EDMONTON — Believe it or not, Red Deer Rebels standout forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had plenty in common with all of the 16-year-olds who were finding their way in the Western Hockey League during the 2009-10 season.
While the Burnaby, B.C., product was virtually in a class of his own in terms of talent, Nugent-Hopkins was still just another wide-eyed youngster trying to make a name for himself hundreds of kilometres from home.
“It was pretty tough trying to adjust to leaving home and everything else, but I had a great billet family and the guys (Rebels teammates) made me feel like part of the group right away,” Nugent-Hopkins said Wednesday, after receiving the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL rookie of the year during the league’s awards luncheon at the West Edmonton Mall Fantasyland Hotel.
“I started to feel at home pretty quickly. It was difficult being away from my family, but eventually Red Deer felt like a second home. I was just trying to adjust to the league and to get this award is pretty exciting to go with the overall experience of my first year as a Rebel.”
Nugent-Hopkins, who celebrated his 17th birthday earlier this month, was the Rebels’ second-leading scorer with 24 goals and 65 points in 67 games. But he didn’t pinpoint any individual accomplishments while identifying his rookie-season highlights.
“It was just a whole bunch of things, but the best were the couple of really good winning streaks. Those were exciting times for our team,” he said.
Nugent-Hopkins is already itching to return to Red Deer and help the Rebels take the next step towards a WHL championship.
“Definitely, next season should be huge for our team,” he insisted. “We have a lot of guys returning, so we’re going to be older and bigger and better. It should be a good year.”
Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin fully expected that Nugent-Hopkins would be chosen as the league’s top freshman over Western Conference nominee and fellow 16-year-old Shane McColgan of the Kelowna Rockets.
“As tremendous an honour as this is for him (Nugent-Hopkins), I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone,” said Wallin, who expected greatness from the first overall pick in the 2008 WHL bantam draft, especially after he led the BC Major Midget Hockey League in scoring as a 15-year-old in 2008-09 and dazzled during a five-game, six-point (2g,4a) stint with the Rebels.
“When he stepped in as a full-time player last fall the expectations were so high for him,” said Wallin. “Did he exceed those expectations? It’s hard to say. He certainly did everything we expected of him and yet it just seems that the sky is the limit for him.
“Ryan has a tremendous head on his shoulders. He’s a tremendous teammate and a very competitive kid, and we’re just really happy for him and proud of him for getting this recognition.”
While Nugent-Hopkins’ talent is undeniable, Wallin agreed that it’s his humble approach that helps make the young star a special player and a special person.
“His personality is what’s going to carry him forward. That’s what’s kind of going to separate him from other young players, in my mind,” said Wallin. “There’s a lot of kids with ability, but when you get to this level and move beyond it’s about how you manage certain things, how you carry yourself and your desire to improve and get better.
“He’s not a real outspoken young man, but he has really strong leadership qualities with the way he carries himself. He’s very well respected and with his character, if he continues to develop his talents, I think he’s got a tremendous future ahead of him.”