Like another former Blaine High School standout, Riley Tufte wore No. 27, won Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey award and has blonde hair atop a 6-6 frame.
But while Tufte may resemble Nick Bjugstad and be on a similar hockey trajectory, his mentor doesn’t think this is the beginning of “Nick Bjugstad, the Sequel.”
“He’s better than me,” said the 23-year-old winger, who has played in four NHL seasons with Florida after being the Panthers’ first-round draft pick (19th overall) in 2010.
Tufte is one of two Minnesotans — Kieffer Bellows is the other — who are projected as first-round picks Friday in the NHL draft in Buffalo, N.Y.
Bjugstad’s second home growing up was the Tufte household. His best friend is Riley’s oldest brother, Gavin, who was Bjugstad’s linemate since squirts. Riley is “the little brother I never had.”
And, Bjugstad recognized something special in Riley, one of four children to Amy and Jamie, at 10 years old.
“From the time he was little, he had that ‘it factor,’ ” Bjugstad said. “[Second-year] squirts, in the championship game, he scored the overtime winning goal and did a Patrick Kane celebration all the way to the red line.”
Bjugstad also witnessed that “it factor” in a painful way when Riley was 13.
“He took a slapshot from the red line. I wasn’t looking and it hit me in the back of the neck,” Bjugstad said, laughing. “I thought I got pelted by a shotgun shell. I wasn’t too happy with him, and I never let him forget it.”
“I felt so bad,” Tufte said.
As ticked off as Bjugstad was, he also was shocked a kid so young could shoot so hard.
“He was tiny, and now he’s grown into a big man,” Bjugstad said of the fellow center. “Riley’s got me beat in height, which is crazy. He was just this little kid. Now he’s just a beast.”
Tufte, 18, was about to chow down on a sandwich at a coffee shop last week. But first, he nonchalantly pricked a finger, dabbed some blood on a test strip and adjusted the insulin about to be delivered wirelessly into his right “butt cheek.”
“I’m so excited,” Tufte says. “I just got this yesterday.”
For the first time since being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 11, Tufte no longer has to give himself insulin shots. The OmniPod pump will do it for him. A sensor is worn on his “left butt cheek” to make certain his blood sugar isn’t falling too low or rising too high.
Tufte’s diabetes was diagnosed after he lost 20 pounds and could not stay hydrated. He didn’t want to get out of bed. His mother Amy, a nurse, had an inkling what was going on, and tests proved her right.
“Super bummed” at first, Tufte still remembers a meaningful letter he got from Toby Petersen, the Bloomington native who played 10 years in the NHL despite diabetes.
Petersen says he often reaches out to kids to “encourage them that while diabetes is never easy, with proper medical care and a positive attitude, it shouldn’t keep you from reaching even the loftiest of goals.”
Back at Blaine
Tufte is part of a passionate hockey family, which includes his mom’s brother, former St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl.
Tufte began last season in Fargo of the U.S. Hockey League, then returned home to score 49 goals and amass 85 points during his senior season at Blaine.
“I grew up with Blaine on my sweater, and I just wanted to play with my buddies and try to win a state championship,” Tufte said.
The Bengals came up short in the section semifinals to Maple Grove, but his dream of winning Mr. Hockey came true. Tufte then returned to Fargo and will head to Minnesota Duluth in the fall. He hopes to develop into a power forward like Blake Wheeler or his biggest influence, Bjugstad.
“He still has to grow into his body a little bit, put on some strength,” Bjugstad said. “But his skill set and his hockey sense is unbelievable. He’s really gifted in front of the net, really savvy with his stick.”
Gritty on the ice, Tufte was toughened up as the youngest of three brothers. Gavin, who played at Gustavus, is 24, Tanner is 20. Sister Tessa, a volleyball player, is 14.
Riley’s brothers always were good at letting him tag along everywhere. To this day, Gavin, Tanner and Riley share the same bedroom. So there were many wrestling matches downstairs and more than their share of emergency room visits.
“There was always something,” Riley said. “I kind of feel bad for my parents.”
One New Year’s Eve just before midnight, Riley was playing with those obnoxious three-handed “clappers.” The noise annoyed Gavin, who chucked a hockey stick across the room, Riley remembered while laughing. The blade nailed him in the head.
“I remember we brought Riley into the ER for like the fifth time in three years,” father Jamie said, chuckling at the memory. “The docs kind of look at us like, ‘What’s going on here?’ We just said, ‘He’s the youngest of three boys,’ so they got the picture.”
Draft day is here
Dad still is coming to grips with seeing his son drafted.
“I’m still trying to get my arms around playing Division I hockey this fall, so this NHL thing is surreal,” Jamie said. “Hopefully I don’t sob like a baby. I’m thinking I’ll shed some tears though. Watching him go through this process, and to see how he’s matured and grown, we’re super proud of him.”
A few months ago, Jamie lost his job of 13 years. It was very tough on his family, and even though Jamie has found another job, “it’s still nerve-racking.”
Riley says, “Someday, I’d love to help them out if I do make it to the NHL. My parents are everything to me. But right now, I’m looking at the draft as this once in a lifetime thing. I’m just trying to enjoy it and take everything in.
“But at the same time, it’s just a start. You’re just getting drafted. I still have to make it.”