Ryan Nugent-Hopkins took part in Movember, but you’d have hardly noticed. He sheepishly called it his “muzzy,” a collection of wisps numbering little more than his 18 years, netting $1,021 in donations.
Not bad for a bashful teen whose mom just ordered his grad photos, who sleeps away much of the day and who loves video games. But Nugent-Hopkins’s time as an average teen ended at the NHL draft last June when he was selected first overall by the Edmonton Oilers.
The slick centre, who repeated as rookie of the month in November, is among the league’s hottest stars, and typically has two others on his line: right winger Jordan Eberle, a 21-year-old sniper and former world juniors MVP, and Taylor Hall, 20, a bull-in-a-china-shop left winger drafted first overall in 2010. They’re averaging nearly a point a game each in a hockey-mad city where they’re noticed in malls, on the street or at bars. Hall’s mother worries he can’t go grocery shopping, while he assures her he can.
Such pressure has overwhelmed veteran players, much less those a year removed from the Western Hockey League. Nugent-Hopkins entered Friday tied for fifth in league scoring with 11 goals and 16 assists, and there are only four cities he can legally buy booze in. He’s not even a year older than Justin Bieber, and was in diapers when teammate Ryan Smyth played his first NHL game.
“I always joke, but it’s probably true, he’s still growing,” says Oilers forward Ryan Jones, 28, who is billeting the young star at the suggestion of team management. “He’s a really good roommate. He just sleeps.”
As he grows, “Nuge” (his old nickname, Hoppy, was deemed too Disney-esque for the pros) carries the weight of a city. Crowds scream “Nooooge” whenever he gets a goal or assist, and they’ve been yelling it a lot lately.
Last Monday, for example, Nugent-Hopkins spun quickly away from a defender – the crowd gasped and the defender fell – before passing to Eberle, who took the puck around the net and scored. It was the Oilers’ only goal that night. On Wednesday, Nugent-Hopkins was the first skater on the ice for an optional practice. That night, he and Eberle had a goal and an assist each, again, the only two goals the Oilers scored, with Eberle, a sophomore tied for seventh in league scoring with nine goals and 17 assists, adding another in the shootout. “I don’t know if they’re carrying our team,” coach Tom Renney says. “But they’re vital to our success.”
Only Toronto’s Phil Kessel has scored more points on home ice this season than Nugent-Hopkins, who is on pace for the best rookie season since Sidney Crosby. Nuge’s name echoes through Edmonton these days, with even teammates in awe. “Sometimes you kind of look back and say: ‘How could it be that easy?’ It’s pretty impressive,” Oilers forward Sam Gagner, 22, says.
At practice, though, you wouldn’t know he’s a star. He looks like any other rookie, something of a polite loner, weaving in and out of older, slower players, cracking smiles with each deke and shot. He’s giddy.
“The big thing most guys have told me is to just take it all in, learn as much as you can,” Nugent-Hopkins says. “You only go through your rookie season once.”
RYAN’S ROAD TO THE NHL
Two years ago, Nugent-Hopkins departed his hometown of Burnaby, B.C., for the WHL in Red Deer, a city of 80,000 halfway between Edmonton and Calgary. He excelled, scoring 106 points in 69 games in his final season. As the NHL draft rolled around, pundits questioned whether his small frame – a wiry six feet, listed generously at 175 pounds – could endure life in the NHL. The Oilers weren’t deterred.
“He’s not overpowering against anyone, but he never gets overpowered,” says Kevin Lowe, the Oilers’ president of hockey operations. “It’s just a really crafty game.”
Two months later, the teen made the team in training camp.
“New equipment guy for the year,” Hall, now a sophomore, wrote on Twitter. Nugent-Hopkins became an instant star. “All of a sudden there’s this huge group of people around us,” says his mother, Deb Nugent, overwhelmed by her youngest son’s stardom. “I’m still not used to that.”
Nugent-Hopkins, however, is in an ideal situation for a rookie. He joined a locker room stocked with young talent, including Anton Lander, Magnus Paajarvi and defenceman Corey Potter, another of the season’s big surprises. Hall and Eberle are best friends who live together (and crave a certain measure of anonymity; for Halloween they dressed as the Green Men, the Vancouver Canucks’ fans clad scalp to heel in green spandex).
A former sixth overall pick himself, Gagner joined a much more veteran Oilers team after being drafted. “These guys are going through something completely different,” Gagner says. “They’ve handled it very well.”
Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins all shrug off the pressure, saying it’s an honour to be inundated with attention.
“Who wouldn’t want to play here?” Eberle says. “As a Canadian and a hockey fan, you get to play in a Canadian city where fans love their game, they love the sport and they love their team.”
They’re taught to tell people exactly that; the league, coaches, veteran players and the National Hockey League Players’ Association all train top prospects to be ambassadors. They can’t train for everything. Hall once had his Twitter account hacked, had someone pose as him on Facebook and, when he tweeted about voting in his first federal election, he was grilled for voting Conservative.
“I do [worry] to be honest with you,” Hall’s mother, Kim Strba, says. “It’s not really normal to be at a red light and look over and have someone take your picture.”
That happens in Edmonton, where the young guns simply can’t be normal kids.
“No, not here,” Gagner says. “They’re going to get recognized. Sometimes you want your privacy, too. It weighs on people, but like I said, we’ve got a good group of guys here. It kinds of keeps everyone level-headed and on the same page.”
It’s through young players that Edmonton sees a chance to rebuild. This is a franchise with an onerous travel schedule, bone-chilling climate and a small population. It has tried and failed to attract top-tier free agents, overpaying for those it could lure or convince to stay (captain Shawn Horcoff’s salary of $6.5-million is higher than that of either Sedin twin).
Young players, however, more easily embrace Edmonton.
“As a kid, you don’t dream of playing down south where, you know, you get 10,000 a game and fans are kind of into it,” says defenceman Theo Peckham, 23, another young Oilers standout. “You dream of coming into the rink, it’s sold out, everybody’s screaming, the energy’s amazing.”
The public pressure may not be as big an issue for the rookie. It’s Eberle and Hall who are extroverts seen often in Edmonton bars; Nugent-Hopkins is a Call of Duty fan.
“We try and hang out with Nuge as much as possible, but for the most part he kind of likes to be off on his own,” Hall says with a shrug, a pack of ice wrapped around an aching left shoulder that will sideline him for at least another week. “He’s that kind of kid. I think Nuge has a good head on his shoulders. He doesn’t get too wound up about anything. And I think that benefits him, especially in a market like this, where you can just kind of relax and think about hockey. That’s pretty much what he does.”
Amid the tweets, video games and practices, Nuge, Ebs and Hallsy are coping with the pressure. They could form a line for years to come and emerge as superstars, but they hope their day has already come.
“We don’t want to be a team that has a lot of potential, that can be good in the future,” Hall says. “We want to be a team that makes something happen and does the best with what we all have. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Editor's note: Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff’s salary, not his cap hit, is $6.5-million. Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this article.