King on CHL: MacKinnon, Drouin a dream tandem

Halifax Mooseheads' Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.

For a fleeting moment, Cam Russell could picture it.

It was February, 2011 when Russell, the general manager of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads, first saw it while scouting the Canada Winter Games. The images that danced in his mind featured not only the next great star from nearby Cole Harbour, N.S., but a tandem that would surely be the envy of the league.

Russell turned to assistant general manager Bob Leblanc to share the thought. It was then that Russell dared not only to dream, but to dream big. He wanted Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.

“Wouldn’t it be great having both of those guys?” Russell asked Leblanc.

Six months later, Russell’s dream was reality.

After executing two franchise-altering trades, Russell’s Mooseheads are indeed led by a tandem of MacKinnon and Drouin, and his team is now within four wins of capturing its first championship.

Every now and then, Leblanc brings up that comment and they share a laugh.

“I’m sure every scout or general manager was saying the same thing at the time watching those players play,” Russell says now. “I don’t remember at the time if it was a pipe dream or if it was something that we really thought we could make happen.”

The Baie-Comeau Drakkar leapt ahead of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies by winning the 2011 draft lottery to stake claim to the first-overall pick. Drakkar GM Steve Ahern kidded at the time everyone suddenly wanted to be his friend.

Russell, like many GMs around the league, called Ahern to congratulate him that day, while also expressing interest in trading for the pick. Trade talks heated up in the days before the draft, but the Drakkar decided they would draft MacKinnon, who was a no-show for the event for fear his presence would imply a willingness to play in Baie-Comeau.

A Drakkar jersey with MacKinnon’s name-bar and the number 11 were photographed instead.

Now, less than two years later, MacKinnon is leading the Mooseheads into the league championship series against the team he wouldn’t join. It will certainly be a hostile environment for MacKinnon when the series reverts to Baie-Comeau for Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 6.

“Nathan’s not stupid,” Russell said. “He understands the situation, but he’s got a great focus right now and his focus is to help this hockey team win a championship.

“At the end of the day, it’s a good test for what lies ahead for the players that move on to the NHL because you play in Baie-Comeau, you play in Detroit, you play in New York city – there’s some tough arenas out there, there’s some rowdy people. It’s not all hugs and kisses when you’re playing in tough arenas.”

The Mooseheads are in the league final, in part, because of MacKinnon. The Drakkar are also in the final, in part, because of MacKinnon.

The trade, which was consummated on Aug. 2, 2011, sent three first-round draft picks and forwards Carl Gelinas and Francis Turbide to Baie-Comeau for the rights to MacKinnon. Gelinas, an overage scorer, and Turbide, a defensive specialist Russell likened to Brent Andrews, are part of the puzzle for the Drakkar, who were also able to use some of the picks in trades to bolster their roster.

In a way, it was an ideal trade since both teams are now reaping the rewards.

“It’s good for business,” the Mooseheads’ GM said. “You don’t want to be the guy that’s constantly winning a trade and then you’ve got another team that’s unhappy or disappointed with the product they’re getting – whether it’s hockey players or draft picks – because down the road, you’re going to be doing business with that team again.

“I think we can honestly say the trade has helped both teams in so many different ways. We’ve both come away from it very happy.”

In order to form the dynamic duo, Russell found a willing trading partner in Huskies GM Andre Tourigny the day of the draft. He moved up from fourth to second-overall and promptly picked Drouin, the first half of the duo.

As has been well-documented since then, the Mooseheads traded American forward Adam Erne to help pave the way for the MacKinnon trade. Erne, who didn’t hide his desire to play for the Quebec Remparts, was taken in the second round by the Mooseheads in that same draft. The Remparts sent three first-round picks to Halifax for him.

It seems obvious now that Erne would be used as leverage for MacKinnon, but that wasn’t Russell’s original intention.

“We drafted Adam Erne because we thought that we could convince him to come and play in the Quebec league,” he said. “We weren’t plotting to draft somebody and to trade him to someone else to acquire picks to trade to another team. That would be a pretty amazing coup.”

And yet, it was an amazing coup, which all started with a dream.

Sometimes real life makes for the greatest theatre.

“At the end of the day, to actually land both of those guys, we feel pretty fortunate about that,” Russell concluded. “It was definitely a dream and fortunately, it worked out for us.”

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