When Mike Hastings was hired as the head coach at Minnesota State University Mankato, he almost immediately took a trip to the Czech Republic.
Hastings and assistant coach Darren Blue were set on securing a commitment from a then 17-year-old Teddy Blueger, who was playing for Latvia at the Under-18 World Championship.
“We sat down with him and his dad and wanted to make sure he was solid after the coaching change,” Hastings said. “We wanted to let him know where he stood with us, and we wanted to make sure it would be a good marriage.”
Four years later that trip has paid off for Hastings and his program.
Now a senior, Blueger has helped the Mavericks establish themselves as the class of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA).
Minnesota has won back-to-back league titles and is currently near the top of the standings at the mid-point of the season. Meanwhile, Blueger leads the team with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 18 games including a recent five-point night against Alaska Anchorage where he scored twice and had three assists in the first period.
That is the type of player the Pittsburgh Penguins were hoping Blueger would become when they drafted him in the second round, 52nd overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft.
The 6-foot, 185-pound center plays in all situations for Minnesota State. He is on the top penalty-kill and power play units, and he has been a fixture on the Mavericks’ top two lines since he was a 17-year-old freshman.
It has all been a part of Blueger’s unique journey to professional hockey.
When he was 14, he left Latvia in search of a prep school in North America. He was planning to tour a couple schools in the Northeast, but after watching a game between the Minnesota Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins, he added Shattuck St. Mary’s to the list.
“I was watching the game and they mentioned that school a couple times and that’s where (Sidney) Crosby went,” Blueger said. “I was here to play hockey so we added that to the list of tours and went there.”
His experience at Shattuck helped prepare Blueger for college hockey.
The Latvian already spoke English well after attending an international school as a kid. He started picking up the slang and quirks from his Shattuck teammates, and when he arrived at Minnesota State he didn’t look out of place, even though he was the youngest player on the team his freshman through junior seasons.
“He never had any problems or difficult adjustments,” Hastings said. “I think he really understood the environment and what it takes being in a dorm and playing hockey from a similar setup at Shattuck.”
Now an assistant captain, and no longer the youngest player, Blueger is set on helping Minnesota State Mankato advance past the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Mavericks have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of Blueger’s seasons, including the top seed entering last year’s tournament, but each season ended with a tournament-opening loss.
“We’ve thought about that, not too much, but it’s something we’ve thought about,” Blueger said. “We obviously want to end this season as a winning team and reach the Frozen Four.”
Once Minnesota State’s season ends, Blueger could have an interesting decision to make.
He could sign his first pro contract with Pittsburgh, the team that drafted him, or he could wait and become a free agent and follow a similar path to Kevin Hayes, Blake Wheeler, and Mike Reilly, who spurned their original team for free agency after a solid college career.
Blueger said he is not thinking about anything past this season – winning at Minnesota State is his top focus. But, to Pittsburgh’s credit, the Penguins have stayed in constant communication with Blueger.
Penguins’ assistant general manager Bill Guerin has been a familiar face at Minnesota State games this season.
“The Penguins have been good about talking to us about Teddy,” Hastings said. “They talk to us about his progress on and off the ice, and we discuss what he can work on and be a leader for us.”
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