OKLAHOMA CITY ACCUSTOMED TO BIG-TIME ATHLETES IN THEIR TOWN
By Bob Przybylo,
Oklahoma City is getting accustomed to seeing big-time athletes come from the city or stroll through town.
St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford was born and raised in Oklahoma City and played for the University of Oklahoma before being selected No. 1 overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.
From the gridiron to the hardwood with Blake Griffin. The power forward was raised in Edmond, Okla., played for the Sooners and was selected No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2009 NBA Draft.
It’s not like Oklahoma City hasn’t had a strong tradition when it comes to hockey, with a strong presence in the sport as far back as the mid-1930’s and over 120 players that have played in Oklahoma City and the NHL.
Center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will be among several Barons players making their Oklahoma City home debut when the Barons take on San Antonio Rampage at the Cox Convention Center. And will add to that No. 1 history.
Nugent-Hopkins, 19, was drafted No. 1 overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. A shoulder injury took away the second part of his rookie season but healthy and ready to go, Nugent-Hopkins is hoping to make a splash in Oklahoma City.
“It’s going to be great,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s going to be the first time playing in front of the hometown fans so I’m excited about that. We want to make a big impression.
“So far everything here has been great. I love Bricktown. There are a lot of things to do and a lot of places to eat. It has been beautiful and couldn’t ask for more at this point.”
Nugent-Hopkins isn’t the only Edmonton player in Oklahoma City as 22-year-old center Jordan Eberle will also be donning the home Barons sweater for the first time Friday.
Eberle already has two years of NHL experience under his belt. He had 34 goals and 42 assists in 78 games last season.
As much as they’re looking to make a positive first impression on the city’s fans, the city has done a pretty good job of making a quality first impression. That is especially true when it comes to the passion of its sports fans.
Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins haven’t even been in Oklahoma City for a month, but they already know to expect good things from the fan base.
“I know they love the Sooners, and I can tell the Thunder are pretty big here,” Eberle said. “Hopefully we can help build hockey as something even bigger here. They had a good team last season and the year before. All we’re looking to do is build on what they’ve already done.”
And with their talent, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. Nugent-Hopkins was in the running to be the NHL’s Rookie of the Year last season before the shoulder injury took him out of contention. Despite the injury, he finished with 18 goals and 34 assists in 52 games.
Obviously nobody was hoping for a lockout but with no end in sight to the ongoing NHL Lockout, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are making the best of the situation.
For them, that means working on different facets of their game. Nugent-Hopkins, in particular, knows exactly what he is looking to do.
“I’m focusing on my faceoffs,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “I definitely want to improve on that. You do that by doing stuff like working after practice and working on your timing.
“You have a coach keep dropping pucks and you work on the timing. Or you battle other guys. There are always little things you can do to get better.”
Eberle, drafted in the first round by Edmonton in 2008, said he wants to focus on making his game all-around better, not necessarily paying particular attention to one thing.
One thing Oklahoma City fans can expect is excitement. And a lot of skill. Even though they might be working on certain things to improve, their natural instincts are going to come out as well. They’ll show why they’re so highly touted and coveted by the Oilers organization.
Neither player scored a point in the Barons’ first two games last weekend. They admitted they were a little rusty and still adjusting to the AHL game. They’re fired up for this weekend.
And they’re hoping that home-ice advantage will give them a little boost.
“Everybody loves playing at home. You want that home crowd advantage,” Eberle said. “This weekend is the start where we can develop that reputation as a great home team.”
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