Long bus rides are supposed to end as soon as a player is drafted first overall in the NHL and ticketed for future stardom.
But Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 top pick, and Taylor Hall, selected No. 1 in 2010, are logging many hours on highways this season.
The young Edmonton Oilers stars, along with fellow sniper Jordan Eberle, are learning about life in the minors with the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL during the NHL lockout.
“I never thought too much about (playing in the minors),” Nugent-Hopkins said Friday after the Barons’ morning skate in preparation for a game against the Abbotsford Heat, the top farm club of the Calgary Flames.
“But I’m happy under the circumstances to be able to keep playing and keep building chemistry with guys that are going to be with Edmonton in a few years.”
Nugent-Hopkins, 19, Hall, 20, and Eberle, 22, are exempt from the lockout, because of their ages and entry-level contracts. Now, the budding Canadian stars often find themselves playing before small crowds in non-traditional hockey markets rather than soldout buildings across Canada and large audiences in the U.S.
“If the building is empty, you’ve kind of got to find your own adrenaline and not work off the crowd too much, and find other things,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s been a little bit different, obviously, than last year.”
Nugent-Hopkins, a former Red Deer Rebels centre, made a quick impact in the NHL last season as he produced 18 goals and 34 assists in a season limited to 62 games by a shoulder injury. He tied for top spot in scoring among first-year players with Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, who played all 82 regular-season games and beat him out for rookie of the year honours.
Nugent-Hopkins, a Burnaby, B.C., native who is enjoying a homecoming this weekend, said the presence of Hall, who recorded 27 goals and 27 assists last season, and Eberle, who produced 34 goals and 42 assists, have made the transition to minor-league life easier. The young stars, along with rookie defenceman Justin Schultz, a highly-sought college free agent who signed with the Oilers in the summer, live in the same apartment complex and spend virtually all of their time together.
Nugent-Hopkins shares an apartment with Schultz while Eberle and Hall room together in their temporary home. All four ride bikes to Barons home games.
Magnus Paajarvi, 21, another Oilers first-round pick (10th overall, 2009) who spent all of his 2010-11 rookie season with Edmonton and then split 2011-12 between the big club and the Barons, is also toiling for Barons. Nugent-Hopkins said the unique situation created by the lockout is enabling him and young Oiler mates to get closer on and off the ice.
“We’re all just growing up as a team together,” he said.
Ryan’s father Roger Hopkins said the transition to Oklahoma City has been much more difficult for his son than the move to Edmonton from Red Deer.
“It’s like the Western League all over again,” said Hopkins. “It’s not like the NHL where it’s all charters. But it’s hockey, and he loves playing hockey.”
The Barons recently took a bus from Oklahoma City to San Antonio. The return trip took 16 hours. To get to Abbotsford, they flew to Seattle and rode a bus for another three hours. Altogether, the trip took 12 hours. They will return to Oklahoma City on Sunday after playing the second of back-to-back games Saturday against the Heat.
But Hopkins, who has watched his son’s home games over the Internet, said the youngsters are used to spending long hours on buses. The biggest adjustment stems from playing before sparse crowds in an Oklahoma City arena that seats more than 14,000.
“It’s not like being in Edmonton or Vancouver or, for that matter, most NHL rinks. ... It just looks empty out there,” said Hopkins.
But according to Eberle, drafted by the Oilers in the first round (22nd overall) in 2008, the game on the ice is quite similar. If many NHLers had the option of choosing between playing in Europe or the minors during the lockout, they would have chosen to play in the AHL.
“First off, they get the North American-style game,” he said. “I’ve played in Europe (in world championships), and it’s a completely different game. The AHL is very underrated for the talent that it has.”
Hall said playing on the power play and in other situations with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle will serve as good preparation for when the NHL season starts.
“It’s fun,” said Hall, who never expected to play in the minors. “I’ve wanted to play pro hockey since I’ve been a little kid. I have my chance now, so I’m trying to enjoy it, trying to do the best I can for this team — no matter how long we’re here.”
According to Barons coach Todd Nelson, the young Oilers are also bringing out the best in their teammates and opponents. All of the Barons’ rivals want to prove themselves against stars who are expected to lead Edmonton for years to come.
“Every team we play against, we have prospects that are clawing their way to get to the National Hockey League, and everybody views this as an opportunity to showcase themselves to all 30 teams — because, let’s face it, people are looking to watch games and scout other players,” said Nelson. “It’s a great opportunity for these players with the teams to test themselves up against these guys. We’re going to get everybody’s A game, no matter what.”
Nugent-Hopkins recently underwent extensive dental work after taking a cross-check and is sporting a full cage on his helmet. But Nelson said the youngsters, who are very coachable and willing to learn, have not been targeted for rough stuff because of their star status.
Instead, they’ve just been subject to “good, hard hockey” while playing in difficult game situations that will help them prepare for the demands of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the future.
“They’re (averaging) a point a game, they’re playing good hockey, but I don’t think that the American Hockey League gets the credit that it deserves,” said Nelson.
The 43-year-old Prince Albert, Sask., native, who spent most of a 16-season pro playing career in the minors and suited up for only three NHL games with Pittsburgh and Washington, said the AHL is more than just a “stepping ground.”
“People don’t get to see a lot of the American Hockey League,” he said. “But it’s a difficult league to play in. I think it’s the hardest league to play in just because, if you play in the NHL, everything’s a bit more controlled and it’s easier for players to go up and play versus coming down.”
It remains to be seen just how many — and for how long — Oklahoma City residents will come out and watch Nugent-Hopkins and Hall in a market full of rabid NBA and college football fans. Nelson said fans local residents have not realized the significance of the rare chance to watch two top NHL draft picks in action.
“If you translate it into first overall picks in football or basketball, it’d probably hit home a lot more,” said Nelson. “Oklahoma City has a rich hockey history going back to the ‘60s or whatever. I think (people) are curious, but they don’t quite see the magnitude of it — not as much as the Canadian people that love the game. Hopefully, if the lockout continues, they can come and just enjoy these guys.”
Hopkins believes his son would much rather be back in the NHL, but the return to life on the busses is “just part of the deal” until a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.
“He’s only 19, so he’s got a long way to go yet,” said Hopkins.