By Gare Joyce in Halifax
Back in October 2004, reporters from newspapers and TV networks descended upon a quiet neighborhood in Cole Harbour, N.S., and staked out the home of a future hockey star. The Halifax suburb had never seen anything like it. The fourth estate, cameras shouldered and notebooks in hand, was looking for a line on the biggest news in junior hockey. The occupants of the home were behind drawn curtains and fretting like hostages. This was a tough introduction to the price that celebrity exacts.
The previous winter, Sidney Crosby became Cole Harbour’s most famous citizen when he won major junior hockey’s player-of-the-year honours in Rimouski, Que., and made it into the pages of Sports Illustrated and onto Hockey Night in Canada. But it wasn’t Crosby inside the house, peeking out at the reporters. It was Nathan MacKinnon, who had blown out nine candles on his birthday cake a month before.
The media wasn’t waiting for MacKinnon, a fourth grader, but rather for Frederik Cabana, a gritty forward with the Halifax Mooseheads. The MacKinnons were billeting Cabana, and the night before he had collided with Crosby in a game at the Metro Centre, leaving him writhing on the ice. The knee-on-knee hit might have been accidental. It might have been dirty. Either way, it tested the loyalties of a kid who was tearing up his atom league.
On one side there was Crosby, MacKinnon’s favourite player, whom he had watched with the Dartmouth Subways. How could a kid from Cole Harbour not look up to No. 87? On the other side was Cabana, a kid from Fleurimont, Que., a second-year player with the Mooseheads. Cabana didn’t speak much English but he did have all kinds of time to shoot pucks with the kid in his driveway and play street hockey with runts on the block. It didn’t seem like much of a contest between the star and the guy sleeping in the basement.
Flash forward seven years. Barely 16, Nathan MacKinnon has been among the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s leading scorers three months into his rookie season with the Mooseheads. Through about half the campaign, he’s established himself as the first-line centre and has averaged a point-and-a-half per game, even though his most talented winger, projected first-round prospect Martin Frk, has been out all season with a concussion. Seeing MacKinnon in game action, it sometimes looks like everything and everyone around him has slowed down, an illusion created when he kicks it into high gear. In practice he pushes every line rush, every drill, to the limit. He’s all business.
Though his job description should include downplaying any comparisons between Crosby and MacKinnon, Halifax GM Cam Russell can’t avoid them. “Like Sidney was at 16, Nathan’s in against players three and four years older, always the other teams’ best lines and top Ds,” says Russell, a former NHL defenceman with the Chicago Blackhawks. “He’s not taking anyone by surprise. Everyone knows he’s coming. We expected a lot of him, but he has exceeded expectations.”
Style-wise, MacKinnon isn’t Crosby redux. At almost six feet and 180 lb., and growing fast, MacKinnon will be the bigger and more physical player by the time he hits his draft year in 2013. “MacKinnon will be a classic power forward,” says Florida Panthers scout Paul Gallagher, who coached Crosby in bantam. “He delivers big hits to make plays. He has an explosive first three steps, as good as anybody you’ll see out there.”
Russell concurs. He even drops the name of another NHL-leading goal scorer into the conversation. “Nathan’s shown separation speed like Pavel Bure’s,” he says, alluding to the five-time 50-goal-scoring ‘Russian Rocket.’ “He’s only going to get faster as he gets stronger.”
On a development line, MacKinnon might be a bit behind Crosby. When Crosby was 16, he won a place on Canada’s world junior team. MacKinnon, on the other hand, won’t be vying for a spot on the roster. Hockey Canada scout Kevin Prendergast said that MacKinnon “had problems” while going pointless for the QMJHL’s all-stars in two exhibition losses to Team Russia in November’s Subway Series. Instead, MacKinnon will be playing for Team Atlantic in the under-17 tournament in Windsor, Ont., over New Year’s. If MacKinnon is disappointed, he’s taking it out on opponents. The weekend after being left off the under-20 roster, he racked up five goals against the Quebec Remparts at the Metro Centre.
Even if he’s less of a finished product than Crosby, MacKinnon is skating along the same path. Almost eerily the same. Like Crosby, he started in Timbits hockey at age four. His father, Graham, an inspector with CN, drove him to the arenas in and around Cole Harbour where Crosby learned to play. As a tyke, MacKinnon was a low-key kid, waving when he’d skate past his parents in the middle of a game. Precocious concentration and talent came soon after. “On the pond behind his house or in the driveway, he had something special,” Cabana says. “I played with Sidney at the summer-18s. When you met him, you knew he had an amazing passion. Nathan had it, too.”
Soon MacKinnon was playing bantam-AAA with teammates as much as two-and-a-half years older, on the first line and first power play of a Cole Harbour team that went 63-9-9, one that he describes as “sick.” After his second year of bantam, his prospects for the next season looked grim: a third year in a row in bantam, and a team weaker than those he played with as an underager. Like Crosby at the same age, MacKinnon had run out of challenges at home. “Possibly, I could have got an exemption to play minor-midget but it’s tough to get,” he says. “I was looking for a step up—on the ice, in practice time, in coaching and everything else.”
So after turning 14, he enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the Minnesota private school where Crosby had spent a year. “If Sidney hadn’t gone to Shattuck, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play there,” MacKinnon says. “A lot of opportunities have opened up for players from here, and more are going to because of Sidney.” Shattuck was a great experience. “We had thought about Nathan starting there a year before, but at that point he was just too young,” says his mother, Kathy, area recreation co-ordinator for the municipality. “He did grow up a lot.”
Shattuck alums, including Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, New Jersey stalwart Zach Parise and Crosby, talk about the push Shattuck provided them at important stages of their development and MacKinnon joins the chorus. “At home, I didn’t always have someone I could go to the gym with or shoot pucks with,” he says. “At ‘Shat’ there was always someone. Always someone you wanted to be more serious than. There are kids getting up every day at 5:30 to work out.”
In his second year, MacKinnon had hoped to make the prep team, the varsity, as a 15-year-old, just as Crosby had. MacKinnon, however, didn’t make the cut. No shame in that as neither had Toews or Parise. MacKinnon did post impressive numbers with Shattuck’s under-16 team: 93 points in 40 games. He wasn’t the leading scorer. He trailed Taylor Cammarata, a Minnesota kid, who’s tearing up the USHL with Waterloo this year. MacKinnon’s season was interrupted by two under-17 tournaments almost entirely made up of ’94 birthdays; he was born in September 1995. Playing for Team Atlantic in Winnipeg at the Under-17 Challenge last January, he scored five goals and eight points in five games to finish among the tournament leaders. A month later at the Canada Winter Games, he picked up eight goals to lead Nova Scotia, not one of the tournament’s powerhouses, to a fourth-place finish. Back at Shattuck, the under-16s made it to the U.S. national finals and lost to Detroit Honeybaked 3–2.
By the summer of 2011, MacKinnon was facing the same sort of decision he faced in Cole Harbour. He was looking for new challenges. The Baie-Comeau Drakkar had picked him first overall in the 2011 QMJHL midget draft with the knowledge it might be tough to convince an Anglophone vedette to commit to two seasons on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. The Rimouski Océanic were able to land Crosby, but it’s a more established franchise with deeper pockets, more forgiving travel and a history of turning out stars like Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards. It was a tough sell for Baie-Comeau, even tougher when MacKinnon went to Nebraska to work out with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League, which would put him in a loop with older players on the track to the NCAA.
Faced with the prospect of watching a No. 1 pick walk away, Drakkar GM Steve Ahern took MacKinnon to the market. Rimouski looked like the favourite, which would have kept MacKinnon on exactly the same career path as Crosby. Quebec Remparts owner Patrick Roy made his pitch. So did the Shawinigan Cataractes, who were ramping up a team as Memorial Cup hosts. A political struggle was brewing. The Quebec-based teams in the QMJHL did not want to appear to be knuckling under the whims of a kid from the Maritimes out of fear it would set a precedent that would make it even more difficult to recruit players from the East Coast to smaller markets in Quebec. Ultimately, Halifax made the best offer: two players and three first-round picks. Crosby only played a handful of games in his hometown as a junior. MacKinnon is going to get to play his whole junior career there. He’ll be able to sleep in his own bed, hang out with his volleyball-playing sister, Sarah, and go to Prince Andrew High School with all the friends he grew up with. “It’s been great playing here,” he says. “People mostly don’t make anything special of it [at school]. It’s neat seeing little kids like I was, eight or nine years old, coming up to you, asking you for an autograph. I always sign and talk with them. I remember what that was like.”
Yes, all the way back to 2004.
When Nathan MacKinnon travelled across town and checked in with the Mooseheads, Cam Russell asked what number he wanted. Would it be No. 9, the historic digit associated with the Rocket and the Golden Jet? Or something like Gretzky’s 99, Lemieux’s 66, Crosby’s 87 or Stamkos’s 91, a signature number? MacKinnon told Russell that he wanted No. 22, which, apologies to Mike Bossy, doesn’t rank up there among hockey numerologists. MacKinnon told Russell he wanted No. 22 because it was Frederik Cabana’s number. “He was the closest thing I ever had to an older brother,” he said.
No. 22 was his. MacKinnon then chased down Cabana on Facebook. Cabana was Philadelphia’s sixth-round pick in 2004 but stuck in the American Hockey League for only a couple of seasons before deciding he had enough of the game on this side of the Atlantic. The past three seasons, he’s been playing in Germany, carving out a modest livelihood. “I told Nathan they’re going to retire No. 22 someday,” Cabana says, “and they won’t mention my name when they raise the sweater to the rafters.”
Maybe, though it’s easy to imagine MacKinnon mentioning the guy who skated with him on the pond in back of his house, the one who almost blew out the knee of the most famous name in Cole Harbour.
Around the CHL: News and views from Canada’s Jr. A loops
No Chip off the old block: Next to MacKinnon, Max Domi is the most anticipated ’95 birthday. The son of former NHL tough guy Tie is a playmaking London Knight centre garnering raves from NHL scouts. Said one: “He sees the ice like no one else in junior.”
Missing in action: Two top-10 draft-eligible juniors are out for the season with torn ACLs: Moose Jaw defenceman Morgan Reilly went down in October; Sarnia’s playmaking pivot Alexander Galchenyuk in September. Both remain highly touted—the No. 2 skaters in their leagues in NHL Central Scouting’s November preliminary report.
Quebec rising: The QMJHL features three of the top five CHL teams: Memorial Cup champ Saint John; Quebec, with draft-eligible star Russian Mikhail Grigorenko; and Victoriaville, with breakout centre Phillip Danault. The problem: Shawinigan hosts the ’12 Cup.
Open season on imports: Only the big-market teams had shots at elite imports, but smaller fish have had success recruiting. Leading the way is Sarnia with projected 2012 No. 1 pick, Russia’s Nail Yakupov, and Swede Ludvig Rensfeldt, the 35th pick in 2010.
Where are the goaltenders? The under-20 program has struggled with goaltending the past two world juniors. At the midpoint of the season it looks like there won’t be any CHL goaltenders taken in the first round of the NHL draft, maybe only one in the top 60. It’s looking less like a blip and more like a trend.