VANCOUVER – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was right where he wanted to be Monday morning.
As the Edmonton Oilers teenage star was skating with his NHL club in Vancouver for a game against the Canucks, Canada was getting ready to open the world junior championships against Finland back in Alberta’s capital.
Like most Canadian kids, Nugent-Hopkins, 18, dreamed of wearing a jersey with a stylized maple leaf on its chest in the annual Christmastime tournament that consumes the country. But he took the fast track to professional stardom, and barring unusual and unforeseen circumstances—such as an NHL player lockout—will never get the opportunity to kiss a world junior gold medal, sigh over silver, or brood about bronze.
Still, the Burnaby, B.C., native said he has no regrets about missing out on an opportunity that many players around the world cherish.
“Obviously, it would have been nice to make the team last year,” he said. “But this year, I’m more than happy playing for the Oilers.”
Nugent-Hopkins was among the final cuts for the Canadian team that earned a silver medal at last year’s tourney in Buffalo. He had vowed to come back with a strong effort this year, but he never got the chance.
Even with two years of world junior eligibility remaining, including this year, he can only watch the tournament from afar as he competes in the NHL earlier than most of his peers.
Edmonton selected him first overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft and, after some early doubts, he quickly made the club and excelled. Now he is the leading first-year scorer and the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honours.
Oilers coach Tom Renney said the club considered during training camp whether to allow him to play for Canada if he returned to his Red Deer Rebels junior team. But there was no intention to let him go once he started to shine at the NHL level.
He was too important to Edmonton’s offensive game.
“It’s not like he’s playing four minutes a night,” said Renney. “He’s playing a lot of hockey.”
Both Renney and Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini have extensive experience with Hockey Canada and the Canadian junior team. During the 1990s, Renney served as a head coach and assistant during the world juniors and also oversaw the program in his role as a Hockey Canada vice-president. Tambellini played alongside a kid named Wayne Gretzky when the tournament was still in its infancy in 1978 and served as director of player personnel when Canada won junior gold in 2003.
Based on personal experience, Renney and Tambellini could both relate to Canada’s annual struggle to secure top talent. Renney also has a strong connection with Don Hay, Canada’s coach at the junior tournament. Renney coached with Hay with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League in the 1990s. But Tambellini and Renney did not hesitate to put the Oilers before their country.
“You could give him up and help them out,” said Renney. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that those 23 kids get an opportunity to play for Canada rather than playing with him. People have to understand that that’s Team Canada.”
Edmonton veteran Ryan Smyth, who played in the world juniors the last time coach Don Hay was at the helm in the mid-1990s, said Nugent-Hopkins made a good trade-off by playing for the Oilers instead. Winger Taylor Hall, who played for the Canadian team that won silver in 2010, said Nugent-Hopkins likely wishes he could have taken part in the tournament last year, but he made it clear his goal was to play in the NHL this season.
“He made no bones about that,” said Hall. “He made the team and he’s doing great so far. I can’t see him having any regrets.”
Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who played for Sweden during the 1999 world juniors in Winnipeg, does not think Nugent-Hopkins will regret being on the road with the Oilers during this year’s event, either. But he offered a different reason why.
Sedin, who watches the competition closely every year and is regarded as one of the most zealous Canucks in terms of interest in the tournament said Nugent-Hopkins won’t miss playing with his compatriots “because they’re going to finish second behind Sweden.”
“I think he’s fine where he is,” said Sedin.
Notes: Monday’s Oilers-Canucks contest served as a consolation prize of sorts for Nugent-Hopkins as he will play in his hometown for the first time in a NHL regular-season game. … Canucks D Keith Ballard, who missed two games with back spasms and sat out a third as a precaution, returned to the Vancouver line-up while rearguard Alexander Sulzer was scratched. … Oilers D Ryan Whitney was sidelined with tendonitis in an ankle that required surgery around this time last year. He has played only 17 games this season. Winger Ales Hemsky, who missed Edmonton’s last game before Christmas, was held out because of sinus issues and dizziness, said Renney.