Ryan Nugent-Hopkins quietly stands outside the dressing room leaning up against a table filled with post-practice snacks. Some of his teammates, other Canadian junior hockey team hopefuls, are busy doing interviews with media at the selection camp. The practice rink is buzzing as 40 of the best junior players Canada has to offer are fighting for 22 coveted spot.
Dressed in a black jacket, polo shirt and slacks, Nugent-Hopkins is rather nondescript, hidden in the background. A man looking more than double the baby-faced forward’s 17 years approaches with a question: “Mr. Nugent-Hopkins,” he asks politely, “can we get a picture?”
After receiving an approving nod, a zaftig woman runs up and throws her arm around the six-foot, 167-pound centre who hints at a smile as the photo is taken. As one of the top-ranked forwards for the June 2011 NHL entry draft, the photo ops, autographs and full-blown fame are still fairly fresh to Nugent-Hopkins.
“It’s kind of strange. It’s a little surreal,” says the Burnaby, B.C., native of the impromptu photo shoot. “But it’s also really cool. I enjoy all this stuff so I just try to take it in stride and enjoy it as much as I can.”
Around town in Red Deer, Alta., where he stars for the Western Hockey League’s Rebels, there is no notion of celebrity just yet, though that might change if he’s selected to the Canadian entry at the World Junior Hockey Championship which starts Boxing Day in Buffalo. But making the team as a 17-year-old is a long-shot proposition for all three 1993-born players in camp – Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Murray and Ryan Murphy - since the tournament is long considered to be for older, more established juniors.
“At the end of the day this tournament is basically played by 20-year-olds and it’s very difficult for a 17 or 18-year-old to make this team,” says Hockey Canada’s head scout Kevin Predergast. “Mario Lemieux had trouble playing in this tournament, so it’s certainly not a knock if they’re not here.”
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Drummondville Voltigeurs forward Sean Couturier, who many scouts have pegged to go first overall at the NHL draft, is also at the camp. Couturier, who was born in Phoenix but calls Bathurst, N.B., home, won the QMJHL scoring title last season and has 16 goals and 35 assists in 32 games this season.
“People talk a lot about it, but I try not to really think about it,” says Couturier of the draft. “I try to use it as motivation and just try to focus on my game.”
Following in the footsteps of the first-overall rivalry – either real or perceived – created by past debates (see Vincent Lecavalier-David Legwand, John Tavares-Victor Hedman, and more recently, Tyler Seguin-Taylor Hall), it’s only natural to have the Couturier versus “RNH” talk begin at camp. Not that either player is buying into the hype after finally meeting each other for the first time in the flesh on Saturday.
“We had a little conversation the other day, but nothing too serious,” says Couturier, 18, whose late birthday also makes him draft eligible this year.
“We didn’t really talk about the draft or the future,” adds Nugent-Hopkins. “I think the media talks about that enough, so we don’t really need to talk about that ourselves. But it was definitely cool to meet him.”
And while both players are gifted with skill, the one area where Couturier has a distinct advantage over his newfound WHL friend is in his six-foot-three, 192 pound frame – a big asset as far as Prendergast is concerned.
“A lot of these kids are 15-20 pounds heavier than when they came in (for summer camp) in June. Nugent-Hopkins is 167 pounds,” says the former Edmonton Oilers head scout. “Sean is a bigger kid and a little bit older too, but they both bring something to the table and at this level we know they can contribute it’s just a matter of where they fit into the puzzle.”
Nugent-Hopkins, the reigning WHL rookie of the year, can still throw his weight around as an offensive playmaker with eight goals and 33 assists in 31 WHL games.
“I’m not the biggest guy, but I can still use my quickness and agility to get around guys and avoid checks,” says Nugent-Hopkins. He says he put on roughly 10 pounds over the course of the summer and isn’t too concerned about bulking up after seeing his older brother Adam, 22, go through his growth spurt.
“My brother’s a pretty big kid,” says Nugent Hopkins of his genes. “So I should be filling out pretty soon - at least I hope so.”
For Canada’s head coach Dave Cameron, the offence is appreciated, but there is also the issue of whether the talented young forwards at camp can be defensive minded in a tournament where every turnover, missed check and positional gaffe is magnified a hundred times over.
“It’s not so much the ability to play in all three zones because they’re all exceptional players, it’s are they willing to play in all three zones,” says Cameron. “Because they’re dominant at such a young age means that they’ve probably been cut some slack in terms of their responsibilities away from the puck and in the (defensive) zone, but they’re going to have to be able to play D if they want to make this team.”
Cameron says he expects to pare down the players at camp on Tuesday before announcing the final roster on Wednesday.