Nick Bjugstad is a true hockey phenom and the key to the Gophers' NCAA hopes.
Nick Bjugstad gets teased: "I shoot the puck quite a bit -- which I'm told to -- so the guys call me 'Tunnel Vision,' " the Gophers sophomore center said. He gets pranked: He shares an apartment with teammates, and a few Gophers veterans recently sneaked into his room, overturned his bed and dumped his clothes on the floor. He had lost the key to lock his room.
It's part of the unique skill set "Bjugey" possesses, on and off the ice. He is the Gophers' first 20-goal scorer in three seasons and a first-round NHL draft pick, but his teammates can still treat him like one of the guys. He is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with fighter's scars, but he was among the most approached -- and approachable -- players at the recent Skate with the Gophers event.
And he's often the best player on the ice, even if he doesn't act like it.
"There are shifts out there when it is just like, whoa, this kid is amazing," said freshman Kyle Rau, Bjugstad's left winger since the first day of practice this season. "Everyone in the crowd knows it. Everyone on the ice knows it."
And everyone knows this: The play of Bjugstad and his linemates will be a major factor in whether the Gophers -- in first place in the WCHA heading into an important home series against Bemidji State this weekend -- make a postseason run or finish outside of the NCAA tournament field for the fourth consecutive season. Bjugstad is tied for second nationally in goals with 21 and has a team-high 34 points, numbers that dwarf his first-year production (eight goals, 12 assists), when he missed five games because of mononucleosis.
"He had a very good second half of his freshman year," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "[Now] he is a year older, he is a year stronger."
Bjugstad has a scar on his forehead from a high stick. Another over an eyebrow. His most noticeable scar is on his chin, not from hockey but from a nasty fall on his two-wheel bike when he was a hyperactive 3-year-old.
That energy, though, translated well into hockey. Among his most influential teachers were his father, Mike, and his uncle Scott.
"My dad had me on skates when I could walk," Nick said.
Actually, his father waited until Nick was 2 1/2. "I got him an old pair of double-bladed skates, and he walked around the whole house in them," Mike Bjugstad said. "I was a little bit of a psycho hockey dad."
Nick slept with his plastic hockey stick instead of a blankie. Years later, he named the new family dog -- a black toy poodle -- Puck.
Scott Bjugstad went from Irondale to the Gophers -- he wore No. 27, like Nick -- to the NHL for parts of nine seasons, including five with the North Stars.
"Hockey is our family deal," said Mike Bjugstad, who played for Irondale and Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Mike coached Nick from age 4 to 12, mites to peewees. "I was always hard on him," Mike Bjugstad said. "It wasn't that I didn't compliment him, but I would always add something for him to work on. He was totally the opposite of me.
"He was a nice kid. He doesn't have a mean side to him. I was a real hot-tempered player and could not understand why he didn't have an edge."
When Nick was 5, his family moved to a kid's version of hockey heaven. It was a home near Blaine High School, where he later starred, with a back-yard tennis court -- ideal for in-line skating -- and an outdoor rink across the street come winter. His neighborhood buddies came over daily in the summer for roller hockey, then everyone skated to the Bunker Hills Water Park wave pool nearby.
Nick's parents divorced when he was in fifth grade, and his father stopped coaching him in sixth grade, but Nick remains close to his dad. "I can't thank him enough for all he has done," Nick said.
His mother, Janeen, tried to be the nurturing parent. She knew Nick felt bad enough after games he struggled. Janeen sensed Nick's gift for hockey early -- even though her son was stickman-thin, constantly getting hurt and always having a runny nose during games. She also provided Nick with her "tall" genes. She has a 6-5 brother and cousins who are 6-7 and 6-8, and Nick grew seven inches during his first two years of high school.
Scott, who owns a shooting school, helped his nephew with his shot and offered other hockey advice regularly. Chris Carroll, a trainer who works with the Blaine boys' hockey team, transformed Nick's ultra-thin body through weight lifting and nutrition. "He hypnotized [Nick]," Mike Bjugstad said. "He won't eat fast food -- and no pop."
Bjugstad turned down the chance to leave Blaine to join the United States national development team at Ann Arbor, Mich., for his junior/senior year. Pro scouts, including Fred Bandel of the Florida Panthers, were regulars at Bengals games that season. He accelerated his high school studies to finish a year early. Three months before college, Bjugstad was the 19th overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft, selected by thePanthers.
"I could coach another 40 years and not have another kid like him," Bengals coach Dave Aus said. "He did not think he was better than anyone else."
The hockey intelligentsia is convinced Bjugstad will leave college after this season to sign an NHL contract with the Panthers. His parents and Nick insist nothing has been decided.
"I would have no problem coming back for another year or two years," Nick Bjugstad said. "My uncle always tells me this is the most fun you are going to have playing hockey."
Janeen, who still thinks of the 8-pound, 9-ounce baby she wanted to name Bjorn (but was vetoed), says she is "not quite ready to see him go." Scott and Mike also said they hope he stays. Mike wonders whether Nick is ready for the physical NHL game. At the NHL combine before the draft, teams asked him directly: "Are you soft?"
Bandel, who will see Bjugstad 10 to 12 times this season and has noticed a player maturing physically and developing a better all-around game, is unconcerned about his toughness. "He will develop a mean streak," Bandel said. "It is always difficult to tell when someone is 100 percent ready for the NHL, but when you are 6-5 and skate like he does, his size is a tremendous advantage. His reach is incredible. He is like a condor. He covers so much ice."
Bjugstad's reach was on display in a different way earlier this month at the Skate with the Gophers event at Mariucci Arena. Every youngster seemed to want Bjugstad's autograph. He signed, then invited every one behind his table, put one long arm around their shoulders and smiled for photos.
"Nick is a great kid to be around," Gophers defenseman Mark Alt said. "And as far as living with him, he is a little bit on the messy side, but I can deal with that."
His game, for the most part, is clean. Bjugstad, second on the team in shots with 102, had his first collegiate hat trick against St. Cloud State on Nov. 19. In the past five games, Bjugstad is in a mini-slump with one goal and two assists.
"The tough thing about hockey," he said, "is figuring out why you are playing good and what you are doing. I learned this at an early age: It is a big-time mental game."
Indeed. Finding that extra edge down the stretch will be a challenge for Bjugstad, who played on three high school state tournament teams but -- to his dismay -- has never been on a state championship team at any level. His remedy for that is simple.
"A national title would be good," he said. "We have all the ingredients we need."
So does the player who hopes to take them there.
|Chicago Cubs - LP: E. Jackson||2||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - WP: V. Mazzaro||4|
|Baltimore - LP: K. Gausman||6||FINAL|
|Toronto - WP: B. Morrow||12|
|Cleveland - WP: Z. McAllister||12||FINAL|
|Boston - LP: R. Dempster||3|
|Minnesota - LP: J. Burton||6||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: J. Benoit||7|
|LA Angels - WP: J. Blanton||5||FINAL|
|Kansas City - LP: E. Santana||4|