As he was en route to Red Deer Sunday afternoon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins reflected back on five very eventful days in St. Paul, Minn.
It was truly a dream week for the Rebels’ outstanding centre, who was selected by the Edmonton Oilers first overall in Friday’s NHL entry draft.
“It was definitely surreal when I got picked. When I got my name called I couldn’t really believe it, to be honest,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who accompanied Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin on a flight to Calgary and then back to Red Deer.
“But the next day I woke up and it was definitely more realistic. It really hit me then.”
As the centre of attention before, during and even a good 24 hours after the draft, Nugent-Hopkins savoured every moment.
“It was a good week, a lot of fun. It was all worth it, for sure . . . a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he insisted.
Nugent-Hopkins flew to the Twin Cities Tuesday, and the following day visited the famous Mall of America with a handful of the top draft prospects. Even then, they were in the media spotlight.
“Most of us were mic-ed up. We toured around the mall, went on some rides and did other activities,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
On Thursday, the prospects participated in a clinic for minor hockey players, accompanying the youngsters on the ice and conducting drills. A day later, it was draft time.
Even though he dined at the Edmonton home of Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini earlier this month and was widely recognized as the player most likely to be picked first overall, Nugent-Hopkins wasn’t taking anything for granted.
“I knew that they (Oilers) were interested but I never knew for sure what was going to happen. But I was really relieved when they called my name,” he said.
Nugent-Hopkins will relax — with the exception of his usual daily workout — for the rest of the week in Red Deer, then head to Edmonton for the Oilers prospects camp starting Sunday.
From there, the 18-year-old will return home to Burnaby, B.C., to enjoy — at least for him — a relatively quiet summer.
Unlike last year, when he played in an overseas tournament as a member of Canada’s under-18 team and then attended an NHL research and development camp in Toronto, the only activity of note on his 2011 summer schedule is the Canadian national junior team summer camp Aug. 3-7 in Edmonton and Fort McMurray.
“Other than that, it will just be a lot of training,” he said.
“It will certainly be less busy than last summer.”
• While Nugent-Hopkins’ dreams of being drafted were realized early, his Rebels linemate John Persson had to wait until Saturday to learn his fate.
It was certainly worth the wait as the Swedish power forward was selected by the New York Islanders early in the fifth round.
“I was very excited last night and I still am. This is a great opportunity for me,” Persson said Sunday from his home in Mora, Sweden. “Of course, it’s a really big thing to be drafted and I’m happy that it was the Islanders that picked me.”
Persson was not included in the final Central Scouting rankings of players eligible for the draft and therefore was somewhat surprised when his name appeared as the 125th overall selection.
“I hadn’t really talked to many teams at all. Myself and a few other (Rebels) players filled out forms (questionnaires) from NHL teams and sent them in before the draft,” he said.
Prior to Sunday evening, Persson had been in contact with Islanders personnel via text message.
“The guys I was texting with were flying back from the NHL draft today and will call me later tonight,” he said. “I’ll probably go to their rookie camp this summer and they will give me all the information when they call.”
Persson turned in a solid 2010-11 WHL season with 33 goals and 61 points in 68 games. His plus-minus ranking of plus-37 was second-best on the team.
“I had a good season. I played much more than in the first season, and playing with Ryan makes it pretty easy,” he said. “When Ryan was picked first Friday I was really excited. I was really pumped for him.”
Although Nugent-Hopkins and Persson were the only Rebels selected in the draft, Wallin expects that at least three more — Adam Kambeitz, Turner Elson and Andrej Kudrna — will be granted — or have already received — NHL free-agent tryouts.
“Kamby, to my understanding, is supposed to be going to camp with Phoenix and although Turner doesn’t have anything confirmed yet I know Calgary and Edmonton have interviewed him and Philadelphia has expressed interest too,” said Wallin.
As for Kudrna . . .
“There are some teams kicking his name around,” said Wallin. “I was a little surprised that he didn’t get drafted because there was a number of teams that had talked to me about Andrej and said they had him on their draft list, so I would expect he will get a tryout opportunity as well.”
Toronto, Boston and the Islanders are among the teams that showed interest in Kudrna.
• With Persson set to return to the Rebels for the 2011-12 WHL season and Kudrna likely ticketed for the pro ranks either in North America or Europe, Wallin will make just one selection in the Canadian Hockey League import draft Wednesday.
The Rebels own the 59th pick — out of 60 teams — in the first round of the draft and will announce their selection at roughly 4:40 p.m.
“We have a list of names, a list of potential picks. You do as much homework as you can,” said Wallin. “Obviously it’s difficult because you haven’t seen these players yourself. You’re really trusting other people’s opinions and in a lot of cases the agents haven’t seen the players.
“You’re relying on other people like NHL scouts that you trust. Of course those guys might have seen them only once or twice and are relying on their European scouts. It’s a trail with a lot of unknowns and a lot of variables and factors involved. But we feel we have some names that have some potential.”
Wallin will seek either a defenceman or a goaltender in the draft.