Even though he spent the better part of his athletic career in Fort Frances, Clayton “Beef” Windigo had his brush with star power.
Windigo, who died June 27 at the age of 24 after diving from the Bears Pass bridge on Highway 11, was a member of the town’s SIJHL franchise at the time, the Borderland Thunder.
Former Thunder GM Brent Tookenay remembered how Windigo brought his humorous demeanour to a Thunder tryout with current NHL’er Dustin Byfuglien, who rose to prominence this past spring during the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run.
“This young Byfuglien kid came to skate with the Thunder,” recalled Tookenay, who added he and Windigo played together on the local Hopper’s Bruins men’s league hockey team in the winter months.
“Dustin and Ian Lockman were chirping at each other, and Dustin didn’t know Ian Lockman, so Dustin Byfuglien said to Beef, ‘You think I should fight this guy?’
“And Beef, kind of setting him up, said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, go ahead and try.’
“People will tell you that that’s one of the best fights you’ve ever seen in your life between those two guys at training camp,” reminisced Tookenay.
“That’s Beef being the joker that he is, and a good team guy. . . just trying to stir things up during training camp.”
Tookenay was a mix of emotions while telling the story, chuckling at the funny aspects of it while also choking up as the story had come up again recently when Tookenay and Windigo were playing softball together.
“We were laughing about that a few weeks ago,” Tookenay noted. “It was pretty funny because everyone knows who Byfuglien is now since the Stanley Cup playoffs.”
Windigo was a current member of both the Fort Frances Thunderhawks, the new Senior ‘A’ men’s team, and the Sight & Sound Wolves, the local Rainy River District Fastball League entry.
Wolves’ manager Derek McKinnon acknowledged his crew took the field with heavy hearts when they played at Manitou last Tuesday (June 29), but played in Windigo’s memory as they beat last-place Manitou 18-1.
“It was a little rough and it was strange not having him there,” admitted McKinnon.
“Then we played in the Barwick tournament [on Canada Day] and had a memorial there at it, and that was a little hard on the guys.
“We played our best for him, just to honour him,” McKinnon noted.
McKinnon said playing the games with intensity was the best way to pay respects on-field, imitating the style of play Windigo assumed.
“The biggest thing about ‘Beef’ is he always played hard,” McKinnon described.
“He was always going for the extra base. . . . It didn’t matter if we were way behind and if the game was done. He always played hard.
“He didn’t let up and he would always give it his all.
“He never got down or mad or anything,” added McKinnon. “He was just always in a good mood and he always kept everyone’s spirits up.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole.”
McKinnon also remembered Windigo as an easy-going guy on the bench.
“That was probably his favourite thing about the game, just laughing with the guys,” he remarked.
“I don’t think I hardly remember seeing him without a smile.”
The Wolves won the ‘B’ side of the Canada Day tournament in Barwick, with McKinnon noting the team donated the winnings to start up a trust fund for Windigo’s two young children, Riley and Brady.
That’s just the first of some ideas proposed to help the children. The team is looking at starting up a tournament next year, and the team will be selling window decals with Windigo’s #17 to help raise money, as well.
Those interested in purchasing a decal or donating to a trust fund for the children can contact McKinnon at 275-9583.
“He had his kids with him lots, and brought them out to the games, or he’d have his brother or his cousins out to watch him,” recalled McKinnon, reflecting on the importance of family to Windigo.
“He was really a family-oriented guy.”
Meanwhile, former Thunder coach Dave Allison recalled Windigo in his teenage days as a little less likely to speak. But when he did, it had an effect.
“I just saw him as a quiet warrior,” remembered Allison, who now is a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “He was tough as nails, but he carried himself with a quiet confidence.
“His smile lit up the room, and when he did speak, people listened.”
Allison also acknowledged Windigo’s ability to dispense quality advice—even if the content wasn’t an opinion that was necessarily going to be a popular one.
“You just knew that if there was an issue, you could go to ‘Beefy,’ you could ask him what was going on, and he’d look at it from both sides.
“It might not be an opinion that was comfortable with young players, but he did what was right for the benefit of the team.
“He wasn’t a ‘rah rah’ guy but if something needed to be done, he did it,” Allison concluded.
Allison also credited Windigo for taking responsibility for his actions—even if he got into a less-than-ideal situation with good intentions.
“He’d pick up other guys along the way, or he’d pick up his brother, Timmy, and he was late and never once did he complain or blame somebody else,” lauded Allison.
“We had a rule, and it was difficult because we practised so early in the morning, but if you were late, you bought doughnuts for the rest of the guys.
“One time, he got in an accident and the next day the doughnuts were there, and that’s the type of kid he was.”
On the ice, Allison said Windigo was reliable as both a forward and defenceman, easily performing the grunt work that provides the basis of successful teams.
“He was there when you needed him, whether it was getting the puck out or blocking a shot when you needed him,” Allison stressed.
“He didn’t shy away from anybody.”
Tookenay noted Windigo joined the Thunder as a 16-year-old and grew into his role on the team.
“Right off the get-go, you could see he was going to be a player,” remembered Tookenay.
“The more he played, the more confidence he got. He was a real good team leader and team player.”
When the Thunder folded after the 2004-05 season, Windigo got a fresh start with the OPJHL’s Streetsville Derbys, who hosted the Royal Bank Cup (national Junior ‘A’ championship) in 2006, so he got the opportunity to showcase his skills on the national stage.
Tookenay was glad his former player got the chance at the championship as he felt Windigo would be a key cog in a dangerous team.
“If we needed to change the momentum of the game, he was able to do that for us,” lauded Tookenay.
“He was just an all-around really good kid to have on your team.”
Off the ice, Tookenay considered Windigo to be someone to look up to for both aboriginal and non-aboriginal players since he took on the responsibility of being a relative celebrity in town, taking up offers to speak to minor hockey players during the season.
“He was also a great role model, for not only aboriginal kids but all kids in the way he conducted himself at the rink and how he held the responsibility of playing on a junior team off the ice and on the ice,” Tookenay said.
“It’s a huge loss for everybody, just being that link between the aboriginal and non-aboriginal community,” he added.
“Race wasn’t an issue with him. It was about being the best you could be, no matter what colour your skin was.
“He just conducted himself with a lot of responsibility with being a high-profile athlete in this town,” Tookenay added. “Hockey can get a little crazy with everybody, and he just did it admirably.
“He’s definitely going to be missed.”