UFA – Much like Patrice Bergeron in 2005, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins comes to Canada’s U20 team as a leader with a résumé few juniors can boast. Still only 19 years old, the 2013 captain of Canada has a full season of NHL hockey under his belt and one senior World Championship to his credit. He is only the ninth player ever to appear in the U20 after playing the World Championship with the men’s senior team, and only the second Canadian after Bergeron, who won gold at both events.
Nugent-Hopkins is being given double the responsibility most players are asked to take on. He’s the captain and also the core of the top line here in Ufa, playing alongside Jonathan Huberdeau and Mark Scheifele, a high-octane line coach Steve Spott hopes – and expects – to lead the country to gold.
“When you put a line together like that,” Spott explained, “all three of those players have an NHL mindset and NHL abilities. The challenge, obviously, was Mark Scheifele and how he would adjust to the wing. They looked really good tonight, which is a real positive for the club.”
“Really good” refers to a ten-point game for the top threesome, starting with a goal and four assists from Nugent-Hopkins, a goal and two assists for Huberdeau, and two goals for Scheifele. But the engine that drives the bus is the man-boy they call RNH. “He has to be our leader,” Spott emphasizes. “He had a great game.”
Indeed, Spott honoured his captain with the black cape, a symbolic prize for the hero of the night.
What’s amazing about the line so far is that they have played together only three times – once at selection camp; once in pre-tournament action; and, last night in a dominating 9-3 win over Germany to start the 2013 U20.
“It’s fun playing with “Nuge,” Scheifele said. “He moves the puck so well. All I’m trying to do is get open, find those open spots, because he’s going to find me. Same with “Hubey,” too. They’re both unbelievable players. I just want to complement them and continue to work hard.”
The three realized the importance of the first game, not so much on the scoreboard but the mindset and the message it would send to the rest of the tournament.
“Right after our stretch we all came together and said this was a big game; we have to show our leadership qualities, show that we’re a line to be reckoned with,” Scheifele added. “I think we did that.”
“It takes a couple of games to get used to your linemates and get the chemistry going, but tonight it felt like we knew where each other was,” said Nugent-Hopkins, the NHL’s first overall draft choice by Edmonton in 2011. “It was a positive thing for sure. As a line, I thought we played really well.”
As Canadians, they are expected not just to do well but to win gold, pressure they welcome rather than fear.
“There’s always a lot of pressure, especially coming from Canada, and we’re going to put that pressure on ourselves as well. We relish that,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “These guys will be in the NHL in a couple of years. That definitely makes things a lot easier.”
The line’s success is reverberating throughout the dressing room and bench—and teammates like what they see so far. “They were awesome,” defenceman Scott Harrington enthused. “I was fortunate enough to be on the ice a couple of times to pick up a plus off a nice passing play with those guys. It’s tough finding chemistry in such a short period of time, but obviously they did a good job of that and hopefully they can keep that going.”
Nugent-Hopkins took the bull by the horns early in the game, assisting on the first goal just 3:02 in the opening period, scoring midway through to make it 2-0, and then picking up two more helpers early in the second period to carry the team to a 4-1 lead.
“You can see the poise that he has,” offered goalie Malcolm Subban. “It’s unbelievable. Making big plays is common for him.”
Harrington added: ”I can’t say I’m too surprised [by their success]. They’ve been working hard in practice, going over some plays and each other’s tendencies. They clicked tonight, and that’s huge for us if they can show the way and show the rest of the forwards what the coaches are expecting. That’s what they did tonight.”
And if they can continue their collective play, Canada will be awfully tough to beat.