Team Orr forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looks up ice while playing against Team Cherry during second period CHL Top Prospects hockey action in Toronto on January 19, 2011. Once Ryan Nugent-Hopkins got a hockey stick in his hands, he refused to let it go. The player most likely to be selected No. 1 in the NHL draft on Friday was initially pushed towards other sports, but nothing else stuck. It was an attachment so strong his father can't even explain it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Once Ryan Nugent-Hopkins got a hockey stick in his hands, he refused to let it go.
The player most likely to be selected No. 1 in the NHL draft Friday was initially pushed towards other sports, but nothing else stuck. It was an attachment so strong his father can't even explain it.
"I don't know (where it came from)," Roger Hopkins said in a recent interview. "I never played hockey, I played baseball. I tried to get my kids to play (baseball) and they didn't like it, so they played hockey instead. They both loved it from a very young age and that's it. (Ryan's) always had a passion for it.
"Hockey was just something he started playing seriously at about four years old and he's never missed a day since."
Nugent-Hopkins enters the draft as the top-ranked North American skater by NHL central scouting. He was also the only prospect invited to Edmonton for an in-depth visit with the Oilers, who are scheduled to make the No. 1 pick at Xcel Energy Center.
No matter what team ends up calling his name, it promises to be life-changing for the 18-year-old Red Deer Rebels centre.
He's been in the spotlight since winning the Western Hockey League's rookie of the year award in 2009-10, emerging as a potential No. 1 prospect. Finally on the verge of learning his NHL fate, it almost seems too good to be true.
"It still hasn't even really hit me," said Nugent-Hopkins.
Like all of the top prospects, the last year has been a whirlwind of activity and travel. Raised in Burnaby, B.C., and now living in Red Deer, Alta., Nugent-Hopkins racked up the air miles while attending numerous events for draft prospects—not to mention a couple experiences with Hockey Canada.
His father believes one of the reasons he still weighs only 170 pounds is because the busy schedule has prevented him from working out to his full potential.
"As a dad, you sort of think, 'Gosh, is he going to get down time? Is he ever going to be a kid?'" said Roger Hopkins. "For the last 18 months, Ryan hasn't stopped. He hasn't been able to train like he'd like to. I'm not complaining, but it's just a matter of life. You're on the go constantly—the Western league's a grind, then he went to world junior (selection camp), he went to under-18, he went to under-17.
"There's so much travel, there's so much of everything."
Of course, Ryan wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'll tell you what, you'd never hear him complain," said Roger. "He's loved every minute of it."
The biggest question that will follow Nugent-Hopkins is whether he can play in the NHL at his current weight. He had 31 goals and 106 points this season for the Rebels—leaving him with very little left to achieve in the WHL—but could probably stand to gain another 20 pounds to compete against men.
Nugent-Hopkins was one of four prospects recently brought to the Stanley Cup final and couldn't get over the size of the players on the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks.
"I definitely need to gain some weight," said Nugent-Hopkins. "I need to put some muscle on and get bigger and stronger. Seeing these guys in the hall, they're all men and they're all big guys."
In time he'll be one of them.
Young players have been able to make a big impact on the NHL in recent years and Nugent-Hopkins appears to be the next in line. It's something he's been working towards relentlessly since first picking up a hockey stick 15 years ago.
"It's been a fairytale thing, really," said Roger. "I can't tell you how it happened. I don't know why it happened, but I'm glad it did.
"He's a good kid."