met with Byfuglien and Hankinson at Winnipeg’s home-opener on Oct. 10 for further discussions.
Surgery was performed on Oct. 23, and Byfuglien was expecting to resume skating in mid-January with the idea of returning to play shortly after. But that never happened.
“His agent informed me that he was not going to continue with his rehab and that the ankle was healed, but that he was not going to play hockey,” said Cheveldayoff. Once again, he inquired if a trade was being requested. It wasn’t.
Meanwhile, a grievance had been filed by the NHLPA, essentially arguing Byfuglien should have been paid while injured, but no hearing was ever set. It appears the grievance didn’t have a lot behind it; Byfuglien made no mention of the lingering ankle issue when he reported for camp, Cheveldayoff said.
The matter has now been dropped. And Byfuglien’s final two years, with an annual cap hit of US$7.6 million, are off the books.
“It was a pleasure going to battle with Buff every night. I won’t miss all of the slappers he hit me with over the years, but I will miss the way you played the game, kept the room loose, and had my back for eight years. Our families will be friends for life and maybe I’ll let you take me fishing one day,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said in a social media-post Friday.
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