Bjugstad returns to Minnesota

The former Gophers star will return to Minnesota with the Florida Panthers.

Sam Kraemer

With the Minnesota North Stars already relocated to Texas, Nick Bjugstad didn’t spend too much time dreaming of playing in the NHL growing up.

His ultimate goal was playing for the Gophers, where his uncle Scott Bjugstad starred in the early 1980s.

Selected 19th overall by the Florida Panthers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Bjugstad contained his excitement for that opportunity knowing many players get drafted and never make it to the big time.

But now, he’s there.

Bjugstad, who’s in his second full season in the NHL, returns to Minnesota on Thursday night as his Florida Panthers square off against the Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center.

“My whole family will be there watching, and I’m sure my U of M buddies will be watching,” Bjugstad said. “I’m really excited.”

Though he’s no longer a rookie, Bjugstad admits the jump to professional hockey took some time — not so much physically, but more in the mental aspect of the game.

Adrenaline is always pumping for college hockey games with the relatively short length of the season, so it is important to have the right mentality in the NHL, Bjugstad said.

“You play 82 games [in the NHL], opposed to the college level where you play two every week,” Bjugstad said. “So you [have to] play smart and be aware at all times. That was probably the biggest jump for me — to just slow it down mentally.”

His new approach to the game seems to be working both on and off the ice.

He currently leads the Panthers with 18 goals, 33 points and 149 shots this season.

And on New Year’s Eve, Bjugstad signed a six-year contract extension with the Panthers, reportedly worth $24.6 million.

The Blaine, Minn., native, who enjoys fishing and trips to the beach, has transitioned nicely to life in Florida.

“I’m pretty lucky to play down here where I can head to the rink in flip-flops and shorts,” Bjugstad said. “I actually really like it, and I wasn’t sure if I’d like it right away.”

Over the All-Star break, Bjugstad spent a few days in Minnesota catching up with friends, family and the Gophers.

Gophers head coach Don Lucia said he was proud of his former player, noting Bjugstad’s new contract “will put him in pretty good position for the rest of his life.”

Lucia said he thought Bjugstad has earned his success in the NHL.

“Usually good things happen to good people, and Nick is as good as it gets,” Lucia said. “I’m just happy for him that he’s had this success.”

Bjugstad keeps in touch with his former roommate and current Gophers captain Kyle Rau, who was also drafted by the Florida Panthers.

Rau seemed impressed by Bjugstad’s modesty despite playing professional hockey. The former teammates chat on the phone about once a week.

“He’s still the same guy. All the success hasn’t changed him one bit,” Rau said.

As for Thursday’s game, it’s all business for Bjugstad, who played his first game at the Xcel Energy Center as a freshman at Blaine High School in the state tournament.

“It’s a great arena to play in. Obviously, Minnesota fans are very passionate, and that will make [Thursday] fun,” he said.