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Prep Watch: Rebel with a cause

Vancouver Northwest Giants' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had brief taste of WHL action during a two-game stint with Red Deer. (Photos courtesy of Dave Brunner Photography)

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Vancouver Northwest Giants' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had brief taste of WHL action during a two-game stint with Red Deer. (Photos courtesy of Dave Brunner Photography)

The Red Deer Rebels have graduated some pretty impressive players in recent years, from Dion Phaneuf and Cam Ward to Martin Hanzal and Brandon Sutter. But the Rebs have been rebuilding lately and the dip in the standings may have landed the team its next big star.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 15, was Red Deer’s top pick, first overall, in last year’s Western League bantam draft. The ultra-skilled center already suited up for the Rebels as an underager, tallying two assists in two games before returning to his midget team, the Vancouver Northwest Giants, where he currently leads the league in scoring with 24 goals and 50 points in 22 games.

Naturally, the Rebels are pretty excited about getting the pivot into their lineup full-time next year. So what has impressed them about RNH?

“What hasn’t?” said Red Deer head coach Jesse Wallin. “He’s just a complete package. Incredible vision, he can handle the puck at top speed and he has a powerful stride.”

Nugent-Hopkins himself counts playmaking, skating and vision as his greatest assets and faceoffs and strength as the two aspects of his game he wants to improve the most on as the season progresses.

The one obvious sticking point right now is RNH’s size. Coming in at about 6-foot and just 155 pounds, the youngster certainly has some filling out to do.

“They say it’ll come in time and I hope it comes in time,” Nugent-Hopkins said of his weight. He has been getting nutrition tips from the Rebels in the meantime. “A lot of chicken, a lot of pasta, a ton of milk…protein and vegetables.”

Despite the lack of bulk, the Rebels’ coach has been impressed with RNH’s willingness to play like he’s much heavier.

“I think he’s a guy who competes for the puck,” Wallin said. “The reason he has it so much is he’s willing to go get it; going into traffic and not shying away from contact.”

Considering the rugged reputation the WHL has, it’s going to be important for Nugent-Hopkins to keep that demeanor, especially since he’ll already be a focal point for both opponents and fans thanks to his No. 1 draft designation.

“First of all, it’s a huge honor,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I do think about it, but I don’t let it bother me.”

And why would he? The youngster is heading to a hockey-mad town and a team owned by local hero and former NHLer Brent Sutter, who delivered a Memorial Cup to Red Deer in 2001 as coach, just two years after buying the team.

“There’s so many good things about him and his family,” Nugent-Hopkins said of Sutter. “He seems really excited to have me there and I’m excited to get there, so I think it will work out well.”

Red Deer’s current coach is also a fan of his first-round prospect.

“Without question he’s going to be a very important part of this team,” Wallin said. “He endears himself with his humility and fits in with the older guys. Definitely a soft-spoken guy.”

And although Nugent-Hopkins may speak softly, he also wields a dangerous stick, which is something he’ll try to use to its fullest when the Northwest Giants weigh into the annual Mac’s Tournament in Calgary over Christmas. If fate conspires, he may end up playing against the prospect drafted right after him last year, UFA Bison’s star and future Portland Winter Hawk Ty Rattie, who RNH knows pretty well.

“We’ve Facebooked each other a couple times,” Nugent-Hopkins said.

It goes without saying, whoever goes further in Calgary will initiate the next message.

Prep Watch will return Jan. 8

Prep Watch, which features minor hockey players destined to become big names in major junior or the NCAA, appears every Thursday, only on thehockeynews.com.

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