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Burnaby native Ryan Nugent-Hopkins returns to his home province with the Oklahoma City Barons to face the Abbotsford Heat this weekend.
Steven Christy / OKC Barons

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Nugent-Hopkins' path to stardom began in Burnaby

by Grant Granger

Black Press

Roger Hopkins remembers a day many years ago watching his son Adam, who was about nine at the time, do some hockey drills with other players.

Another son, Ryan, who was younger than Adam by almost five years, was on the ice, too.

"Ryan was a little mite of a guy," recalls Hopkins.

For one drill they skated from one end to the other. Little Ryan went flying down the ice, but he couldn't stop and wiped out, crashing into the boards. He was crying, but he was OK.

"I was trying hard Dad," he said when Roger rushed out on the ice.

Roger said to the coach, "Sorry, Ryan doesn't know how to stop yet."

"No, he doesn't, but Roger, he was the fastest guy out there," said the incredulous coach.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been impressing hockey people ever since.

•••••

Nugent-Hopkins began learning to skate when he was two years old. When he wasn't on the ice, Nugent-Hopkins would play road hockey with his brother and other neighbourhood kids, or go to the basement to shoot pucks against the wall.

"I always had a passion for it. I always loved to play," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I've always just liked playing for fun, I never thought it would end up like this."

At first Nugent-Hopkins played at the North Shore Winter Club, but that became too far and too expensive, so he played for Burnaby Minor for a year and then the Burnaby Winter Club. When he hit Grade 8, he chose to attend Burnaby North's hockey academy so he could get more ice time.

In Nugent-Hopkins' first year in major bantam, the BWC Bruins won the Western Canadian title. It was a dominant squad with four players selected in the first round of the 2007 WHL bantam draft and seven in the first 50.

The team's coach, John Batchelor, told Hopkins his kid had "a real shot" at playing in the NHL. It surprised Hopkins because he believed the odds of it happening were one in a million.

Hockey agent Rick Valette of Octagon Sports knew the odds were a lot better than that the first time he set eyes on him.

"I couldn't help but watch this kid, he was mesmerizing," says Valette. "He was an amazing talent, even at that age, he just absolutely controlled that game."

•••••

When Nugent-Hopkins saw all his teammates getting scouted he knew he had a chance to play in the WHL. The night before the 2008 bantam draft, the Rebels, who had the first overall selection, called to make sure he would commit to them and not take the U.S. college route. He was more than happy to sign on the dotted line.

He lived up to the great expectations. In 2009-10, when he won WHL rookie of the year scoring 24 goals and 65 points.

"I knew it was going to be a big jump," says Nugent-Hopkins. "My decisions had to be a lot quicker, guys are a lot bigger and a lot stronger.

"I just tried to use all my assets to an advantage and not get roughed up too much."

Off the ice, his billets, Craig and Kim Nykyforuk, made life comfortable for him in Red Deer just like they did for another Burnaby boy, Landon Ferraro, before him.

"This is definitely a lot different city than Vancouver is. It's a small-town atmosphere, but you've got everything you need," says Nugent-Hopkins, who also had to get used to the long, overnight bus trips as well as juggling high school studies with his pursuit of puck preeminence.

"It's been difficult a little bit. You want to do the best you can with hockey so you keep going while remember school is still important."

For Hopkins and Ryan's mother, Deb Nugent, it may have been sad to see their son move so far away, but it more than worked out as both of them heap praise on the Nykyforuks.

"It's hard to let your son go, but it's been the best for him," says Hopkins.

•••••

The Edmonton Oilers nabbed Nugent-Hopkins with the first overall selection in the 2011 NHL entry draft, and before the 2011-12 season, many pundits predicted he would be returned to the Rebels after training camp because the teenager was too slight to play in the NHL. They feared the boy couldn't handle being pushed around by men.

Nugent-Hopkins took the prognostications in stride, exhibiting little bravado in front of the cameras. Sure, he would say, his goal was to make the team out of training camp while acknowledging getting sent back was a possibility. He just let his work on the ice do his talking for him and it spoke, in decibel-busting volumes, about his talent and his readiness to play in the NHL before he had even reached drinking age in his home province.

"It's definitely been a whirlwind, but more for him," Debbie Nugent said. "It's overwhelming, it's surreal when I'm watching him play.

"It's all really mind boggling to me, I just don't really fathom it."

•••••

Her son has taken not only the Alberta capital — where he's affectionally known as RNH or Nuge — by storm, but he's grabbed the attention of every hockey observer in North America in a big way. Before getting injured, Nugent-Hopkins was the Oilers' top scorer in 2011-12. He ended the season with 52 points in 62 games, and finishing second in the Calder Cup rookie of the year voting to Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog.

"His intelligence is helping him find ways to adapt to a different level," Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini told the Canadian Press.

To put how blazing a start it has been for the rookie in perspective, in his first 25 NHL games, Nugent-Hopkins scored 27 points, just one less than superstar Sidney Crosby had in his first 25.

He was named NHL rookie of the month in October and November. The only other player to do that in his rookie season was Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in 2006 and the Russian was 20 years old at the time.

Nugent-Hopkins has impressed even the old guard like former Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Oilers head coach Pat Quinn, who dares to compare Nugent-Hopkins to The Great One.

"He seems to see the ice like [Wayne] Gretzky did," Quinn told the Toronto Star. "That's unfair to compare him to Gretzky. But he has beautiful vision. Puck's always around him. He always seems to go to the right spots."

Those are lofty statements to live up to on the ice. But the quiet kid who went to Suncrest elementary and Burnaby North secondary has been a star off the ice as well, as TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, whose son played with Nugent-Hopkins at the Burnaby Winter Club and with the Rebels, can attest to.

"As talented as Ryan is, he's just a fantastic kid," said Ferraro on a network telecast earlier this month. "The Oilers have drafted themselves not only an extremely talented player, but a wonderful young man. They've got a real building block cornerstone for the next 10 years or so."

•••••

The NHL lockout saw Nugent-Hopkins shuffled off to the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons this fall, and he's in Abbotsford this weekend to face the Heat (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).

He got off to a rather slow start with the Barons, and was held off the scoresheet in three of his first four AHL games.

But he reeled off a four-game point streak at that juncture, and is now averaging better than a point per game (three goals and seven assists in nine games).

As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and players' union head Donald Fehr haggle over dollars and cents, it's hard to say when Nugent-Hopkins will get to resume his NHL career. Hopefully it's sooner than later. But wherever he is, B.C. hockey fans will be watching.

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