|Photo by Steven Christy / OKC Barons
Team Canada's National Junior Team got the good news they were hoping for Saturday as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
announced that his shoulder is good to go.
As a result, the 19-year-old will be attending the program's World Junior Selection Camp next week in Calgary and -- barring a quick turn in the currently stalled CBA negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA -- will be a centerpiece to one of the greatest U-20 teams in Canadian history (2005, at the moment, still holds its place as the best in my books).
Nugent-Hopkins has spent the past week in Edmonton for what his agent, Rick Valette of Octagon Sports, described as a "simple check-up."
Thirty-seven players were invited to the selection camp last Monday, but RNH wanted to spend his week off getting treatment in the ongoing rehabilitation process before committing one way or the other.
"It's something I always watched at Christmas time," Nugent-Hopkins said smiling as I caught up with him Saturday afternoon at Rexall Place. "Growing up, usually you're busying yourself with the anticipation of Christmas itself, but I was always looking forward to sitting down with my family and watching the World Juniors. Plus, I'm Canadian -- I think every Canadian watches it religiously."
Can't argue with that.
Whether you're playing in it or not (and most of us aren't), the World Junior Championship creates lasting memories. Edmonton Oil Kings goaltender Laurent Brossoit spoke highly of Carey Price's heroic work in a shootout against the Americans in 2007. He was sensational.
So was Jonathan Toews, who scored three goals and was described as "unbelievable" by TSN announcers Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire. Toews scored last, while Price made a stop at the other end to send Canada past the Americans and into the gold medal game.
"I remember that," said Nugent-Hopkins. "It's absolutely incredible what he did. I'd never seen Toews up close and on such a big level like that, so it was actually pretty motivating. It's one of those situations where you watch it, take in and are like, ‘Maybe that could be me one day.' You don't start believing it until you see something that like. I'd always loved the World Juniors, always watched it like I said -- but I fell in love with it even more after watching that shootout."
Nugent-Hopkins previously had a chance to crack Canada's World Junior roster in 2010, but he couldn't survive cut-down day at the selection camp. He wasn't ready, some argued. Part of it may have been due to the extremely high level of intensity, which was something he'd yet to experience as one of the younger players at camp.
"It's way more intense," he said. "It's probably like an NHL playoff game based on the way guys were competing at camp. You only play so many games in the tournament and each one means -- well, everything. If you lose a game, you either don't have a very good shot at the title or you're out altogether. The intensity is brought on because there's so much riding on every game.
"I would have loved to have made the team then," Nugent-Hopkins added. "I thought I had a decent camp -- but I could have been a lot better. When I returned to Red Deer, I started to play a lot better and that might have helped my stock rise as the season went on. I guess it all worked out and I'm happy with the player I became.
"Going through that experience helped quite a bit."
Nugent-Hopkins has spent the 2012-13 season with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons with his Oilers linemates Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle – both have represented Canada at the World Juniors and have been urging their teammate to go. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many and, as a 19-year-old, this will be RNH's last shot.
"I've talked to them both quite a bit about it," Nugent-Hopkins said. "They've both said it was a great experience and an opportunity that seemed to spring their careers to the next level.
"Not to mention Ebs talks about that goal he scored (vs. Russia in 2009 with 5.4 seconds on the clock to tie it up) all the time -- he brags about it all the time," RNH laughed.
Well, let's be honest, it was a big one. In fact, 2009 was the last time Canada won gold. Maybe another Baron is needed to make it happen once more.
While an appearance at the World Junior Championship hadn't been in the cards, Nugent-Hopkins is no stranger to the high-pressure international play in recent seasons. He won gold with Team Canada at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Tournament and, most recently, picked up six points in seven games at the 2012 World Hockey Championship in Helsinki, Finland.
Then there's the experience of centering the top line of a National Hockey League squad at age 18. No big deal, right?
"I'd never had a chance to put on a Canadian sweater and step up on the world stage at the Ivan Hlinka like that was pretty cool," Nugent-Hopkins said. "It was a great experience. We had a great team over there and, obviously, every time you play for Canada you want to play for gold. We were lucky enough to get that opportunity.
"Now I'm lucky enough to get another chance on an even bigger stage."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick