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Nugent-Hopkins a mentor to 17-year-old MacKinnon

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins addresses the media Tuesday.

CALGARY - At 17, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was somewhat of a long shot to crack Team Canada's National Junior Team. He came into the program's pre-Christmas selection camp as an underage invite, but couldn't get the attention of the decision-makers.

At 19, Nugent-Hopkins is back in a situation he probably didn't see coming. But, under the circumstances and with one last chance to make good on a childhood dream, he has more on his mind than goals, assists and a gold medal (although all three will become vitally important come Boxing Day).

He believes it's time to assume a leadership role, guiding some of the camp's more inexperienced players in a time when know-how and stick-to-itiveness pays dividends.

Nugent-Hopkins has been here before. Nathan MacKinnon hasn't.

The 17-year-old has come into Team Canada's Selection Camp as the mirror image of Nugent-Hopkins' past. He, too, is an underage participant expected by many to challenge for the prestigious No. 1 overall selection at next year's NHL Entry Draft.

And wouldn't you know it? He'll be rooming with RNH all week.

"I got the chance to talk with him and I told him to play his game," Nugent-Hopkins said of his impromptu protégé. "He got here for a reason. In practice he looks great -- as long as he can put the nerves aside, he'll be great."

Putting the nerves aside was Nugent-Hopkins' great challenge. It's what ultimately cost him a spot on the team, more or less, because he couldn't hunker down and live by the wisdom he's now passing down.

"As a 17-year-old, there were a lot of nerves. I didn't know what to expect coming in.

"I didn't have the best camp last time. I was too nervous coming into camp and I let that get the best of me. I've told Nathan, 'Don't worry about anything else going on -- approach the opportunity here like any other game.'

"He's in a very similar situation as I was. It's good to be able to room with him and ease his mind a little bit and let him know what to expect. He's a really mature kid and he's handled it well."

When Nugent-Hopkins was cut back in 2010, it was crushing moment. He could have let it simmer and derail the incredible season he was having with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, but he didn't. Instead, he chose the aggressive route -- using the shock and disappointment as motivation to improve.

"I went back to Red Deer and talked with my coach, Jesse Wallin," Nugent-Hopkins said. "He really helped me put things in perspective and that really helped. We played that tonight, too -- I felt good and was able to carry it on through the rest of the year. I felt like my season got better after that camp.

"You want to get the chance to play for your country and I would have loved to have made the team back then, but you've got to take it in stride and learn from it.

"For me, it probably worked out for the best."

According to Nugent-Hopkins, MacKinnon has an edge. Besides putting up 22 goals and 52 points in 30 games this season with the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads ("Oh, that's it?" one scout quipped during Tuesday morning's practice), he's not easily bothered by high-pressure situations.

"That's going to be big for him in his career," Nugent-Hopkins said. "Off the ice, he doesn't seem like a 17-year-old. On it, you can tell how much skill he has."

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick

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