As I watched the St. Albert boys, Turner Elson and Colten Mayor, participate in the shootout last Friday at the Centrium, I was reminded of a scene from their rookie season with the Red Deer Rebels.
During a frigid December of 2009, the pair of young Rebels dutifully packed the team bus after a Western Hockey League game in Saskatoon. It was minus 29 C outside Credit Union Centre.
“We just came back in (the rink) to get warm,” Elson said after he and Mayor completed that night’s rookie chores, shortly before the Rebels headed home on a dark, wintery highway.
It was so cold that another Red Deer rookie — some guy named Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — remarked that his hands (some of the softest in junior hockey at the time) were taking a beating.
Including post-game interviews, Nugent-Hopkins worked overtime that night and left the rink after all of his teammates, except for the equipment-packing buddies Elson and Mayor.
“He helps out, too,” Elson said of Nugent-Hopkins.
It sounded like a good spin at the time, suggesting that no task was beneath the emerging star. But all of the evidence before and after would indicate RNH is indeed a team-first player and a level-headed kid.
The reports from the NHL were no different last week as the Edmonton Oilers elected to keep the 18-year-old whiz and not return him to Red Deer. The slick centre graduated to the Oilpatch and said goodbye to Gasoline Alley in favour of Wayne Gretzky Drive and a permanent place in the NHL.
“He’s just a good all-around guy,” Mayor said last Friday, the same day the Rebels learned the Oilers were making room for Nugent-Hopkins, the top pick in last June’s NHL entry draft.
“There’s nothing bad to say about him. He’s humble. He knew how good he is. I love how he (stayed humble). Some guys, it gets to their head, and he never let that happen. I have a lot of respect for people like that.
“Like, right now, he’s leading the Oilers in points and I imagine he’s just as humble as he was at the start of (training) camp. I think that’s a great characteristic that he has.”
As part of the same Rebels’ rookie class in the 2009-10 season, Elson recognized the maturity Nugent-Hopkins showed on and off the ice.
“He handles everything really well,” Elson said. “He’s a really smart, intelligent kid. When pressure is laid on him, he takes it really well. He rises to the challenge.
“He fit in with us — all the rookies. He was friends with us, but he obviously knew there was pressure on him as a first-overall (draft pick). So he rose to the challenge and was a great player that year, too.”
After two seasons as teammates, Elson not only respects Nugent-Hopkins, but he knows what makes him tick.
During his audition with the Calgary Flames in September, Elson raised a few eyebrows with these comments in the Calgary Sun:
“I want to play (against Nugent-Hopkins), because I’m hoping I can get in his grill. I know how to get under his skin. (But) I wouldn’t want to hurt him, because I’d be out of Red Deer real quick. I’ll try to do what I do best — get under the skin of first-liners.”
He didn’t get to face off against Nugent-Hopkins, whom the Oilers elected to rest for the game between Edmonton and Calgary prospects, but Elson fought that night and went on to earn a contract with the Flames after a free-agent tryout. It made for a memorable 19th birthday for Elson as he returned to the Rebels in time for WHL opening night.
As for his Nugent-Hopkins banter, Elson smiled when reminded of those pre-season comments.
“Well, me and him are good friends and we know how to push each other’s buttons,” Elson said with a laugh. “He didn’t talk to me about it, so he didn’t have much to say about it.”
It seems everyone is talking about Nugent-Hopkins these days, along with his youthful linemates, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Just call them The Sick Line.
Although a case could have been made for returning the slight Nugent-Hopkins to the WHL, he obviously had other plans.
“I think we all knew he had it in him,” said Mayor, 18. “So it was just up to him, and he took advantage of it. He proved to the (Oilers’) organization and the NHL that he can play there, and that’s why he’s sticking around. He gave them no reason to send him home.
“I know that he worked hard. We’re all happy for him and we wish him all the best up there.”
John MacNeil is the editor of the Stettler Independent. His column will appear on Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.