Photography: Eliot Schechter - Florida Panthers.
Photography: Eliot Schechter – Florida Panthers.
Nick Bjugstad has established himself as one of the leaders of an exciting new era in Florida Panthers hockey. Away from the ice, the Minnesota native has gotten used to the Fort Lauderdale lifestyle.

Like most Minnesotans with seemingly misplaced Scandinavian consonants in their names, Nick Bjugstad presumably has ocean-going seafarers somewhere in his bloodline. But when it comes to going out on his Scout 195 Sportfish, the Florida Panthers star shies away from his Norse roots. When he bought the boat last year, he says, “I wanted to utilize the canals. It’s kind of intimidating going out (into the ocean) in the 20-footer.”

On the ice, 25-year-old Bjugstad is one of the just-reaching-his-prime players around which the Panthers have built a resurgence. A 6’6″ center with blond good looks and a humble upper Midwestern demeanor in interviews, he forms with teammates such as Vincent Trocheck and Aleksander Barkov a nucleus of young talent that’s given the team’s long-suffering fan base that unfamiliar sensation called optimism.

<em>Photography: Joel Eriksson,</em>
Photography: Joel Eriksson,

Away from the ice, he lives in Fort Lauderdale, as many of his teammates do, and on the water. Since arriving in South Florida five years ago, he’s embraced the lifestyle – an embrace that peaked last year when he achieved that most Floridian of titles, “boat owner.”

Bjugstad grew up lake fishing with his dad, but the world of Florida boating was completely new.

“I’d never really seen center consoles until I got down here,” he says. He also needed to learn the rules of urban canal and river boating – navigating close spaces heavy with other boats. “It took me a little bit to learn the etiquette,” he says.

A pair of teammates – one current, one former – helped get Bjugstad onto the water. He first started boating with the Panthers’ former captain, Willie Mitchell.

“He grew up on the ocean, so he had a big 37-footer,” Bjugstad says of the British Columbia native. “He taught me a few things.” (These days, if Bjugstad ventures out into the ocean, it’s usually when Mitchell’s back in town.)

It was a current teammate, defenseman Mark Pysyk, who pushed him to buy one. Like a good defenseman helping one of the stars, Pysyk also went along to help negotiate and buy the boat. Since getting it, there’s been plenty of learning.

“I’m learning how to maintain it a little more in the salt water; it’s a whole different animal.”

It’s been worthwhile, though. During a long, bruise-filled NHL season, it’s important to have a way to step away and relax when there’s a day off. Some other guys on the team golf, but Bjugstad looks away from land.

“When I’m on the water, that’s when I’m most relaxed,” Bjugstad says. “It’s kind of my happy place. It’s fun to go out – I can bring my family (or) teammates. A few other teammates have boats; not many of them fish.

“It’s good to get away from the game every once in a while, as long as you don’t abuse it.

“If we have an off day, I’ll try to go later afternoon or night. Even if it’s just a couple hours, cruise around. It’s pretty relaxing for me.”

He also experiences another phenomenon well known to Northerners in Fort Lauderdale – winter visits from friends and family back home. Anyone who doesn’t understand the value of a Florida-based relative to Minnesotans in February, has probably never been to Minnesota in February.

“If the family can get the opportunity to watch hockey and be on the beach on the same day, that’s a good deal,” Bjugstad says.

<em>Photography: Nick Bjugstad.</em>
Photography: Nick Bjugstad.

So he’s learned that Fort Lauderdale tradition – the fact-filled boat ride to dinner. Favorite dinner destinations include Coconuts, Shooters, 15th Street Fisheries and Boatyard.

‘I kind of have a path that I take the family on,” he says. Before he got his own boat, he took the guided boat tours of the city. He’s got a few of the tour-guide factoids memorized about famous houses and historic sites.

“I’m always telling them what they tell me,” he says.

Bjugstad’s father is a keen fisherman and his mother’s family has a cabin on a lake, but the world of big yachts and fancy restaurants on the water is a different matter. “When my family comes down,” he says, “it’s a whole other world.” He and his dad will usually drop a couple lines in the water when he’s down. “If I catch something, it’s a bonus. It’s especially fun when my dad comes down, because it’s a whole new world for him too.”

Nothing is certain in professional sports, but Bjugstad has a long-term contract and is seen as one of the cornerstones of the reborn Panthers. Odds look good that he could be a Fort Lauderdale resident for some time. For the kid from Blaine, that’s good news.

“My first couple years down here, I couldn’t believe I was living here,” he says.

“It’s a cool spot to be able to play.”

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