After paying a visit to the Minnesota Sea Life Aquarium within the Mall of America, Huberdeau did a double-take when he spotted Nickelodeon cartoon character Jimmy Neutron strolling by.
"Oh my, it's Phillips," Huberdeau said, pointing to the character's incredible head of hair.
Of course, Huberdeau was playfully referring to his Saint John linemate, Zack Phillips. He'd ask someone to take a picture and Red Deer Rebels center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was happy to oblige. It was a pretty surreal moment for two of the finest young prospects in the world, chilling and having a good time just two days before their childhood dreams are fulfilled at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
In addition to Huberdeau and Nugent-Hopkins, Kitchener Rangers left wing Gabriel Landeskog, Skelleftea defenseman Adam Larsson, Omaha Lancers left wing Seth Ambroz and Niagara IceDogs defenseman Dougie Hamilton were also invited to partake in the fun-filled day at the Mall of America, which is regarded as one of the top tourist destinations in the country. With the way the prospects interacted, one would think the six teenagers had known each other since childhood.
The first stop was the largest indoor amusement theme park in the country at Nickelodeon Universe, which featured seven acres of entertainment. The first attraction was the SpongeBob SquarePants Rock Bottom Plunge -- a 59-mph roller coaster with loops, spirals and 90-degree turns.
Huberdeau admitted using the opportunity to overcome his fear of coasters. A favorite among all the prospects was the second amusement, the BrainSurge, a circular ride that allowed them to control their own movements within the car.
"That BrainSurge was good," Landeskog said. "Adam Larsson was being good to me, since he was controlling whether or not we would spin wildly so we were good with that. We don't have stuff like this in a mall back in Sweden, so it was a lot of fun."
Nugent-Hopkins, Landeskog, Huberdeau and Hamilton are ranked among the top four skaters in North America, according to NHL Central Scouting. Larsson is Central Scouting's top European skater while Ambroz is rated No. 31 among North Americans.
"I mean, we did discuss the draft with each other a little bit asking each other if we were feeling nervous or what we would be doing afterwards," Landeskog said. "But most of the talk was just normal everyday stuff. We just had a good time."
The third ride, the Avatar Airbender, was the most intense. Five of the six prospects -- Huberdeau sat this one out -- were seated on one of two freely rotating ring of seats that offered a free-fall experience from a height of 90 feet.
"The roller coasters were the best, for sure," Hamilton, Central Scouting's top-rated North American defenseman, said. "I haven't been on one since I was like 10-years-old. It was pretty exciting after getting off that first one. That SpongeBob drop was straight up and straight down. They were taking our picture, so I didn't want to scream. I tried to smile the whole time."
While he waited for his friends near the exit of the Avatar Airbender, Huberdeau, the Memorial Cup MVP, told NHL.com that four teams invited him back for an interview following the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto earlier this month -- the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens.
Before touring the aquarium, the prospects decided to "get wet" at the park's only flume ride, the Log Chute.
"I've been pretty nervous all week, so doing this kind of stuff kind of takes your mind off of it a little bit so it's really good that they invited us to come together to do this," Nugent-Hopkins said. "I got in Tuesday and I came to the mall with my agent but we just kind of did some shopping and that was about it."
The prospects would stop and pose for pictures with anyone who asked during their tour of the mall, which included a walk through the South Avenue Promenade that featured the world's largest LEGO model.
"Man, that huge LEGO model of the Transformer was simply incredible," Landeskog said. "Larsson was saying it must have taken them like four years to make that thing, and he must be right. I don't know how many people it took to do that but thumbs up to all those who did."
NHL Entry Draft prospects at Mall of America (Click image to enlarge)
On their way to the largest indoor sea life aquarium in the country, the boys posed for pictures with Nickelodeon character Kai-Lan of the children's television show, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. At the aquarium, they witnessed all sorts of sea life, from sea horses to sharks.
"Can we touch these?" Landeskog asked an aquarium director while standing over a starfish tank. "They won't bite, will they?"
"There's nothing like this in Sweden," said Larsson, who will likely be the first defenseman drafted on Friday when the opening round is held at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "It's all pretty cool."
Upon exiting the aquarium, the prospects posed for another picture with a cartoon character shark, who added to the encounter by giving each player a high-five.
"We saw some sharks (along the 300-foot ocean tunnel) and that was obviously pretty cool and probably the highlight of sea life tour," Landeskog said. "We saw the sting … what do you call them? Oh yeah, stingrays. They were kind of scary looking. We also saw turtles, Jonathan Huberdeau's favorite -- he was looking forward to that all day."
Ambroz, a native of New Prague, lives just 45 minutes away from the Mall. He was glad to be given an opportunity to spend the afternoon with fellow prospects prior to the Draft.
"It's been fun and a great experience … you just have to take it all in," Ambroz said. "You're only going to do it once … then we'll be sitting and waiting. Whatever happens, happens at the Draft. I haven't been too worked up about it; rather, I just want to enjoy it all."
Following dinner at the Soul Daddy Restaurant, the prospects left the mall and were bussed to 1500 ESPN Twin Cities in Minneapolis for in-studio interviews. It was the perfect ending to a splendid day.
"All in all, we weren't talking too much about the draft and instead just having fun," Huberdeau said. "We can't determine where we're going to go so it won't change anything. It just didn't matter, at least for this day." Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer