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Draft prodigy Nugent-Hopkins has No. 1 skill, passion

Ask why he wears No. 9, and at first his answer is unremarkable. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins says it's mostly because of Paul Kariya(notes). He played at the same club Kariya once did in suburban Vancouver. He grew up watching him. Makes sense.

But then Nugent-Hopkins adds something else. He says he likes Maurice Richard, too. He calls him his "hero from a long time ago." The Rocket retired in 1960 – 33 years before Nugent-Hopkins was born – but he has seen black-and-white photos and watched grainy clips. He loves Richard's famous wide-eyed drive.

"You can just tell that he had so much passion for the game," Nugent-Hopkins says. "That really sums up every hockey player. They just love to play, and that's why they do it."

Actually, it doesn't sum up every hockey player. But passion sets some apart, and that Nugent-Hopkins would see it that way – that an 18-year-old prospect would have a sense of history and connect with a late legend – speaks to how he has rocketed to the top. In the Central Scouting Service's final rankings ahead of the 2011 NHL entry draft, he is first among North American skaters.

The knock on Nugent-Hopkins is his size. He's listed at 6 feet, 164 pounds (though he says he's at 172 now), and that could keep him with the Western Hockey League's Red Deer Rebels instead of jumping to the NHL next season. But scouts rave about his skill, will and long-term potential, and especially if the Edmonton Oilers take him first overall Friday night in St. Paul, Minn., some will be tempted to compare him to a double No. 9 – Wayne Gretzky. Some already have.

"A couple of people high up – and not naming names – said Hopkins has the best vision since No. 99," Central Scouting's Peter Sullivan says on NHL.com. "That's the highest compliment you can get. But the other thing is the way he competes. He never takes a night off."

Not a night. Not a week. Not a month. The hectic schedule of a top prospect is actually a reason why the kid has been so light, according to his father, Roger Hopkins. (His mother's name is Deb Nugent, hence the hyphen.)

Take last summer. First, he went to a tryout camp for Canada's under-18 team in Calgary. He made it, went straight to the Czech Republic for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and scored the winner in the gold-medal game – a 1-0 victory over the United States. He came back late on a Sunday night, then turned around and flew to Toronto on Tuesday morning to participate in the NHL's research and development camp.

"He lost six pounds, but he was happier than heck," Roger Hopkins says. "As a dad, you sort of think, 'Gosh, is he going to get some down time in this? Is he ever going to be a kid?' … You'd never get him to complain."

Roger Hopkins says an NHL career was never the plan. He never played hockey himself. He actually tried to get his sons Adam and Ryan to play baseball, as he had growing up, but they just preferred hockey. When Adam was 7 or 8, little brother Ryan – five years younger – started to skate and chase him around the rink.

"He's always had a passion for it," Roger Hopkins says. "He was always a really good athlete, so whatever game he played I'm sure he would have been good at. But hockey, he started playing seriously at about 4 years old, and he's never missed a day since."

Somewhere there is a picture of an 8-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins posing with Joe Sakic(notes) and the Stanley Cup. After the Colorado Avalanche won the Cup in 2001, Sakic brought it back to the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby and shared it with the kids playing in the same minor program he had.

Nugent-Hopkins moved on to the private Burnaby Winter Club, his parents scraping together the funds even though they had divorced and money was tight. That was where Kariya had played.

In his unfinished basement, Nugent-Hopkins would shoot pucks at targets on the wall and stickhandle golf balls around obstacles on the floor – head up, eyes open – dreaming of Sakic's shot and Kariya's speed, developing creativity and puck skills.

He went first overall in the WHL's bantam draft. When he went from the big-city suburbs to the small town of Red Deer, he loved it. He loved his billet family. He loved his coach. He loved his team.

And he excelled. As a 16-year-old in 2009-10, he put up 65 points in 67 games. He was named the WHL's rookie of the year. As a 17-year-old in 2010-11, he put up 106 points in 69 games.

"You'd think, 'Well, he's going to be drafted [into the NHL],' " Roger Hopkins says. "And then you thought, 'Well, maybe first round.' And now, he's maybe first. I'm not saying that. I don't mean it the wrong way there. It's just, 'How did this happen?' "

How will he handle it now?

Whether Nugent-Hopkins goes first or merely among the top few picks, whether he jumps straight to the NHL or needs to fill out his frame first, he will join a team that needs to rebuild and will place huge expectations upon him. Comparisons to Gretzky or Pavel Datsyuk(notes) or Matt Duchene(notes) are flattering, but don't necessarily help.

Nugent-Hopkins knows what's ahead in hockey terms. "In most cases, you're going to have to be part of a rebuilding stage, and I'm really prepared for that," he says.

He knows what he needs to do. "I definitely feel like I need to put some weight on and get stronger and bigger and faster," he says. "I think if I put some weight on, I think I'll be OK."

He seems prepared for the attention, too. He has been a big part of elite teams and doing interviews since he was 14. They say there is a "Hoparazzi" in Red Deer that has chronicled his every move for hockey nuts and teenaged girls.

"He's just a good kid," Roger Hopkins says. "He's exactly what he seems to be, and I'm not just saying that as his dad. He's really low-key. … I guess they've all got egos in the sense that they know they're good, but I've never heard about him brag about himself ever."

Well, he might have no choice but to brag about himself pretty soon.

"Just being ranked up at the top right now is a big honor for me," Nugent-Hopkins says. "As a kid, you dream about just getting drafted. Being drafted first overall would be incredible. It would be a huge honor for me."

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