TORONTO -- Edmonton Oilers prospect Justin Schultz was about to be photographed for his first hockey card when the 22-year-old took in his surroundings and realized how much his life has changed in 12 months.
Charlie Coyle of the Minnesota Wild, Tomas Jurco of the Detroit Red Wings and Brock Nelson of the New York Islanders meet with the media at the 2012 NHLPA rookie showcase in Toronto. (Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"I think a year ago this week I would have been traveling back to Madison and just loading up on textbooks and getting ready for the fall semester," the former University of Wisconsin defenseman said. "It's a lot different today, that's for sure."
Schultz signed with the Oilers in June after being courted by several NHL teams, and Tuesday in Toronto he was one of 29 prospects decked out in an NHL uniform for photo shoots and promotional purposes as part of the NHLPA's 2012 Rookie Showcase.
The fourth annual event provides Panini America and Upper Deck -- the two official trading card partners of the NHL and NHLPA -- with the opportunity to photograph top prospects for the first time in their official NHL team uniforms. The photos are used for trading cards and memorabilia launches.
"I remember opening packs of cards as a kid and finding a Wayne Gretzky, so it's kind of surreal to know that I'll be having my own rookie card out soon," said Jarred Tinordi, the Montreal Canadiens' first-round pick in 2010.
Schultz said, "I think we all collected cards as kids, so it hits you a little bit when you're here and getting your own card that you're that much closer to the NHL."
Schultz was joined by fellow Oilers prospect and 2012 No. 1 pick Nail Yakupov. The top five picks from the 2012 NHL Draft were featured at the Rookie Showcase, including Ryan Murray (Columbus Blue Jackets), Alex Galchenyuk (Montreal Canadiens), Griffin Reinhart (New York Islanders) and Morgan Rielly (Toronto Maple Leafs). Other prospects at the event included Charlie Coyle (Minnesota Wild), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers) and Jaden Schwartz (St. Louis Blues).
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"It's not every day that an 18-year-old gets to experience this and gets to be here with all of these guys," said Rielly, the No. 5 pick. "I think we all know each other pretty well, we're all sort of at the same stage in our careers and we all understand what we're going through."
For prospects like Rielly, a defenseman with the Western Hockey League's Moose Jaw Warriors, this week's Rookie Showcase marks the final event of what has supposedly been the offseason.
"With the [Scouting] Combine and the draft and then development camp and then the [Russia-Canada Challenge] experience, some of us have really been hanging out quite a bit and I think we've had the opportunity to appreciate each other a little bit and get closer as a [rookie] class," Rielly said.
As times have changed, so have the relationships between prospects. Gone are the days of European prospects only arriving in North America for the start of training camp (five countries were represented among the 29 players at the Rookie Showcase), and prospects now know much more about their peers. Many of those on hand said they follow each other on Twitter or keep in touch via text message or Facebook.
"I think a lot of the guys here have their friends already," said Boston Bruins prospect Dougie Hamilton, a 2011 draft pick (No. 9). "It's not like we're meeting for this first time, so I'd say we're all pretty comfortable hanging out with anyone here."
Among Hamilton's teammates at the Canada-Russia Challenge last month was Ryan Murray, the second pick in June's draft.
"I'm already sick of these guys," the Blue Jackets prospect said. "I think I've seen some of these guys more than my own parents this summer. ... But it is exciting. It's a good group, a lot of talent, and I guess if I see them in the future, it probably means we're doing something right."
If all goes according to plan, it shouldn't be too much longer before some of these prospects see more of each other in rinks around the NHL. Last season's three Calder Trophy finalists -- winner Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado Avalanche), Adam Henrique (New Jersey Devils) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton Oilers) -- attended the 2011 Rookie Showcase.