In his gut, Nick Bjugstad knew he wanted to return for his junior season at the University of Minnesota.
Despite the Gophers finishing atop the WCHA standings and advancing to the NCAA Frozen Four, Bjugstad wasn't satisfied the way last season finished. He felt he wasn't nearly as dominant as he was in the first half, and that left him with a sick feeling.
Still, Bjugstad went through a several-week process of deciding whether to accept a contract with the Florida Panthers or remain loyal -- his trademark -- to the only college he visited before committing after his freshman year of high school.
He got an early taste of the business side of hockey, having to endure a "pretty stressful" tug of war between the Gophers and the Panthers. He even got to experience what it feels like to be the focal point of a potential NHL trade.
"It took a while for me to put it all together, but in the end, I just went with my heart," Bjugstad said. "Ultimately, it was up to me. This was a tough place for me to leave. I watched us win two national championships under Don Lucia, and my dream has always been to win a national title here.
"In my heart, I knew this is where I wanted to stay."
The Gophers were picked to win the WCHA in the Grand Forks Herald coaches poll and sit atop the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national poll heading into this weekend's season-opening series against Michigan State. Bjugstad's decision to return has helped put them there. The ultracompetitive, 6-6, 220-pound center scored a team-high 25 goals and had 17 assists in 40 games last season, earning first-team All-WCHA honors.
That's why the Panthers wanted him to leave after his sophomore season. They envisioned their 2010 first-round pick potentially stepping into the lineup with 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Huberdeau.
"There's not a darn thing that this guy can't do," Brian Skrudland, the former Panthers captain and current director of player development, said of Bjugstad. "You hate to put comparisons out there, but there are only so many guys that were that big, as big as Mario [Lemieux], and had that gift of having a pair of soft hands like [Wayne] Gretzky, for gosh sakes. I know those are big names to compare this young man to at this point in time, but to see the tools that he has, it's just phenomenal."
But for Bjugstad, it wasn't a simple decision to leave school. He wanted to redeem a tough finish. He knew the Gophers would be stacked. He said he "looked at the pattern" of the Gophers' 2002 and 2003 national championship teams and how most players returned. He studied other Gophers who had left school early and how they performed at the next level. He knew there was the potential of an NHL lockout. And he's on track to eventually get his degree in business and marketing education.
In high school, he rejected overtures to play junior hockey in the USHL. He turned down a chance to leave his Blaine teammates for the U.S. National Team program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Then, after his sophomore year of high school, Lucia met with Bjugstad and the youngster decided to combine his junior and senior years into one so he could graduate early and immediately fulfill his lifelong dream of wearing maroon and gold.
"That was a tough decision, but this was really a whole different story," said Bjugstad, the 2010 Minnesota Mr. Hockey.
Into June, Bjugstad started to lean toward returning to school. Then, in late June, Bjugstad got wind that the Vancouver Canucks were pursuing him in a trade for goalie Roberto Luongo contingent upon signing Cory Schneider long-term. The trade talk came directly from the Canucks' brass, who wanted to know if Bjugstad planned to leave school. Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon heard about it and made clear to Bjugstad that the Panthers were not trading him.
"Draft day, I was driving and I heard the talk that I might be getting traded to Vancouver, which was really random to me," Bjugstad said. "It didn't go through, but it showed me ... it's a business. My uncle [former Gopher and North Star Scott Bjugstad] talks about it all the time. College hockey, you're playing with your buddies. ... Get to the NHL, and it's a business. It's not a bad business by any means, so I can't complain if it's my job someday."
By late June, Bjugstad essentially decided he would return to school.
"A lot of people look at me like I'm crazy with the amount of money you get offered to not take it," Bjugstad said. "The money wasn't really the issue. It was where I want to develop and what I wanted this season, and that's a national championship. I want to do this with my buddies."
Winning all that matters
Skrudland, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, respected the decision from a player he calls "good ol' humble Nick Bjugstad."
"It's disappointing in one way because you'd just love to see this guy get a Panther jersey on because you know he's going to make our team better instantly," Skrudland said. "But now he'll get an opportunity to finish what he's started."
Bjugstad played on a line last season with Zach Budish and Kyle Rau. So far in practice and Saturday's exhibition against Lethbridge, Bjugstad has skated with Rau and sophomore Christian Isackson, while Budish, the Gophers captain, has moved onto a line with Erik Haula.
"My goal is to put a full season together and just mentally develop," Bjugstad said. "The NHL is a long season, and if I want to get to that level, I've got to be mentally prepared and mentally consistent."
He's been selected by the WCHA coaches as preseason Player of the Year. He's heard his name bandied as a Hobey Baker Award contender.
"That's just talk. I don't think about it," Bjugstad said. "The only thing I think about is winning."