Nestled deep within America’s ice-hockey heartland, the annual Minnesota boys state high school hockey tournament has rapidly become one of the most unique and intriguing spectacles of the sport.
The tournament, which drew a record-breaking 135,618 fans last weekend, continues to serve as a rite of passage for some of the best young hockey players in the state. A mecca of both high-school hockey talent and impeccable hair, notable tournament alumni include current NHL players T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Blake Wheeler just to name a few.
It’s also there that Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad suffered one of his greatest defeats against one of his foremost friends.
With a trip to the 2009 State Final on the line, Bjugstad’s fifth-ranked Blaine High School Bengals were upset by the sixth-ranked Eden Prairie Eagles, whose come-from-behind 4-2 victory propelled them to their first ever state title the following day.
Bjugstad scored on that night, giving the Bengals an early 1-0 lead, but was held in check for the majority of the game by Eden Prairie’s standout defenseman and current New York Islander, Nick Leddy — a fact Bjugstad has yet to forget.
"I can still blame Leddy for ruining my dreams of a state championship," Bjugstad said while cracking an infectious grin.
That year, Leddy was also named Mr. Hockey, an award given to the most outstanding senior high school hockey player in the state of Minnesota — an honor that Bjugstad would garner the following season.
At the time, the two intrastate rivals were already developing a budding off-ice friendship, but neither expected that the other was on the path to NHL stardom. For Bjugstad, the focus at the time was always more on getting to what he describes as the "next level" and earning a spot at one of college hockey’s most prestigious programs, the University of Minnesota.
"I kinda thought (Leddy) was going to Minnesota," said Bjugstad. "I never thought about really him playing in the NHL. At that stage, though, you could tell he was going to be a player. You just think about the next level, that’s about it. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s going to the Gophers’. That was my thought process."
Leddy would go on to play one year at Minnesota before joining the Chicago Blackhawks, who had selected him in the first round of 2009 NHL Draft. Bjugstad, meanwhile, would enroll at Minnesota one year later, just missing a chance to play alongside his former high-school rival.
"Not too happy about that," said Bjugstad. "We could have used him that year, but it ended up working out for him."
After three years at Minnesota, Bjugstad would follow in Leddy’s footsteps to the NHL as the 2010 first-round pick joined the Panthers for the final month of the 2012-13 season.
Since then, Bjugstad and Leddy have continued to develop their friendly rivalry on hockey’s biggest stage and, nearly five years after their meeting in the State Semifinal, were once again pitted against each other during Florida’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Islanders at the BB&T Center on March 7.
Two of the NHL’s brightest up-and-coming stars, Bjugstad and Leddy have certainly come a long way since their days of high school hockey in Minnesota, but neither has forgotten their pivotal tournament meeting.
"We give each other a hard time about that," said Leddy. "I do remember I did knock him over that game. Him being an absolute monster, I like to give myself a little credit for that too."
"He drilled me and put me on my back," said Bjugstad, who was a sophomore at the time. "I still remember that perfectly and it sits in the back of my head a little bit when I’m coming down 1-on-1 with him.
"It’s fun growing up playing against him and then being able to play in the NHL. It’s pretty surreal."