Johnson: Nugent-Hopkins going back in time to avenge missed 2011 opportunity
After being cut as a 17-year-old, now Edmonton Oilers star appears set to finally don Team Canada silks
The sting of rejection, any sort, is always difficult. In the teenage years, it can be particularly painful.
“This,” acknowledged a downcast Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to TSN two years ago, “is a brutal feeling.”
Back then, of course, he was merely a promising 17-year-old kid out of the Red Deer Rebels factory, by way of Burnaby, B.C. One of the last to be lopped from a deep, talented pool of Canadian junior prospects.
An intriguing casualty that hinted at great things for the future.
Well, in a roundabout way, a year later than expected, that future has arrived.
Now, he’s RNH.
Among the most glittering young stars in the NHL firmament. The probable Calder Trophy recipient for last season if his left shoulder hadn’t given out. A proven commodity.
“I feel like I’m a different person than I was a couple years ago,” said Team Canada’s NHL lockout wild-card, penned in by a media mob at Calgary International Airport on Monday. “My game’s definitely evolved a lot. I see myself more as a two-way player right now. I just want to play my game out there. I’m definitely going to try and take on more of a leadership role this year.
“This is definitely exciting for me. I got the chance at 17; unfortunately I didn’t make it, so I’m really happy that I got the opportunity to try again.”
This time, he need not live with the threat of rejection. No insomnia-filled nights of mashing up hotel pillows and staring blankly at ceiling plaster. He’s a lock for this team, likely at centre on a high-octane line with Mark Scheifele and Jonathan Huberdeau.
So if the warring parties in this silly, monotonous NHL dispute can’t get past their petty differences, and in short order, the precocious Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will get his shot at a world junior hockey championship, after all.
“What made it easier for me to make the jump last year was that I went in with the right mindset, just playing my game,” he said upon arrival Monday. “Obviously having a young team really helped me out. Coming into this camp I’m just gonna do that. Last time, as a 17 year old, I kinda strayed away from that, didn’t play as well as I probably could’ve and obviously it didn’t work out for me.
“I’ve talked to quite a few guys who’ve played in the World Juniors before and they all say positive things about it. They all say it’s one of the great experiences of their life. So that definitely helped me make my decision. Obviously, (Oiler teammate Jordan Eberle) had great experience at the tournament, as did Taylor Hall.”
The wonky left shoulder deemed strong enough for ongoing duty after a week of strengthening up north, Nugent-Hopkins arrives at this brief Canadian selection camp as one of the go-go guys (even if he still looks as if he should be delivering the morning paper, not making headlines in it).
In a weird way, he finds himself going back in time. Just like Marty McFly. All he needs is a DeLorean and Christopher Lloyd to ride shotgun. Imagine, after a year proving beyond doubt that he does belong with the hardened grown-ups, he now finds himself out to prove he belongs with the gifted kids.
“I’m only a couple years out of junior, so it’s fresh in my mind, for sure. There’s a lot of guys going to this camp that probably would be with their NHL clubs right now. It’s just one of those unique situations that doesn’t happen too often. So I’m excited to take advantage of it.”
The possibility that this journey to Ufa, Russia, might be interrupted by a swift resolution to the NHL impasse — made more remote after games through Dec. 30th were cancelled Monday — is nothing he’s finds himself dwelling on.
“I haven’t explored that yet,” shrugged Nugent-Hopkins. “When it comes, if it comes, we’ll cross that bridge. Right now I’ll just focus on the camp and go from there.”
And Hockey Canada, needless to say, simply could not be more tickled. Head coach Steve Spott must think he’s struck the Colorado motherlode, adding a Nugent-Hopkins to an already top-heavy roster.
“When you start this, you’d like to have your A-listed players,” Spott, resisting the impulse to hop up and down, acknowledged Monday. “No. 1, we’re very grateful that the Oilers have allowed us to work with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. And Ryan’s message with us has been very up front: He wants to be treated like any other player.
“We know the pressures that are going come for Ryan because of the fact that he is a world-class player; and some of the expectations that’ll come through media. But I can tell you as a coaching staff we’re going to treat him like a regular 19-year-old and put him in situations where we need him to be great.
“And he’s looking forward to the challenge. He has an opportunity to win a gold medal at the world junior championships and I know he’s excited about that.”
Indeed he is.
With Canada’s divine right to boss the World Juniors long ago exposed as nothing more than vain conceit, and with this promising to be another nervy Christmas holiday season, Nugent-Hopkins could well be the tournament-tipper to end a three-year gold-medal drought.
There are, in the final analysis for any player, certain career signposts that set the elite apart. Stanley Cup rings. Olympic gold. And, for Canadians who hang on this holiday ritual, a World Junior title fits in there, somewhere, too.
Nugent-Hopkins can’t help but relish a chance at the one of those he must’ve felt had been lost to him forever.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I mean I’ve definitely thought about it. I’m sure as I get older, I’ll be happy that I did it. And I’m definitely not going to regret anything.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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