Odeen Tufto spent a good portion of his youth in 3M Arena at Mariucci, taking advantage of his family's season tickets to Gophers men's hockey games. He also attended Minnesota's model camps for three years and has quite the collection of maroon-and-gold hockey sweaters.
"Until I was 14, I was the biggest Gophers fan ever,'' he said. "I have signed jerseys from Danny Irmen, Ryan Potulny, Gino Guyer. It was my dream to play for the U, but obviously dreams change. "
The change of dreams, it turns out, is working out well for Tufto, a senior forward at Quinnipiac whose 27 points and 23 assists lead Division I men's hockey. The senior captain is riding a 12-game point streak and has helped the Bobcats compile a 10-4-1 record and earn the No. 10 ranking in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll.
"He's gotten better every year,'' Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said.
Long route to Connecticut
So, just how did Tufto, a Chaska native and former St. Thomas Academy standout, not only not end up with the Gophers but also not with any of Minnesota's four other Division I teams? The answer, at least partly, is in his 5-foot-7 stature. Though Tufto collected 63 points in 25 games as a senior for St. Thomas Academy, he had only one college offer.
"There are definitely college coaches and pro coaches that don't like small players. It is what it is,'' said Pecknold, who's guided the Bobcats to NCAA runner-up finishes in 2013 and '16. "Obviously, we don't have that obstacle, and we've done very well with them.''
Pecknold's assistant, Billy Riga, liked what he saw from Tufto during Minnesota's Fall Elite League. When Tufto spent the 2015-16 season with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League, Pecknold scouted him at a league showcase.
"Billy gave me a few names, and one of them was Peter Tufto. 'I think he fits how we play. He's very similar to Sam Anas. We've had a lot of good, highly skilled small players who do well in our system. Take a good, long look at him,'' ' Pecknold recalled. "I remember when I got there, it was Odeen Tufto, and I could do the math, 'Did he change his name?' I loved him. He was dynamic, has a unique ability to create time and space for himself, which is something you just can't teach.''
Tufto's parents called him by his middle name, Peter, but he switched to his given first name, Odeen, which also is his paternal grandfather's name, after high school.
After a season in Vernon in which he had 25 goals and 40 assists in 57 games, Tufto moved on to the USHL, where he had a combined 16 goals and 32 assists for Fargo, Tri-City and Sioux City in 2016-17. That improvement caught the attention of more colleges, but Quinnipiac was his choice.
"I took a couple of visits, Quinnipiac being one of them, and it was kind of like, that fit,'' he said. "A lot of guys say that in the recruiting process, one place sticks out to you, and that was Quinnipiac for me.''
The fact that Quinnipiac has had success with shorter forwards helped, too. The 5-8 Sam Anas amassed 132 points in three seasons with the Bobcats before spending four years with the Wild's AHL team. The 5-7 Travis St. Denis collected 125 points in four seasons at the Hamden, Conn., school.
"It just spoke for itself with all the numbers they put up and all of them signing NHL contracts,'' Tufto said. "Being around the same height and weight I was coming into college, it just made sense with how much they flourished and how I could fit in.''
Four years of production
Tufto has produced from the start at Quinnipiac, with 41 points as a freshman, 42 as a sophomore and 38 as a junior. He was named the Hockey Commissioners Association national player of the month for December, when he had three goals and 14 assists.
Pecknold sees Tufto's game growing. He started his college career as a winger but now plays center and has won 64.3% of his faceoffs this season.
"We're still on him to keep working on his defense and working on being a 200-foot player,'' Pecknold said. "He's getting there. The thing I sell him on is when you work hard in the defensive zone, you get to go play offense.''
As his stats show, Tufto has no issue with his offensive game, something to which his home-state schools weren't ready to commit in 2015.
"I don't know what I did wrong or what I didn't do right to earn interest, but that's the way it goes,'' he said. "… It would have been pretty cool to be a Minnesota kid and stay in Minnesota, but that's just the way things go in hockey.''