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Panthers' Bjugstad building career on character

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers

Jim Johannson had limited expectations prior to getting his first extended look at Nick Bjugstad in the summer of 2011.

To this day, Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, is amazed at how Bjugstad can transform into a competitive beast when he steps on the ice.

"He was a great kid to be around, almost too nice a guy," Johannson said. "You start to ask yourself, 'How can this guy be such a competitor?' He's the first guy opening doors for people, saying 'Please' and 'Thank you.'"

Johannson said the management team for USA Hockey was excited to see Bjugstad among his peers at the U.S. National Junior Team development camp three summers ago.

"We were all asking, 'Where does Bjugstad fit?'" Johannson said.

The camp traditionally serves as a launching pad for the team selected to represent the United States at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship.

"It was really our first chance to see him at a higher level (after one season at the University of Minnesota)," Johannson said. "Within a day we were saying, 'Wow. This is a good player,' and instead of asking where he fits, we were figuring out how to build around him."

Johannson's story begs the question: Is Nick Bjugstad a hockey version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? How does he get away with being so kind and courteous and then such a pain in the neck once he suits up as a top-two center for the Florida Panthers?

Bjugstad, 22, has vowed to maintain his deep-rooted ties with family and friends while competing at hockey's highest level. As tough as it may seem to juggle both, he's proven capable of repeatedly defying the odds.

He's an accomplished fisherman, a better-than-average golfer, and has enjoyed time at the beach since joining the Panthers while dedicating the majority of his waking hours to perfecting the skills necessary for his profession.

Bjugstad, 6-foot-6, 218 pounds, led the Panthers in points (38) and game-winning goals (4) as a rookie last season. This season, he is again among their main offensive weapons.

Yet Bjugstad can't understand why hockey fans flock to him for an autograph or picture. He couldn't rationalize why the NHL selected him as the Panthers' player representative during the League's media tour at its New York office prior to the season.

The fact the NHL brain trust considers him a workmanlike role model for future young players hoping to make it big one day would surprise only him.

"To me, he's a better person than he is a hockey player and that's a good thing," said Bjugstad's uncle, Scott Bjugstad, who played in the NHL from 1984 to 1992. "Go ahead and talk to people he's dealt with in high school and college and now pro, they'd probably tell you the same thing."

That is saying something, because Bjugstad is already one heck of a hockey player.

"He dominated in college when he had the puck and you really couldn't appreciate how good a skater he was unless you were on the ice with him," said Kyle Rau, Bjugstad's roommate at the University of Minnesota. "He's one of the fastest skaters I know."

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon had Bjugstad in his sights from the moment the pair met.

"He had size, speed, ability, a great shot and we loved his character," Tallon said. "He's a great kid. He's willing to learn, is a sponge and wants to get better."

Though the cameras and recorders might sometimes be overwhelming, Bjugstad has learned to take them in stride. There may come a day when he has the urge to become vocal in the locker room, but that likely won't happen this year, or next.

"When I was the older guy in high school and college, I did some talking, so I'm not completely quiet, but I'm not very vocal either … I'm kind of in the middle," Bjugstad said.

Bjugstad, who made $900,000 last season on his entry-level contract, continues to drive a used Chevy Tahoe that he and his grandfather picked out almost two years ago.

"It's the first car I've ever really had; the other car I had was a family car in college," he said.

It's a small window into the humility that makes Bjugstad special to those around him.

"He was always a coachable guy, humble; his parents did a really good job with him," said Dave Aus, Bjugstad's high school coach at Blaine (Minn.). "He never saw himself better than any of his teammates even though he clearly was better."

Bjugstad's love and desire to be the best on the ice never took away from his focus on academics. Bjugstad took cramming to a new level when he accelerated his studies in high school with summer classes and online courses to enter to the University of Minnesota a year early. He finished college in three years with a degree in business marketing to help speed up his signing with the Panthers in April 2013.

That's a workload which could make the average student-athlete go insane, but not Bjugstad.

"Me and my family emphasize that school is important because you can't play hockey your entire life," Bjugstad said. "I did summer schools for about four or five years straight and was able to finish and walk with my class (in the spring of 2014). It was exciting for me to receive that degree."

It was University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia who first suggested to Bjugstad that he should consider accelerating his academic career because he was considered a top prospect for the 2010 NHL Draft and was likely to sign a professional contract prior to his senior year.

"It made me feel really good to see Nick get his degree and walk with his class," Lucia said. "He was always smiling and his glass was always half-full. Right from the very beginning, you knew this was a nice young man to be around, and hard-working, the type of person you want to see good things happen (to)."

The Great State of Hockey

Bjugstad was born and raised in Blaine, a suburb 13 miles outside Minneapolis.

"It's a big hockey town and there are a lot of rinks and tradition with high school hockey since guys like Matt Hendricks and David Backes grew up in those towns," Bjugstad said.

He'd play roller hockey with his neighborhood friends on a backyard tennis court and recalled pushing a chair to maintain balance while learning to skate as a 3-year-old at Fogerty Arena.

"Me and my buddies used to go up there all the time and I remember a few times crying just because my parents wouldn't let me go," he said. "I had to do homework, but I thank them for that now."

The backyard hockey games weren't always clean -- fighting made a daily appearance -- but the neighborhood kids enjoyed that stuff. Surprisingly, so did Bjugstad.

"I think it made us better hockey players being able to play a lot of street hockey and working on our off-ice skills," Bjugstad said.

His pride in where he was brought up and the values it instilled in him is palpable. In the Florida dressing room, he regularly rehashes high school and college memories.

"I love everything about Minnesota and I think eventually one day I'll end up trying to coach a high school team there," he said.

Bjugstad became the only player from Blaine High School to win the Mr. Hockey Award as the most outstanding senior in Minnesota. He finished that regular season with 29 goals and 60 points in 25 games when Blaine went 21-6-3 and won the Section 5AA championship in March 2010.

"When he started out he was only about 5-foot-10, but he left Blaine at about 6-4," Aus said. "Only a unique individual can enter high school as a kid and leave as a man as skilled as he was for his size."

Bjugstad credits his mother's side of the family for his build.

"He has the natural frame but worked hard to put on muscle and strength; he could have been a football, basketball or even a good tennis player," Aus said.

Bjugstad is grateful to Aus and the Blaine coaching staff for helping transform his body into a machine made for college hockey.

"They taught me the importance of weight training and nutrition, and that's what set our team apart from others around the area," Bjugstad said. "Summer now signals to me the beginning of hard work off the ice since that's what I've been told to do since the ninth grade."

Those high school lessons came to good use at the University of Minnesota for coach Lucia.

"He had some growing up to do from a maturity standpoint, and I don't mean that in a bad way, but in a naive sort of way since he was a guy who might have gotten picked on in the locker room," Lucia said. "Even though he was an elite player, you wouldn't know it by how he acted and his relationship with his teammates."

Bjugstad had 54 goals and 44 assists in his three seasons at Minnesota, helping the Golden Gophers to two Western Collegiate Hockey Association championships.

Hook, line and sinker

If Bjugstad needs a break from the hockey grind, he can always rely on his father, Mike, to join him for a day of fishing. Bjugstad has been an avid fisherman much of his life and sometimes uses it as an escape.

He's had some memorable catches but remains at a loss for words when asked for his secret behind landing the big one.

"I'd like to say it's skill but most of the time it's luck," he said.

Bjugstad acknowledges it has little to do with experience and more to do with being in the right place at the right time. It's something his father has nearly perfected and passed down to him.

"My dad is passionate about it and he taught me a lot of tricks to the trade," he said. "It's not only about throwing a line into the water and waiting; you've got to do your research and know where you're fishing."

Bjugstad has done some freshwater fishing for bass, ice fishing in his hometown, and enjoys deep-sea fishing with friends off the coast of Florida. He caught a barracuda near Mexico, has caught and filleted Mahi-mahi, and fished the Everglades despite a fear of alligators.

He has fished for trout while with family in Colorado and recently learned the beauty of fly fishing those rivers with his father.

"Fly fishing is a tough art, it's not what you think it is," Bjugstad said. "Some people think you just whip the line out, but it took me a long time to learn, and once I did, I started catching them."

Bjugstad views fishing in the same vein as hockey because it takes research, hard work and patience to succeed. Not surprisingly, he is as competitive with a fishing pole as he is with a hockey stick.

"He doesn't like to get beat at anything," Scott Bjugstad said.

Facing reality

Aus, in his first season at Brainerd High School after coaching Blaine to six consecutive state tournaments, can recall like yesterday the day he discovered an Internet chat room on high school hockey discussing Bjugstad and his impending move to the University of Minnesota.

"There are a lot of chat rooms on high school hockey because it's so big, but I'll never forget reading one post in there that was ripping Nick for leaving high school early and entering college," Aus said. "They thought he would get knocked around at the U, but what people didn't realize was that he was already squatting 400-something pounds as a 17-year-old, which is unbelievable.

"As small as his waist was, his legs were gigantic."

When Bjugstad reached college, critics questioned his faceoff ability and if he would prove to be that big man in the middle with the great hands. Bjugstad would be the first to admit he wasn't very effective in the circle in high school but learned the art of the draw from University of Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny.

"I still remember him coming back to us after participating in the World Junior Championship with a better defensive awareness and confidence," Lucia said. "He took his game to another level, and that included faceoffs."

Scott Bjugstad said he believes having confidence has been the key for his nephew winning faceoffs.

"It's been kind of a learning process for him," he said. "He went through a period as a rookie with Florida where he was really good but then struggled because he was relying on one thing, and if you rely on one way to do things in the NHL, they're going to figure it out pretty quickly.

"But it's Nick's ability to adjust and his work with [Florida Panthers assistant coach] John Madden that has provided that confidence."

Bjugstad led the Panthers with a .489 faceoff winning percentage in 2013-14, winning 549 draws on 1,123 chances. He is performing at a similar rate this season.

"I think he's aggressive, and that's one of the biggest things, because if you're hesitant one bit you're going to lose every one of them," Scott Bjugstad said. "Some guys are specialists, but the other thing is his strength. He can physically do some damage if he wanted to because he's really strong."

Aus has seen Bjugstad's raw power in action when he and his family see him on television.

"We have the NHL Center Ice package so we watch every game we can," Aus said. "I remember him going into the corner with [Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman] Dion Phaneuf, dropping the shoulder and making him look like a rag doll. I don't think Phaneuf knew it was coming.

"There was another time when [Detroit Red Wings center] Pavel Datsyuk was all over him in the corner and he threw him off his back, drove to the net and shelved a shot home. The kind of stuff that makes you say, 'Holy mackerel.'"

Bjugstad played NHL game No. 100 against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 11.

"I think once he figures it out and gets his man's strength and realizes how big and strong he is and gets a little more confidence in himself, he'll be a real dominant player," Tallon said.

Draft day

Prior to the 2010 NHL Draft, NHL Central Scouting college hockey evaluator Jack Barzee felt Bjugstad was a more polished hockey player than Blake Wheeler at the same age and a better skater than Backes.

Wheeler, who played at the University of Minnesota, is an alternate captain with the Winnipeg Jets and Backes (Minnesota State) is captain of the St. Louis Blues.

"The year before [Nick's] draft as an underage player, he was playing with [Edmonton Oilers right wing] Tyler Pitlick on the same line in an elite league [high school] game," Barzee said. "I was sitting and looking at the players we were evaluating for that year's draft but saw [Bjugstad and Pitlick] and said, 'Oh my gosh, what do we have here?' Bjugstad and Pitlick were light years ahead of some of the other players because of their hockey sense and skill level."

From that moment, Barzee made it a point to schedule more viewings of Bjugstad despite the fact he was a year away from being drafted.

"I remember him playing against an inferior team but he was having a tough run of it since they shadowed him all over the ice," Barzee said. "Near the end of the game, though, he picked up the puck behind the net and did a Bobby Orr coast-to-coast before flipping the puck on a backhand into the net.

"I looked at the scout with me that day and laughed. [Bjugstad] solidified a spot on my draft rankings right there and then."

The Panthers selected Bjugstad with their second first-round pick (No. 19) in 2010. Tallon acknowledged that Bjugstad was the player they were going to take four picks earlier, but they acquired a second-round pick (No. 59) from the Los Angeles Kings in a trade for their original choice (No. 15) and still got Bjugstad.

After two productive seasons with the Golden Gophers, Bjugstad decided to close his collegiate career in 2012-13 despite the fact he would have competed for a spot on the Panthers roster.

"It didn't surprise me (when he returned to Minnesota)," Tallon said. "It's none of our business really. It was solely his choice and was a tough decision to make but he felt that was the right thing for him to do so we gave him our blessing and it's paid off for us.

"He showed maturity there and gave me all the right reasons why he wanted to go back."

Bjugstad told Tallon he was very close to finishing his education. He also had hopes of winning a national championship.

Bjugstad didn't win that national title, but he did earn his degree.

"That was certainly a goal," he said.

Supporting cast

Rau, a senior captain with the University of Minnesota, has this recurring dream that he and Bjugstad will one day play on the same line in the NHL as they did with the Gophers from 2011-13.

Rau was chosen by the Panthers in the third round (No. 91) of the 2011 NHL Draft.

"We shared a room in college when he was here and he was really messy," Rau said. "But I can't believe the work he put in to graduate in three years; it was remarkable."

Bjugstad remembers how chatty Rau was while playing.

"Kyle comes across as quiet with the media, but get him on the ice and his mouth is going and legs are churning; everything is going 100 mph," Bjugstad said. "I kind of stay away from that stuff, but Kyle skates around and is always chirping at people. He'll probably tell you about my cleanliness in college and that's the truth."

Bjugstad credits his father and uncle for much of his success.

"They're both very knowledgeable and I'm very lucky to have them," Bjugstad said. "They've lived through the experiences that I've lived though."

Mike Bjugstad played at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a Division III school.

Scott Bjugstad played four seasons at the University of Minnesota, starred on the 1984 United States Olympic Team and played in the NHL for the Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings. He owns the Scott Bjugstad Shooting School and serves as an instructor.

When Scott gets together with Nick, the discussion usually shifts to the mental side of the game.

"If you put a lot of pressure on yourself to score, it never seems to work," Scott said. "If you watch the really good players, there's never any emotion on their face when they miss a shot. They obviously want to score but they also understand that goalies make most of the saves.

"I discuss shooting and how a 10 percent shooting percentage is the average in today's game. So it's important to get shots off and get to the net, but also understand that you may have a game where you score three goals on three shots and then another when you score none on 10 shots."

Lucia knows having a relative who experienced the identical situations Bjugstad is going through is a tremendous advantage.

"It's a great resource to have his uncle as a sound board, giving him advice on the big picture," Lucia said. "I've always told kids, it's not how quickly you get to the NHL, it's about staying in the NHL. It's about a career. Nick understands that and that will only help him later in life."

Aus said, "Twenty years from now, when I think back on Nick Bjugstad, what I'll probably remember most, and what makes him so endearing to my wife and kids and those that know him is his humbleness, kindness and determination to live the right way.

"He's also a tremendously gifted athlete with a fantastic future ahead of him."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer

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