Johnston: Spotlight fixed firmly on MacKinnon

Nathan MacKinnon looks poised to go first overall. (CP/Liam Richards)

In a country where hockey pumps through the veins of the populace and can even be found on the currency, the search is always on for the Next One.

There was a Gretzky after Howe and a Crosby after Gretzky, with an Orr and a Lemieux and a Lindros sprinkled in along the way. Today there is a Stamkos and a Toews and a Tavares to go with Crosby – himself just 25-years old – but still we wonder where Canada’s next great player will come from.

And so the spotlight turns to 17-year-old Nathan MacKinnon, who is expected to be the first overall pick in the NHL Draft on Sunday afternoon.

Having grown up in Cole Harbour, N.S., MacKinnon has long been identified as the ‘next in line.’ In fact, the endless comparisons to Crosby created a burden he had to overcome long before finding his way to the draft floor in Newark, N.J., this weekend.

“I hated it,” he said during a recent interview. “I didn’t want to be compared to Sid and when I was 13 I had an article about me in ESPN Magazine saying I was going to be the next Crosby. That was tough. … It’s just like Sid (being told) he was the next Gretzky – it’s tough to live up to those expectations, but I just kind of dealt with them.

“I was only a little kid at the time, but now I just kind of brush it off.”

That two No. 1 draft picks might come from the same birthplace, especially one with a population of just 25,000, is basically unheard of.

Over the last 25 years, only two top picks in the NHL were from the same town – with Joe Thornton (1997) and Eric Lindros (1991) both being born in London, Ont. However, Thornton’s time there lasted only as long as the original hospital visit, as he was raised in nearby St. Thomas instead.

By contrast, MacKinnon and Crosby grew up walking the same streets and playing in the same minor hockey association. Lightning essentially struck twice in the community about 30 minutes outside of Halifax.

Asked to explain what might be going on with the water back home, MacKinnon joked: “Good PH levels.”

“I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or what,” he added. “I know Cole Harbour minor hockey is great for development. I think with Sid as well – he had a great dad coming up that really pushed him, opened up a lot of doors for him.

“Thankfully I’ve had the same kind of thing.”

One of the biggest things Graham MacKinnon tried to hammer home to his son was the importance of being the best Nathan MacKinnon he could be. That meant not trying to replicate Crosby’s many achievements, which is much easier said than done when everyone constantly asks about them.

However, it’s not like the teenager distanced himself from the hometown hero – not at all.

MacKinnon grew up cheering for the Pittsburgh Penguins and remembers meeting Crosby for the first time at the Halifax airport when he was about seven-years old. Along with MacKinnon’s sister, they posed for a picture together and it still hangs on the wall at home.

He also followed in Crosby’s footsteps by attending Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the prestigious Minnesota prep school, and more recently has spent time skating and working out with No. 87 in the summer.

Naturally, they even share the same agent – Pat Brisson of CAA Sports.

“Sid was my role model for sure,” said MacKinnon. “I loved the way he played, I grew up watching him, he’s from the same hometown. At the same time I knew I wouldn’t be compared to him if I was from Toronto or Moncton or anywhere else.”

In the long run, those comparisons might end up being beneficial.

The Colorado Avalanche have basically announced that they intend to select MacKinnon with the No. 1 pick on Sunday and one of the reasons why is the way he’s carried himself amid the scrutiny. In their eyes, the teenager has been groomed for stardom.

“He’s lived with it for quite a while now and he’s risen to every occasion,” said Joe Sakic, the Avs vice-president of hockey operations.

One NHL general manager recently described MacKinnon as a “bulldog.”

And while defenceman Seth Jones passed him in various prospect rankings this season, it was telling that MacKinnon delivered a hat trick in both games against Jones’ Portland Winter Hawks at the MasterCard Memorial Cup in May.

The great ones always rise to the occasion.

“What you like about a guy like Nathan is that he’s played in the moment and it seems whenever that moment is there … he brings it to another level,” said Sakic, who knows a thing or two about that himself.

Even if MacKinnon never totally shakes the Crosby comparisons, he has at least found peace with them. It no longer bothers him like it once did.

Looking back, he notes that the one good thing about growing up in Crosby’s shadow was that the path to the NHL was always there for him to see. That hadn’t always existed in Cole Harbour.

“For him, he didn’t know if he could,” MacKinnon said of Crosby. “Just being from a small town he didn’t know if he was good enough. For me, I kind of looked at him and said `If he can do it, hopefully I can do it as well.”‘

The draft promises to be the biggest day of MacKinnon’s life so far.

A large entourage will accompany MacKinnon to the Prudential Center; everyone from immediate family to distant cousins to old hockey coaches and teammates.

“I’m not doing prom or graduation,” said MacKinnon. “This is kind of like the thing I’ve always dreamed about at the end of high school, being drafted. My whole life I’ve been thinking about June 30th and 2013.”

The big day is almost here. The next in line to be the Next One will soon be on his way.

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