It was magical seeing towel-waving Jets fans pack the MTS Centre for Winnipeg's first playoff game in 19 years Monday night. Still, it was a night to forget for the Jets, who blew their third straight third-period lead and lost to the Anaheim Ducks in overtime, falling behind 3-0 in the Pacific Division semifinal.
It was an especially nightmarish evening for Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who was on the ice for three of Anaheim's five goals and sucker-punched Corey Perry after Perry scored in the second period, a-la Dale Hunter's attack on Pierre Turgeon. Perry turned out to be fine, but it didn't make Byfuglien's actions any less selfish and dumb. The play was over.
So, over the past 22 days, we've seen the following acts from Dustin Byfuglien, arguably the Winnipeg Jets' best, most important player:
Exhibit A: Crosscheck on J.T. Miller, which earned Byfuglien a four-game suspension
Exhibit B: Sucker-punch on Corey Perry
Exhibit C: Tuesday's media scrum, in which Byfuglien answered every question the same, a-la Marshawn Lynch
(click here for the full interview, including the questions, which provides much better context)
What has to be extremely disheartening to the Jets and their fan base is the nature of these acts. We're not seeing a physical player lose his cool and do something he regrets because he was protecting his teammates. We're seeing isolated acts designed to serve one person: Dustin Byfuglien. The Miller crosscheck occurred away from the play, with the puck gone. The Perry attack occurred after a goal, when the play was dead. And Tuesday's media scrum portrayed Byfuglien as angry and antagonistic. It's ironic that he repeated the mantra of sticking together as a team when he was behaving like anything but a team player.
That said, Jets coach Maurice defended Byfuglien at length afterward:
"Part of it is accurate in that he’s got an awesome sense of humour. You won’t like that. Don’t underestimate the investment the players make.
"Here’s where I’m losing this argument before it even starts, you’re going to find one of the other 650 NHL players who would have handled that nicely and would have been contrite, and everybody would have thought that was good. He’s a very, very competitive man, and he’s particularly unhappy with the result, more than anything else he wants to win. So, he doesn’t like the fact that he has to speak to the media today. And, I’m reading [on] twitter, ‘guy makes so much money he should be happy to stand in front of the media and talk to them,’ and there’s a certain dynamic there between the media and some of the players that you feel there’s an absolute obligation that he has to come out and answer for everything because of the gift and the joy that it is to play professional sports, and the amount of money that a man would make, and at some point, he has the right to come out here and say that.
"I want you to fully appreciate the number of f-bombs he dropped on you in the back of his brain that didn’t come out, out of the sense of civility that he has. He’s a kind and civil and giving man, so the fact that he didn’t tell you how he really felt is maturity.
I’m not winning this argument. I’m going to get killed for that. I don’t care. There have been lots of days where I have wanted to come out and tell you what I’d like to invite all of you to do. It has nothing to do with you personally. It’s just that you’re not in a good mood that day, you don’t want to talk about it, but someone 3,000 miles away has told you 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, and you didn’t like it, and he’ll probably get over that."
You won't find sour grapes here, in the sense that the problem doesn't stem from a hurt or sting that "Big Buff won't talk to us." Nor is it about him not appreciating what he does for a living. Not every player will talk to us every time, and that's not the end of the world at all. The problem is that, by stonewalling reporters' questions on one of those occasions when he has been made available to them, Byfuglien isn't honoring the NHL's or the Winnipeg Jets' media access policy. The Jets' policy, which uses the league's standard language, states:
"True North Sports & Entertainment (TNSE) and the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club endeavor to provide members of the media with appropriate access and proper resources for the effective performance of their services and to cultivate an environment of mutual co-operation and respect."
Decide for yourself whether Byfuglien's interview provided media members with appropriate access and resources for effective performance of their services, and if mutual co-operation and respect were present.
Instead of breaking down what the Winnipeg Jets must do Wednesday night to stay alive against Anaheim, here we are discussing Big Buff's media behavior and cheap shot on Perry. A few weeks ago, as the Jets strove to make the playoffs, the scuttlebutt was about Byfuglien's suspension costing him four of his team's final five games.
The team's best player has become a distraction because of his immature behavior, and that's a shame, because he's a damn dynamic and damn entertaining player. How can we not say he's hurting the Jets as much as he's helping them at this point? And how long before his antics alienate him from his teammates? Maurice went on to pound the table about how much he loves Byfuglien. But sooner or later even Big Buff's staunchest supporters will realize he's doing things that don't serve the good of the group.
There's still time for Byfuglien to right his ship, but he must start acting on and off the ice in a manner that puts his team ahead of himself.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin