By Larry Wigge
The first time Nathan MacKinnon met Sidney Crosby, they sort of crossed paths at the airport. Like an accidental meeting that could have been one of the most interesting rendezvous' in hockey history.
Crosby was coming back from the Shattuck-St. Mary's high school in Faribault, Minnesota, where, at 15, he was already being talked about at the Next One. MacKinnon, who was seven or right, was going to Florida with his family.
From that special meeting, MacKinnon still carries the photo of Crosby, himself, and Sarah, Nathan's sister, in his wallet.
The comparisons between the two centers from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, have been aplenty. MacKinnon was raised minutes away from the home where Crosby grew up. Both have unabashed talents and skills, worthy of the No. 1 pick in the NHL Entry Draft.
The 6-foot, 182-pound MacKinnon quips, "Cole Harbour had good PH levels, I think."
Graham and Kathy MacKinnon, the parents, spent plenty of time nurturing their son. Graham was an inspector on a Canadian National Railway and also was a small-town Junior B goalie. Kathy is an area recreation co-ordinator for the municipality for Cole Harbour.
It's their touch that has created what we see on the ice ... and humble.
MacKinnon said his dad's advice on the Crosby front was right on, "He said, 'You don't have to be as good as Sidney Crosby. But leave it to your work ethic. Work as hard as Sidney Crosby ... all the time. Then, you'll be OK.' "
MacKinnon won't compare himself to Crosby, but ...
"I'm a very competitive guy and always want to be the best I can be and have a love of the game," he said. "I skated the last two summers with Sidney Crosby ... and it seems like he's a machine out there. He never gets tired. And it's not just a natural skill, he worked at it and that's the exciting part."
Graham MacKinnon likes to joke. He says he still has the hockey card to prove the story is true.
When his son was 7 or 8 years old, he got a personalized hockey card made for Nathan. The front showed him in hockey gear posing for the camera, while the back had blank space to fill in personal information. What did young Nathan write?
"He said, 'I want to play for the Halifax Mooseheads, then I want to get drafted by Colorado and play with Joe Sakic,' " Graham said.
Said Nathan, "I was just a little kid then and it's amazing how things have turned out."
This whole Nathan MacKinnon-Sidney Crosby lovefest began long before the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, where the Colorado Avalanche were about to pick the No. 1 player.
Patrick Roy, who recently was named coach and GM of the Avalanche, knows MacKinnon very well -- having been the coach and GM of the Quebec Remparts. In fact, after Nathan was the first player 2011 QMJHL midget draft by Baie Comeau was put up for bidding. Roy got into the bidding, but it was the Halifax Mooseheads that won -- trading a top prospect and three first-round picks for MacKinnon.
"It would be tough for us not to take MacKinnon," said Patrick Roy, the new coach and GM of the Avalanche. "MacKinnon is ready to play ... tomorrow."
That point of view is shared by Joe Sakic, president of the Avalanche.
"Nathan has lived under the microscope for a long time and he's lived under pressure and has always risen to the occasion," Sakic said. "He's an electrifying player. He's the most explosive player in this draft. Whatever challenge he's faced, he risen his game to another level. He wants to be a difference-maker ... he is a difference-maker.
"He's definitely a skilled guy but he's a powerful skater. He can play a skill game, but he loves going to the net. He loves going to the hard areas ... and he's just a tremendous player."
Rick Pracey, Colorado's top amateur scout, put in his two cents worth, "One thing about Nathan, clearly his body of work throughout the year has been very good. He's a player who has withstood the pressures of a draft year. In the playoffs, seeing that push and seeing him elevate his game and carry a team to a Quebec League championship and then into the Memorial Cup is special."
And it all started with Nathan MacKinnon shooting a beat-up net with plastic milk jugs hanging off the crossbar for top-shelf targets. And it became much, much more.
He's a highly-skilled forward who plays with a lot of power. It's a nice combination to have. His skating is elite. He's a durable guy and he's been a terrific player and I really don’t know what more to say. He can play the game any way you want him to play it. He is a total package of skill, speed and power. He's such a gamer, a guy who gets better when there's a big moment.
Like, for instance, the Memorial Cup championship against Portland, when MacKinnon scored a hat trick and added two assists in the Mooseheads' 6-4 victory.
Further numbers in MacKinnon's favor -- he helped lead the Halifax Mooseheads to a 58-6-1 record during the regular season, plus postseason championships.
Nathan finished fourth in the QMJHL with 1.70 points-per-game and he totaled a tournament-best seven goals and 13 points over four games at the Memorial Cup to earn MVP honors.
"Nathan has great hands, soft hands. He has quick hands," said Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme. "He can fire pucks from anywhere so fast. His release is so quick. He surprises goalies with quick shots from anywhere."
God-given talent, plus don't forget the PH from Cole Harbour.
"We live on a small lake, and in the wintertime I used to flood it every day," Graham MacKinnon said. "He was always out shooting pucks down on the lake. He just loved the game."
Kathy MacKinnon said he displayed remarkable hand-eye co-ordination and agility from an early age.
"He walked early ... and always had a stick or baseball bat or golf club or hockey stick the minute he could walk," said Mrs. MacKinnon.
While he had a clear love for hockey, Kathy said he also showed a talent for canoe racing, basketball, soccer and tennis.
"I knew there was no question he'd play sports," she said. "We just didn't know what sport it would be."
For Nathan, the stigma of playing in a small town such as Cole Harbour could be a disaster. But it wasn't for Crosby ... and MacKinnon made it a plus for his, too.
"The first time I realized I could make it, I went to Toronto when I was 9 or 10 in tournaments," said MacKinnon. "You kind of realize you can play with those guys. I was doing well against Toronto kids.
"You know their track record. That's when I figured I could play. I know I was young ... but I got focussed on the NHL."
The numbers from there became stratospheric for MacKinnon.
MacKinnon, who had 200 points in 50 games as an atom, played at the AAA bantam level in Cole Harbour when he was 12 years old -- against boys who were more than two years his senior -- and said he piled up 110 points.
"I was about 5-feet playing against 6-footers," MacKinnon said. "But I was on a great team. We won everything in our region. I had great linemates, so I just contributed and did my role."
After registering 145 points in 35 games as a 13-year-old, MacKinnon, like Crosby, moved on to Faribault, Minn., to play for Shattuck-St. Mary's, where he had 101 points in 58 games with its top bantam team last winter. This season he is averaging more than two points a game for its under-16 squad -- the second-best mark on the team despite being its second-youngest player.
Despite some injuries last season for the Mooseheads, he wound up with 41 goals and 64 assists in 49 games.
Everyone knows the journey that Sidney Crosby took. It has been more of the same for Nathan MacKinnon.
"For me, I knew what kind of player I was, and I knew I wasn't going to be Sidney Crosby," MacKinnon said. "But at the same time, I'm trying to be the best player I can be.
"I guess I never put too much thought into the comparisons or the expectations. I just have to be me."