He’s always a little embarrassed by the whole hyphenated name thing. They only ask him to pick once, when Ryan is seven. The iron-on letters only came in one size, and “Nugent-Hopkins” would only work if they placed the first letter where his left elbow would be.
He told them Hopkins without even thinking about it – Nugent is a little more uncommon, a little easier to stumble over, and he likes being closer to the top of the alphabetical roster list. They hand it to him the night before his first game; Hopkins, number nine. His very favorite number, like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull. He’s so excited that he can hardly untie his skates after practice, so his mom has to abandon her usual spot next to the concession stand to come help. He holds up the jersey proudly, waiting for her to light up, to praise him like she always did after he scored a goal or put away his equipment by himself.
He doesn’t expect her face to harden. He doesn’t expect her to be silent for the entire drive home, gripping the jersey in her right hand and steering with her left. He doesn’t expect her to walk briskly into the house, stop in front of the television where his dad was watching the Canucks game, and start yelling louder than Ryan has ever heard before, shaking the jersey in his face and screaming about her son and her money. Ryan spends the next hour huddled under Adam’s covers, trying to block out the noise. The next day, Adam walks three miles to Ben Franklin and spends all day cutting down the cheap vinyl letters so they’ll be small enough to fit on Ryan’s back.
His mom won’t drive him to practice the next day, saying that Ryan’s first season as a Mini-Mite was great, but they just don’t have enough money to keep him in the sport. The fighting gets worse and Ryan starts looking for somewhere, anywhere to be but home. The search takes him to pick-up soccer games and the elementary school track championship, but Ryan needs the ice, needs something more than pushing himself alone. By the next season, the divorce is final, and Ryan’s dad gets him a new pair of skates for his birthday.
As he gets older and the draft starts to become a reality, people start wondering. Nugent-Hopkins is a mouthful, and he won’t get as many endorsements with a name like that. Can’t he just shorten it?
No. Ryan can’t.
It wasn’t even cute when he was younger, honestly. There were just four Ryans on his PeeWee team, and the coach needed to tell them all apart. It becomes an easy out for Christmas and birthday gifts – everyone gives him something stupid with a frog on it, even though Ryan kind of hates anything slimy and seriously doubts he has ever actually hopped in his life, not even as a little kid. He hasn’t spent enough time on solid ground to get into the whole leapfrog thing.
He hits puberty later than most of the guys and hockey becomes ten times more difficult for those six months, trying to match skills with guys who were six inches taller and forty pounds heavier. The only way around the big hits is speed, and Ryan has that, but it doesn’t stop the ribbing in the locker room with a little-kid nickname. His growth spurt is a relief and a curse as he grows up but not out, and now he’s just a skinny forward with nice hands but no mass. He gets checked into the boards halfway through the season and sprains his ankle, which involves crutches and – Ryan hates to admit it – hopping.
Missing practice is so unbearable that Ryan actually starts to pay attention to the schoolwork he’s been neglecting for three months. He signs up for a geometry tutor and hopes that the poor schmuck will just do the homework for Ryan and leave him alone.
Her name is Katie. She doesn’t do Ryan’s homework, but she calls him by his first name and has a nice smile and doesn’t know the first thing about hockey. Ryan didn’t think he’d like that, but he does.
The nickname follows him to Red Deer and so does Katie, kind of, and the other guys can’t understand why he doesn’t take advantage of the magic that is being in juniors, no parents and few rules. Ryan doesn’t quite get it until weeks turn into months and he hasn’t heard from his girlfriend. During a road trip he checks his email before morning skate. The opening line of her message says “Dear Hoppy,” and Ryan knows that’s the end.
When he shows up at his first training camp, some Edmonton media guy tells him a new nickname might be in order, that Hoppy sounds “way too Disney” for the NHL. You don’t really get to choose things like nicknames, but Ryan prays this guy is right.
Nine games pass in a blur, and suddenly he’s done it. He’s here, in the NHL, and it’s real, which means he has to look for a real place to stay. Ryan hates asking for favors, but the team has been in his position, and they know. Jonesy beats Hallsy and Ebs to the punch, and Ryan is kind of relieved. He loves them both, and he plays good hockey with them, but he’s watched all of those stupid interviews, and he knows about their ice cream dates and KD binges and he knows that they live like they play, Hallsy especially, a little too reckless and Ebs isn’t enough to balance him out. Ryan doesn’t have the desire to voluntarily plug himself into that environment, so he likes Jonesy’s place just fine.
It’s awkward for a few weeks; Jamie definitely isn’t old enough to be his mom, but she fixes him dinner and makes sure Bailey doesn’t bark during his naps. At first Ryan is so nervous that he calls her Mrs. Jones and fumbles his dishes at every meal, prompting her to get out the paper plates and leave them jokingly at his place.
She’s the first to call him Nugget, since the whole more-than-one-Ryan problem has followed him to the big dance, and obviously her husband gets first dibs. Jonesy picks up on it, and Petry too, and they settle into something that almost resembles a family. The Oil Change crew stops by a few days before Christmas while the three guys are playing video games, and Ryan murmurs, “No one calls me Hoppy here,” before he can catch himself thinking about Red Deer and home and his family, but Jonesy replies, “Nope. Nugget,” so smoothly that Ryan almost forgets to be homesick.
It’s what the guys call him, it’s how the media refers to him, and it’s what the fans scribble on pieces of poster board that they press against the glass. Ryan likes it. The Nuge sounds kind of like a superhero and that’s weird, but Nuge is short and inoffensive and makes him feel like a part of the team. The only thing he doesn’t like is that it turns into one of those booing names – when he comes onto the ice, the crowd shouts Nuuuuuuuge and his stomach drops a little every time. It’s silly, because they’re not booing him and he knows that, but he can’t help it.
He hits a scoring slump, which doubles his concerns that there are actual boos coming from the crowd, and it starts to drive him a little crazy. He goes from the gym to the ice to his bed without stopping to do much in between, getting more and more frustrated when the puck still isn’t going in. He snaps at dinner one night, letting his fork clatter onto his plate and shoving his chair back roughly when Jonesy makes a joke about the Kid Line needing a longer naptime. He hears someone follow him and doesn’t care, but Jamie’s face as he slams his bedroom door is enough to shame him into next week.
The Mom’s road trip is the next day. Ryan leaves four messages on his mom’s phone before realizing that she really isn’t coming. He gets enough attention as it is, though, with all of the moms calling him the baby and wanting to feed him 24/7. He hears Taylor’s mom refer to her son as Hallsy and wonders briefly if his mom is satisfied that his current nickname comes from her half of the last name from hell.
He finally, finally scores two goals in this game. After the second one the Jumbotron focuses on the moms, presumably searching for his, and he sees them all shouting, “Nuge!” like he’s their kid or something. There’s nothing but disgruntled murmurs from the crowd, since they’re away, so he focuses on the big screen and tries not to wish she was there.
When they get home Jamie is ready with dinner. She hugs them all tightly, past outbursts forgotten, and grins when she tells Ryan she has something to show him. She ushers him into the living room as Jonesy and Petry attack the food, and she finds last night’s game on the DVR.
Ryan cringes slightly - he hates seeing himself on TV – but she skips to just after his second goal. The camera is scanning the crowd, finding all the signs with his name on it. There’s the typical “WILL YOU MARRY ME NUGE?” and he snorts a little, because puck bunnies are really creepy. The next one is some crack about chicken nuggets, and Ryan isn’t quite sure he gets it, but more paper marriage proposals follow and Jamie’s giggling at his incredulous face. There’s no way this many people should want to marry him in Florida. Also, he’s eighteen, so ew?
They’re both smiling as Jamie pauses the DVR and they stand up to go get food, but Ryan stops short when he sees what’s frozen on the screen. It’s some random middle-aged woman wearing his jersey, which is no stranger than usual, but she’s holding a sign that says “MAKE YOUR MAMA PROUD, NUGE”.
And Ryan has no idea who this woman is, but suddenly he hates her for assuming that his mother would be proud, and then he hates himself for caring, and then something starts to feel funny behind his eyes. It isn’t until Jamie puts a hand on his shoulder that Ryan realizes he’s been staring at the television like an idiot. He lets her steer him to the dinner table, where he scarfs his stir-fry down, ignoring Jonesy’s questioning look, and retreats to his room before anyone can rope him into Call of Duty.
For the next month, Ryan plays harder than anyone ever thought possible. Nuuuuuge seems to echo around him wherever he goes, and he starts to enjoy it.
5. Ryan Nugent-Horcoff
The ditzy blonde emcee at the NHL awards gets his name completely wrong when she announces him as the Calder winner. Ryan doesn’t mind.