Strong parenting keeps Burnaby's top NHL draft prospect in line
By David Staples, Postmedia News
June 17, 2011
18-year-old NHL prospect Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is seen in Red Deer, Alberta on June 15, 2011.
Photograph by: Greg Southam, Edmonton Journal
RED DEER, Alta. — Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the best 18-year-old hockey player in Canada, sits in a Red Deer Boston Pizza eating jambalaya, drinking ice tea, and watching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
At a nearby table, two teenage girls melt into puddles of ecstatic admiration at the sight of Nugent-Hopkins. He appears not to notice.
The sharp focus on Nugent-Hopkins, dubbed “Hoppy” by his teammates and as “RNH” by the draftnicks and hockey fanatics who now track his every game and comment, is part of what Red Deer hockey folk jokingly refer to the as the Hoparazzi. News reporters and fans have started to buzz around him in recent months as he has climbed the rankings to become the consensus top prospect in next week’s National Hockey League entry draft.
Nugent-Hopkins, the star centre of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels, smiles when the subject of the Hoparazzi is raised, but makes little of the attention.
“It’s been good. It’s been fun. I just go in and try to have fun with it, just enjoy it. I don’t like to be cocky and I don’t like when hockey players get cocky and stuff. Some hockey players in the WHL are pretty cocky. I don’t like cocky people in general. I don’t like when people are very arrogant.”
Cam Moon, who does play-by-play for Red Deer and also handles the team’s media relations, says the hoopla hasn’t changed Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s like it’s nothing. It does not change his personality, demeanour or anything about his day. He’s one of the guys who can do two different pretty big media availabilities on game day to no effect.”
In Canada, we do one thing better than anyone else in the world, churn out world-class hockey players. Nugent-Hopkins is the latest on the assembly line.
Forged in the cauldron of elite Canadian hockey schools, programs and leagues, it’s no surprise that Nugent-Hopkins is now coolly dealing with the pressures and privileges of his top prospect status.
He’s a typical, conventional 18-year-old. He likes playing Halo and listening to Dierks Bentley. He isn’t keen on Lady Gaga.
He’s different in that he has had an agent since he was 14.
He has already represented his country at an international event, a major tournament in Slovakia last summer. As a player, he has drawn comparisons to NHL stars Pavel Datsyuk and Matt Duchene, but the kid doesn’t carry himself like a star.
He is slender and wiry, not a Big Bobby Clobber of a hockey player and not a commanding presence. His manner is modest, but he confidently answer questions about himself. There’s no swagger about the kid, off the ice at least, but there is a calm and a maturity notable for his age and lofty position.
Two weeks ago, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini met for a few hours with John Batchelor, Nugent-Hopkins’ old bantam coach in Burnaby.
Batchelor had once coached Tambellini’s own son at the Burnaby Winter Club, a hockey hothouse.
In the meeting, Tambellini had many questions about Nugent-Hopkins, who most expect the Oilers will take with the first overall pick.
“As I said to Steve, if you’re looking for me for me to say something bad about the kid, you’re looking at the wrong guy, because he is everything you want in a player and in a human being.” Batchelor says. “You could walk into a room of 30 hockey players and you would not pick him out as the guy who is the stud. He doesn’t tell anybody. He does his talking on the ice.”
Nugent-Hopkins is the second of the two sons of Roger Hopkins, a coffee salesman, and Debbie Nugent, a nurse’s aide. Both his brother Adam, who is five years older, and Ryan, were always strong athletically, Roger says, walking at 10 months and running at age one.
But while Adam was a good athlete, Ryan always struck his father as being exceptional, both in terms of his gifts and his commitment. “If you saw Ryan play the outfield in baseball, you’d think he was Willie Mays. The guy is a gifted kid athletically and he’s good at whatever he’s done. On top of that, he’s got this understated drive. If you talk to Ryan, he doesn’t come across as super aggressive guy. But he’s very, very competitive.”
Roger remembers going out and to hit a baseball to little Ryan. “He just loved doing it. He’d be diving one side, diving the other, over his head, and he’d wear me out. I’d say, ‘I’m going.’ He’d say ‘Oh gosh, you always quit dad.’”
As a child, Nugent-Hopkins watched clips of Maurice (Rocket) Richard Rocket’s play and admired his passion. “Every time he has the puck, his eyes are just huge and you can tell he has so much passion in playing. I felt a connection to him in that way. I get very into it. I’ve just always been a very competitive person in everything I’ve ever done.
“I always had a passion for the game. I always loved playing. It’s always been that one thing I’ve just loved doing.”
His parents divorced and the family never had much money, but they managed to join the private Burnaby Winter Club so Adam and Ryan could play elite hockey. There was an extra sheet of ice at the club, so when Adam was playing a game, Ryan would be out on his own skating for a few hours.
Almost every night he would go down to the unfinished basement in his house to shoot pucks. On the wall, Roger taped targets. Ryan would try to hit them.
Roger would throw out pucks on the floor. Ryan’s task would be to keep his head and eyes up while stickhandling a golf ball around the pucks for 20 minutes.
Roger had all kinds of time and love for his boys, but he also had high standards, as the boys found out one night when Ryan was 12 or 13. “We were spending a lot of time, all of our money, effort and time, our heart and soul, because of their love for it,” Roger says of hockey, “but one night in particular neither of them had not done what I thought was good. They just hadn’t put out, and I was always the guy who worked hard, so I wanted that from them. So I got in the car and I reamed them. I said, ‘If you think I’m spending the rest of my life where all we ever do is this and you’re not ready to put out, we’re quitting right now. Either you do it right or you get out of it.’ I was screaming at them.”
The message didn’t need to be repeated.
As Nugent-Hopkins puts it: “I try to be the hardest worker on the ice. That rubbed off from my parents.”
In 2008, Nugent Hopkins was drafted first overall in the WHL’s bantam draft by the Red Deer Rebels.
In his first year, he won the league’s rookie-of-the-year award, scoring 65 points in 67 games.
One setback came when he failed to make Canada’s world junior team last December, but he came back from that to increase his scoring at Red Deer, putting up 31 goals and 106 points in 67 games this season.
The challenge of balancing league games, practices, school, travel had tournaments has been good for his him, Roger says. He has matured a lot since he left home at age 15 to billet with a Red Deer family.
“He’s had a real grind and he’s learned how to cope with that,” Roger says. “The Western Hockey League humbles you.”
It’s not easy to play three games in four nights in four cities, get home on the team bus at 3 a.m. and go to school the next morning, Roger says. “You have to learn how to do that mentally.”
More recently, there have been daily requests for interviews, as well as a four-day trip to Toronto so NHL scouts could test his physical fitness and interview him.
At the same time, he has been trying to finish Grade 12. He spent this past week both training and brushing up on 1984, King Lear and Death of a Salesman for his English 30 exam. “Some parts are pretty boring,” he says of 1984, “like when the described everything about Big Brother over 50 pages.”
A month ago, his mom noticed on School-Zone that his mark had dipped below a passing grade, largely because he’d been so busy with the playoffs and road trips. “My mom called. She was not very happy. I just got some extra work and did it.”
He had brought his mark up to 60 heading into the final, he says.
He’s now focused on weight training to build up his body so he’s better able to play the NHL’s fierce checking game. He played last season at 160-to-165 pounds, but is up to 174. His goal is to play next year at 175-to-180 pounds.
In recent years, most top picks in the NHL draft have made the jump to the big league as 18-year-olds. Nugent-Hopkins also has that in mind. “I feel I could make the jump and that’s my goal for next year.”
To succeed in the NHL, he needs to be stronger and bigger, says his old coach Batchelor. “He’s probably not ready next year. I think he needs a little bit of maturation in his body. I think another year of junior would do him well.”
On the Boston Pizza TV screen, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas makes another big save.
How would he try to beat Thomas?
“I’d try to get him moving and go upstairs,” Nugent-Hopkins says. “He likes go down when he gets across. I’d go side to side, either pass across or deke across.”
The Stanley Cup final is far away from a Red Deer pizza place, but not for the ambitious Nugent-Hopkins. He was just in Boston, a guest of the NHL with other top prospects, where they met broadcaster Don Cherry and attended the first game of the final.
“It’s pretty crazy to think I could be skating playing there,” Nugent-Hopkins says of the game on the TV screen. “It’s pretty cool to think about. Definitely.”
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