His awesome talents were evident from the very first moment that Ryan Nugent- Hopkins pulled on a Red Deer Rebels jersey.
“He stepped into our lineup at 15 and I think he was a point per game player,” said former Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin. “You could tell right off the bat, from the first time he stepped on the ice, that he was a special talent.
“He was one of those rare kids who come along who are just on an elite level.”
Nugent-Hopkins played five WHL games as a 15-year-old during the 2008-09 season, scoring twice and adding four assists. Blessed with soft, skillful hands, great acceleration and vision and the ability to deliver saucer passes on a shift-to-shift basis, he was simply the best pure talent to ever play for the Rebels.
Less than three whole years later, the Burnaby, B.C., product was in the NHL as the first overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2011 entry draft.
In between, he delivered two magical WHL seasons to fans not only in Red Deer but throughout the league.
Nugent-Hopkins was the WHL rookie of the year in 2009-10, scoring 24 goals and collecting 65 points, and the following winter he clicked for 31 goals and 106 points during the regular season and another four goals and 11 points in nine playoff outings.
What made Nugent-Hopkins extra special was his eagerness — and ability — to play a two-way game.
“The thing that was really neat about Hoppy was his willingness to learn,” said Wallin, who coached Nugent-Hopkins during his entire time with the Rebels. “You could never deny his talent level, that was always there. But what I really appreciated as a coach was his willingness to learn, his desire to get better.
“He was always open to feedback, open to ideas. He really wanted to learn to become a complete two-way player and he brought that attitude to the dressing room. When your best player carries that attitude it holds the rest of the group accountable. He made it easier to coach the group.”
Nugent-Hopkins scored the lone goal in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, giving Canada a 1-0 win over the United States.
He returned to Red Deer for his second and final year with the Rebels as an even better all-around player and rode the momentum of his international experience through a marvellous WHL season.
A Rebels alternate captain as a 17-year-old, Nugent-Hopkins said at the time that he modelled his game somewhat after that of Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk.
“He’s one of the most gifted offensive players in the league but he’s also one of the top defensive forwards in the league,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
“Playing a two-way game has kind of come natural to me, it was a big part of my game in minor hockey. I was always competitive, I hated losing and that made me work harder in the defensive zone.”
As the 2010-11 WHL season progressed and the NHL entry draft drew closer, Nugent-Hopkins was projected as a likely No. 1 overall pick. Yet, he never let all the accolades and expectations affect his on-ice performance and his yearning for simply helping the Rebels win over individual gains.
“I don’t really have a personal point production goal, but I’d really like to help my team go as far in the playoffs as possible,” he said. “That’s my main goal right now. Individual points will come with team success. Every time I go to the rink I just think about doing the best for my team. I don’t think it (NHL draft) will be a distraction.”
Nugent-Hopkins’ amazing physical abilities were over-shadowed only by his impressive personality.
“He was very low key, very unassuming and very humble. I think his humility was really what set him apart,” said Wallin.
“He was clearly a very special player, a dominant player at a young age, yet he never carried himself with an air. He treated people with respect, he was very respectful to his teammates, to his coaches, to the people around him. Again, when your best player carries himself that way it sets an example for the rest of your group.”
The upside to selecting Nugent-Hopkins first overall in the 2008 WHL bantam draft was obvious; the down side was that he played just two years in Red Deer.
When it became clear that Nugent-Hopkins would stick with the Oilers after standing out in training camp and through the 2011 NHL preseason, there were those who wondered aloud if the Rebels might have been better served by selecting, say, Ty Rattie — who went second to Portland and played four years in the WHL — at No. 1.
Wallin never agreed with that logic.
“I just think that you have to take the best player,” he said. “We spent a lot of time discussing Ryan, we spent a lot of time discussing the next few players in the bantam draft.
“We came to the conclusion that this kid was the best player in the draft and ultimately that’s the guy who you have to take, in my mind. It’s one of those things where it’s easier to say, ‘geez, it would have been better if we had taken someone else’, but had he come back as an 18-year-old we’d be saying ‘why didn’t we take that kid’?
“Hindsight always makes it easy, but when you have the opportunity to take the best player, you take the best player.”
Clearly, the Oilers thought likewise.
(To date, Nugent-Hopkins has played 391 games with Edmonton, producing 93 goals and 261 points).