MINNEAPOLIS — The wait is over for the University of Minnesota hockey team.
The reigning Western Collegiate Hockey Conference champion Gophers will have second-team All-American center Nick Bjugstad in the lineup when they open the 2012-13 season on Oct. 12. The team announced Thursday that Bjugstad — a first-round NHL draft pick of the Florida Panthers in 2010 — has decided against turning pro and will return for his junior season with Minnesota.
Bjugstad, 19, led the Gophers with 25 goals last season, tied for the fifth-best mark in the nation. The 6-foot-5, 211-pound junior added 17 assists and was third on the team in points. He was named All-WCHA first team, helping Minnesota to its first Frozen Four appearance since 2008. Bjugstad’s 25 goals were the most by a Gophers player since Ryan Potulny scored 38 in 2005-06.
Bjugstad recently took part in the Florida Panthers’ prospect camp and spent the past week weighing his options. He was even keeping his teammates in the dark about his decision. Participating in the Minnesota Wild’s development camp this week, Gophers forward Erik Haula said he was looking forward to the upcoming season and ready to defend Minnesota’s WCHA regular-season title from last season. But like everyone else, he was waiting to hear about Bjugstad.
“Can’t wait to get started; now we just got to see what big two-seven is going to do,” Haula said, mentioning the two have talked on occasion. “Obviously everybody hopes that he’s coming back. I have no idea what he’s thinking right now. I mean, Florida will probably put the press a little bit on him.”
But Bjugstad will rejoin his teammates when they open the season against Michigan State on Oct. 12 at Mariucci Arena for the regular-season opener. Minnesota has an exhibition game against Lethbridge scheduled for Oct. 6. Announced this week, The Gophers will also play an outdoor game this season, matching up against rival Wisconsin in the Hockey City Classic on Feb. 17, 2013 to be played in Chicago’s Soldier Field.
This will be the final season for Minnesota in the WCHA. The Gophers will join the newly formed Big Ten conference, which begins play with the 2013-14 season. And now Minnesota has its big center back.
“It would be a huge addition if he came back,” Haula said earlier this week. “Our team’s looking pretty good, with the freshmen coming in and not losing too many guys. I feel like it’s going to be a fun year again.”