by Lisa Brown on 12/16/11 at 05:00 PM ET
Through the years, there have been a number of young players who have been whispered to be game changers, to possibly be “the next great one” and that are where comparisons end.
When it comes to the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, everyone can see the upside, the talent the skill and there are even some who have been making some secretive and hushed comparisons. My question is why do they have to be hushed?
I truly enjoying following junior hockey. I love the competitiveness, the physical game, the fact that these young players are playing for the love of the game and haven’t yet been tainted by too much politics (for the most part) and the players still dream big.
The enjoyment of junior hockey reached all new levels for me when the Oilers were a 30th place team, and especially last season. When I would go to the Red Deer Arena to see the Red Deer Rebels, I saw a talented team who knew that they had a budding star in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The fans, the team; they all loved having Nugent-Hopkins on their team, and they were quite confident that he would once again be selected first overall but this time in the NHL.
Upstairs in the pressbox, you could hear the local media making quiet comparisons to The Great One, but always looking over their shoulders first. The WHL off ice officials (and the Red Deer off ice officials are some of my favourite people in the WHL) were far less careful, quite possibly because the job of an off ice official is volunteer. The point for me is that the comparisons have been made for years, and always they are made quietly and with hesitation.
This season, while playing with the Oilers, the comparisons have increased. I would say that this is due in large part to the fact that the two players have now started their careers with the Oilers, of course. To me, the best part of that is that there are still members of the media and the organization that were around with young Gretzky played for the Oilers. But still, the apologies, the hushed and whispered tones have continued.
Adrian Dater of Sports Illustrated said “Nobody wants to go there. Nobody dares to go there. But you’re just a little bit tempted to go there. Really, though, it isn’t a good idea. “
But why? I don’t quite understand why so many people are so apologetic making comparisons? I understand the need or desire to say that Nugent-Hopkins is not Gretzky; Gretzky was a once in a lifetime, likely one time ever player. But why can’t the two players be compared in character, mannerism and play? We compare all players to existing and past players, it makes sense that Gretzky’s name should be brought up.
Wayne Gretzky came into the league a quiet, polite and by all accounts typical small town Canadian boy. The same can and has been said about Nugent-Hopkins and so many other players coming into the NHL.
Before the draft, while the Rebels were in the playoffs, Nugent-Hopkins told me he was trying to focus only on his team’s playoff run and that he was definitely looking forward to being done with school. With the talent this young man has, it only made me smile when I imagined how much of a chore Nugent-Hopkins may have found high school; it took away from his time on the ice! Minutes after being drafted, Nugent-Hopkins was calm and quite serious looking which vastly differed from many of the other young players coming in and out of the interview room.
Wayne Gretzky could have his quiet nights on the ice. You might have missed him through most of the game and thought he didn’t contribute much, but then look at the scoresheet and see exactly what he had done. Look at that, Nugent-Hopkins has done something similar including a five assist game so far this season. Gretzky was also known to be a clutch player, and to have incredible vision on the ice. Players often said that it was nearly impossible to hit Gretzky, and this year Nugent-Hopkins has survived the physical battle of the NHL for much of the same reason.
Like all of the other observers out there, I am not saying that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the next Gretzky; that he will be better or worse. What I am saying is that I think that comparisons to Gretzky are fair game, especially to Oiler fans. Gretzky is someone that Oiler fans know about whether or not you went to games, or have only seen Oiler Gretzky games in the Great Gretzky DVD series, or the Top Ten Oilers Games DVD set.
No one will ever break Wayne Gretzky’s records, have as long and as prolific a career especially after the start that Gretzky had to his career. In his first WHA season, Gretzky played 72 games, had 43 goals and 61 assists for a total of 104 points. In his first year in the NHL, Gretzky played 79 games with 51 goals and 86 assists; a total of 137 points. At his current pace, Nugent-Hopkins could finish his season as a pointer per game player. The difference in points doesn’t mean that the comparisons are not valid, when most people are trying not to compare the two players they are referring back to play and personality and not totals.
Some worry that the comparison in some way jinxes a player, and athletes are some of the most superstitious people there are. However as reported by Craig Custance of the Sporting News, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may have been thrown off by the comparisons, but overall has taken it quite well. “It’s pretty crazy to be compared to somebody like Wayne Gretzky It’s weird being compared to anybody in the NHL. Just being mentioned in the same sentence as him is a very big honor for me.”
Although it’s slightly more difficult to get a quote from Wayne Gretzky, I don’t see how he wouldn’t be happy to be mentioned so regularly. By having Nugent-Hopkins compared to him, Gretzky remains relevant in the current NHL. Although Gretzky has done more than enough to have changed the game forever, and will be immortalized by generations to come, no one wants to be left out of the equation or conversation.
Gretzky did not comment on comparisons of personality or play with Nugent-Hopkins, but he did comment on the situation that Hall and Nugent-Hopkins have found themselves in in Edmonton. “For young guys to come into this city, it’s probably the best city to come to, because the fans are patient,” Gretzky said. “They dealt with myself, (Mark) Messier and (Jari) Kurri at a young age and know as well as anyone that Hall of Famers don’t happen over night, it takes a period of time. They’re in the right scenario and have good management and coaching staff that are going to be patient with them and yet be hard on them, which you have to be especially at a young age.”
Nugent-Hopkins may not be Gretzky, but he’s certainly a game changer in Edmonton.
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Lisa McRitchie is a fairly new writer, online at least, but makes up for inexperience with passion for the game of hockey and memories of Mrs. Leskiw’s English AP class; who knew they would pay off one day.
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