They might be considered the underdogs of the tournament.
A young group of 23 players, aged 23 or younger, comprised of Canadian and American skaters, will suit up for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto this September.
Among the group of youngsters named to the team’s final roster on Friday is Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who sees their potential underdog status as an advantage.
“We don’t go [into the tournament] with too much pressure,” he explained. “I think it’s still a pretty solid team, some guys have experience in the league and what-not, [and there’s] the energetic youth for sure. I think its a little bit of an advantage as far as that, not too much pressure going in.”
Seven players were added to the Team North America roster today, and the Burnaby, BC native is excited for the rare opportunity to compete internationally.
“It’s great,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “It’s a big honour for me and I’m excited to be a part of the group and hopefully I can make a difference for the team.”
Underdogs or not, the six-foot centre admits the tournament won’t be without its challenges.
“I think when you get a group of guys together that don’t usually play together, you’ve got to find a way to mesh right away,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I mean, there’s a lot of talent on the team, so guys have to pick up different roles and play different roles that they might not be used to. If everybody can kind of accept that, not kind of want to do everything by themselves, then I think we’ll have a good chance.”
It’s an exciting time for the 23-year-old, who, at the end of the Oilers hockey season, made the hard decision to pass on the offer that was extended to him to represent Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship this year. Instead, he opted to take the extra time to focus on making a full recovery from injuries he sustained earlier this season.
“I would have loved to have been there but unfortunately couldn’t make it this year,” he said.
It was what one might call a bit of a rough season for the centreman.
|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club. |
In January, Nugent-Hopkins sustained a hand injury during the second period of a 4-2 victory against the Florida Panthers when he blocked a shot by defenceman Dmitry Kulikov during a Florida power play.
Activated March 11 — seven weeks after his injury — Nugent-Hopkins played six games before taking an unexpected hit in the head in a collision with Arizona Coyotes defenceman Connor Murphy on March 22, which resulted in a diagnosed concussion.
“Concussion-wise I’ve been feeling really good,” he said. “That got sorted out right away. With my hand, I’ve just been going to [physiotherapy] a couple times a week and trying to get that better and back to normal. It’s pretty good right now and as I think the summer goes on it’ll just keep getting better.”
Nugent-Hopkins appeared in 55 games with the Oilers this season, posting 34 points (12G, 22A) and 34 penalty minutes.
He will join fellow Oilers teammate — and recent World Championship gold medal winner — Connor McDavid in Toronto this fall, along with a few other familiar faces he looks forward to seeing represent Team North America.
“There’s a lot of guys that I definitely know,” he said. “Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Murray — who I’ve known for a long time — those guys are going to be fun to play with again. And then Connor, it will be good to see how he’s progressed over the summer. I’m looking forward to it. There’s a lot of young, new guys too who should be fun to play with.”
|Nugent-Hopkins shoots against Belarus' goalie Dmitri Milchakov during a preliminary round game of the IIHF International Ice Hockey World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Getty Images. |
Nuge is no stranger to playing on the international stage. He has represented Canada several times, most recently at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship where Team Canada placed fourth that year.
“When I went to the U-18 Championship and we won over at the Ivan Hlinka [Memorial Tournament], that was a great experience for me,” he said. “[It was] the first time that I really represented all of Canada and we won gold there, so it was a lot of fun. I mean it’s definitely an honour any time you get to put on that sweater.”
When it comes to international hockey tournaments — be it the World Championship, World Junior Championship or the Olympics — the fan-favourite rivalry has always leaned towards Canada versus USA.
But with this mutt-mixed team, Nugent-Hopkins said Team North America will have its fair share of competition against their fellow countrymen.
“You’re not used to playing with the team that you usually get fired up for to play against,” Nugent-Hopkins said of teaming up with American players. “But I think every team we play against is going to be intense, especially the States and Canada. It’s definitely going to be heated and I know all the guys will get fired-up to play both those teams.”