Panthers rookie Nick Bjugstad enjoyed a Wild ride to NHL

SUNRISE, Fla. — Nick Bjugstad will never forget that night in April 2003.

The Minnesota Wild, his favorite team, were in the midst of a Game 7 overtime battle against the Colorado Avalanche, trying to capture their first playoff series victory.

Tucked away in bed on a school night, the 10-year-old Bjugstad listened intently for a sign. Anything to indicate an outcome.

“I was still awake,” Bjugstad said. “I was wired from watching the third period and I didn’t want to go to bed.”

He did not have to wait long. Minnesota’s Andrew Brunette came through with the clinching goal 3:25 into the extra period. Bjugstad heard his father, Mike, screaming in the basement.

“I knew we won — I knew the Wild won,” Bjugstad said. “I can’t say ‘we’ anymore.”

Bjugstad, a first-round pick of the Florida Panthers, may have to shed his allegiance to the Wild. But it has not stopped the rookie from reminiscing about his childhood team — the one he’ll get to face for the first time Saturday night.

The prospect of facing the franchise that inspired him has rekindled many memories of his childhood in Blaine, Minn., a suburb north of Minneapolis. He recalled spending hours upon hours playing shinny with friends at Happy Acres park or joining games in neighbors’ yards.

“My neighbors got sick of me from shooting pucks,” Bjugstad said. “I put a lot of pucks in their yards and through their screen doors. They weren’t happy.”

It was not until the age of eight, though, that Bjugstad could envision his backyard dreams translate into the reality of NHL glory.

Bjugstad’s uncle, Scott, played for the Minnesota North Stars, but the center never had the opportunity to watch him play. The franchise moved to Dallas the year after Bjugstad was born.

When the NHL placed an expansion team in St. Paul in 2000, the center finally got the chance to see the world’s top talent up close.

Bjugstad recalls seeing his first taste of the pros during the preseason. And when Minnesota native Darby Hendrickson tallied the Wild’s first home goal, Bjugstad adopted his favorite player.

“He was one of my favorites,” Bjugstad said. “He was a hard worker.”

It comes as no surprise that Bjugstad’s career to this point mirrors Henrickson’s. The two captured Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey honors as the state’s outstanding high school senior player. Both went on to have productive college careers for the University of Minnesota.

During his high school days, Bjugstad also grew to admire the style of Wild captain Mikko Koivu, a player he could find himself going head-to-head against in the faceoff circle on Saturday.

“He’s a very skilled player,” Bjugstad said. “He’s one of the best in the world at what he does. I like watching him. He’s good defensively and good offensively.”

It is exactly the kind of two-way play Bjugstad has brought to Florida’s lineup since returning from a concussion on Oct. 15. Panthers coach Kevin Dineen commended the center’s presence up front and in the faceoff circle.

In Thursday’s loss to Boston, Bjugstad picked up his first NHL assist, setting up winger Jesse Winchester off the draw.

The point is a small milestone for the center, who has just 13 career games and one goal to his credit. But Saturday, regardless of outcome, is sure to be a memorable as those early years for Bjugstad.

“I grew up watching [the Wild] since day one,” he said. “It will be fun playing them.”

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside.