OKLAHOMA CITY - Ryan Nugent-Hopkins wore the bright yellow no contact jersey and a minor hockey face cage helmet as he returned to the ice for practice with the Oklahoma Barons Saturday.
Friday night, RNH left the ice early in the second period having had the stick of Mikael Granlund force fed into his face. It was a game in which the visiting Houston Aeros whacked and hacked at Jordan Eberle and Justin Schultz as well.
It makes you wonder.
Are the Oilers subjecting their young stars to extra risk by playing them as high-profile players with targets on their back in the American Hockey League?
Nugent-Hopkins, while he missed most of the second and all of the third period in the dental chair, will be back in the lineup for his seventh AHL game Sunday as the Barons host the Texas Stars.
“It was off the faceoff. I was just going back to get in position. Granlund’s stick came flying up in my face,” he said of the Minnesota Wild forward who is also spending the lockout in the American Hockey League.
“I don’t know if he just lost control or what. He just swung his stick around and caught me right in the face.
“My front two teeth were pushed pretty far back. The dentist was able to push them back pretty much into position and I’ll be wearing a brace to hold them in place.
“The one right beside them, on the right, is chipped pretty good. I was worried I was going to lose it. But the dentist said there was enough root there to keep it, so I’ll be getting it capped.
“It was a really good thing I was wearing a mouth guard or they’d be shattered. It’s good I’m going to get to keep my teeth for sure.”
Nugent-Hopkins said he’ll have to wear the cage on his helmet but he’s 19 years old and it wasn’t long ago he was wearing a cage in minor hockey.
“Actually the last time was at the U18 Ivan Hlinka Tournament,” he said. “In midget, I guess I last wore one when I played for the Northwest Giants in Burnaby.
“It restricts your vision a bit, but I felt good out there, so I’m not worried about it.”
Asked if he felt he was being targeted because of his status as a young NHL star, RNH said “maybe a little bit.”
But he went out of his way to point out the stick in the face wouldn’t count as an incident to make that case.
“I don’t think Granlund was trying to do it. I think it was accidental.”
“Besides, he’s an NHLer himself,” he said.
Taylor Hall, who flies back to Edmonton Sunday to visit with the Oilers doctors Monday and receive his clearance to return to OKC and play in a pair of games against Houston next weekend, said nobody was giving Nugent-Hopkins a tough time about his first trip to a dentist in hockey.
“I feel bad for him,” said Hall. “When it’s your teeth, it’s so hard to eat. There are so many nerves in your mouth. And to wear braces on top ...
“I’ve had stitches in my mouth and that’s bad enough.”
Hall said from what he’s seen the league is a little more “reckless” and maybe the NHL guys are targets to some extent, but not to the degree it changes his idea about getting cleared to join his linemates and Schultz in action.
“Against Houston, remember we were going against two NHL defencemen on that team, too. It was definitely like playing them in the NHL.
“But I do think there is more liberties being taken against us, hacking and slashing and that sort of stuff. To me, it just amps me up.
“But Nuge takes that high stick and guys are playing us a lot tougher.”
Schultz, in particular, took a lot of spit and abuse from the Aeros, working to take him off his game after he registered a couple of assists in the first period to increase his scoring lead to 10 points, despite having a point taken away in the previous game.
“Houston keyed on him quite a bit,” said coach Todd Nelson. “Those guys are all going to get extra attention.”
He said his guys have to remember some of the laws of the jungle and act accordingly.
But, hey, if you can’t handle it here, you aren’t going to be able to handle it in the NHL either, said Schultz.
“There are going to be guys coming at you,” he said.
“They’re fighting for a job. They’re trying to prove themselves. I took a couple extra hacks. But I expect it. I have to prove I can handle it. I’m trying to prove myself, too.”
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