Team Canada head coach Steve Spott and captain Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (The Canadian Press)
His nickname might be "Nuge" but on Friday afternoon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins became the newest "Captain Canada."
The 19-year-old Edmonton Oilers star skated out wearing the "C" on his sweater when Team Canada took their traditional photo prior to leaving for the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia.
"To pick a leadership group from a group like this, it's difficult," said Team Canada head coach Steve Spott. "I would assume 80 per cent of the guys on our roster are captains with their respective (club) teams."
Nugent-Hopkins was playing with the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout before being loaned to Team Canada. According to Spott there's still no guarantee from the Oilers that Canada can keep the talented forward in the event the lockout ends soon — however unlikely that might seem now.
"I do know that (director of hockey operations) Scott Salmond did have some contact with the Edmonton Oilers and they were fully supportive of the decision and excited for Ryan," said Spott. "We definitely made sure we spoke with Edmonton and they were part of the process."
Saint John Sea Dogs star forward Jonathan Huberdeau and London Knights defenceman Scott Harrington — both members of Team Canada's bronze medal-winning squad last year — were named alternates.
Spott said that Nugent-Hopkins' maturity and professional experience weighed heavily in the decision to name him captain, even though the Calder Trophy finalist is a world junior rookie.
"There were a number of factors that came to mind with Ryan, obviously he's able to handle the media pressure that comes with it, he's played in the men's world championships already and in the National Hockey League," said Spott. "For us we felt very comfortable with Ryan."
Prior to being invited to camp, Nugent-Hopkins had been very vocal about wanting to play for Canada at the tournament. He had gone to Canada's camp once before as a 17-year-old, but had been cut. Last year, as an 18-year-old, he was already in the NHL and en route to scoring 18 goals and 52 points in 62 games.
The desire to represent his country at the marquee junior event hadn't waned despite his pro success.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," said Nugent-Hopkins. "Any time you get to represent Canada it's a huge honour. I'm glad I got the opportunity — it's a unique opportunity for me this year.
"I'm really excited about it."
Team Canada will leave for Helsinki, Finland, on Saturday to play some pre-tournament games against Sweden and Finland. This year the International Ice Hockey Federation, which governs the tournament, changed the rules to allow every country to bring three goaltenders to the event. Spott said he plans to make a decision on which goalie will sit out while the team is in Europe.
"We are going to make sure that the goaltender we deem at (number) three is going to be announced sooner rather than later," said Spott. "We were kidding this morning maybe we'll take 1A, 1B and 1C, because I don't think there's a three amongst this group. "
Belleville Bulls netminder Malcolm Subban is widely considered the favourite for the starter's job. Jake Paterson of the Saginaw Spirit and Jordan Binnington of the Owen Sound Attack are both in contention for the backup job when Canada opens the tournament on Dec. 26 against Germany.
"Right now it's kind of all up in the air," said Paterson. "I think we've all proven our points here at camp and I think it's up to the coaches now to make the final decision."
Not only are all three of Canada's goalies from the Ontario Hockey League, but all three also hail from the Greater Toronto Area.
"All three of us have been pretty good friends going to camps together and hanging out in the summer which is nice," said Paterson, a Mississauga native. "But when it comes down to it, we're all going to be competing for the No. 1 job."
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