When Darby Hendrickson scored the first Minnesota Wild goal at Xcel Energy Center some 20 years ago, it was a moment perfectly befitting pro hockey’s return to the self-proclaimed State of Hockey. Hendrickson was not only a Minnesotan who had come up through the youth and high school hockey ranks in the Twin Cities suburbs, he was also a recipient of Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award as a senior in 1991 at Richfield, before a two-year stint with the Minnesota Gophers.
When he first dons a Wild jersey in a game, whenever the 2021 NHL season begins, Nick Bjugtad will become the fourth Mr. Hockey winner to return to Minnesota as a member of the state’s top pro hockey team, after he was acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.
In an Saturday morning Zoom call with the Twin Cities media, Bjugstad admitted that he has not slept much this week, with his wife delivering their second daughter on Monday, and the news of the trade on Friday. He has played the previous eight seasons in the Eastern Conference, meaning he would have one yearly game in Minnesota. Playing close to family now, Bjugstad said he plans to block out the distractions when it's time to go to work for the Wild.
"When we'd come here, it was almost a little overwhelming because it was just one game and I'd like to see everyone after the game, which is hard," he said. "People understand I have a couple kids now and it's different than when I was younger, for sure. The support from my friends and family is great to see...I'll have to maybe go on airplane mode on game days. I've found ways to calm the outside noise."
Bjugstad was named the state’s top prep player in 2010 after his senior season at Blaine, when the Bengals advanced to the state tournament, but lost to Apple Valley in their opening game. Bjugstad played three seasons with the Gophers, helping the team reach the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa, and signed with the Florida Panthers (who had drafted him 19th overall in 2010) following his junior season at the U of M.
After playing in parts of seven seasons in South Florida, Bjugstad went to the Penguins on Feb. 1, 2019, where he dealt with injuries in parts of two seasons there. In the interrupted 2019-20 season, he played 13 games (with a goal and an assist) before being shut down due to a back injury and had spinal surgery in May. Bjugstad did not play in the Penguins’ open-round playoff loss to Montreal in August.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin is from Boston, played college hockey at Boston College, and spent two of the best seasons of his 1,200-game NHL career with the Bruins. He said the key to playing good hockey close to home is to treat is as a job, and not a class reunion.
"The first thing I did was let everybody know this was not a homecoming. I was coming home to play for the Boston Bruins and it's my job," Guerin said. "I'm not here get together and reminisce with old college buddies or high school buddies. This is work. This is business and not everybody is getting free tickets. Not everybody is going to hang out after the game. I approached it very business-like. That's my advice."
Two other Mr. Hockey winners have seen time in a Wild uniform, with Brian Bonin (1992, White Bear Lake) and Kyle Rau (2011, Eden Prairie) both working in the organization at one point. Bonin, who also won the Hobey Baker Award with the Gophers in 1996, spent seven games with the Wild in their inaugural season. Rau, who also started his NHL career with Florida after starring at the U of M, came to the Wild in 2017 and has spent the bulk of his time with their Iowa farm team, but has skated in nine NHL games with the organization.
Nick Leddy, the 2009 Mr. Hockey winner from Eden Prairie, was drafted by the Wild 16th overall that year, but his rights were traded to Chicago. He spent one season at the U of M, and has been in the NHL with the Blackhawks and New York Islanders since 2010.
New numbers amid new hope of a season
Tyler Nanne will not be back on the Gophers’ blue line whenever the 202-21 college hockey season begins, but the jersey with number 2 on it that Nanne wore last season is still expected to log significant minutes on defense.
The Gophers’ release of their official team roster this week included one jersey number change, as sophomore defenseman Jackson LaCombe, who wore 10 last season, will grab Nanne’s old number.
Among the team’s quartet of newcomers, defenseman Mike Koster will wear 6 (which was last worn by Clayton Phillips as a freshman in 2017-18), defenseman Brock Faber will wear 14 (last worn by Garrett Wait as a freshman in 2018-19), forward Mason Nevers will wear 18 (last worn by Phillips when he was a sophomore in 2018-19) and defenseman Carl Fish will wear 26 (last worn by Darian Romanko as a senior in 2018-19). Notably, Nevers will not wear 16, which was the jersey his father, Tom, wore in the elder Nevers’ lone game for the Gophers in 1997.
While the start of the coming season has been delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic, the team is expected to hold its first on-ice practice on Monday, Sept. 14.
Some optimism for World Junior tournament
With the success of the NHL’s playoff bubble in Edmonton, where there have been no stoppages of play related to COVID-19 and we are down to the conference finals, there is increased optimism that the annual World Junior Hockey Championships might be played there this winter.
The tournament, which pits the world’s top 18-year-olds against one another, usually starts the day after Christmas and runs for two weeks. Gophers junior forward Sampo Ranta represented his native Finland in the 2020 tournament, which was held in the Czech Republic.
In June, three Gophers defensemen — LaCombe, Faber and Ryan Johnson — were invited to USA Hockey’s tryout camp for the World Juniors, which was to be held in August in Michigan. The camp was cancelled due to coronavirus concerns.
The 2021 tournament is scheduled for Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta, and a source indicated to The Rink Live that there is a general sense of optimism that a tournament could be played in a bubble environment similar to that used by the NHL to keep players and staff isolated and healthy. Look for an announcement, either good or bad, from USA Hockey and the International Ice Hockey Federation in the coming weeks.
The last World Juniors gold medal won by the Americans came in 2017 in Montreal, with Gophers coach Bob Motzko behind the Team USA bench.