Coaching and protecting MacKinnon at 12: ‘We had to watch out for him’

Here's a sneak peek of what you can expect from Rogers Hometown Hockey's 2nd stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

If you wander into Cole Harbour Place on a weekend morning these days, you’ll see kindergarten-age boys and girls learning to skate, learning how to hold a stick, learning to love the game.

It’s easy to imagine the scene when Nathan MacKinnon was on this same sheet of ice 20 years ago — playing in his first games, scoring his first goal — back when he was one of the smallest kids on the ice, skating in a kiddie league sponsored by a doughnut company.

Of course, some things have changed dramatically over the years. By the time MacKinnon was playing peewee hockey as an under-ager, the tiny community of Cole Harbour was on everyone’s radar because of another local boy — Sidney Crosby, maybe you’ve heard of him — who’d made good. And these days, of course, MacKinnon’s arguably the most dynamic and powerful player in the NHL. In his spare time he does commercials for the same doughnut outfit. Even the arena itself has received a fairly extensive renovation that shortened the hockey camp a summer ago.

Some things around the local arenas are constants, though. One of them is Charlie MacLean, a fixture on the hockey scene in Halifax — where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend — since before he coached MacKinnon in bantam AAA.

Nathan MacKinnon, second from the left behind the goalies, celebrates his bantam AAA team's provincial championship
A twelve-year-old MacKinnon, second from the left behind the goalies, celebrates his team’s bantam AAA provincial championship. (Courtesy of Charlie MacLean)

While Crosby’s greatest minor-hockey glories came down the road with the Dartmouth Subways, MacKinnon played all of his youth hockey in the arena closest to home. While MacLean will reserve judgement, many locals will make the case that MacKinnon and his bantam AAA teammates were the best to ever play out of the arena. MacLean was behind the bench with assistants Dave Peters and Jeff Porter for that Cole Harbour team, which won both the provincial and Atlantic Canada championships.

MacKinnon didn’t rack up the same hard-to-fathom goal-scoring numbers that Crosby had, but neither was he an unknown commodity coming up through the ranks.

“We knew about Nathan when he was in atom,” MacLean says. “I was coaching bantam and his team would be on the ice before we practiced. He was a small kid and pretty shy, but well-mannered and clearly talented. At that point, I thought there’d be a pretty good shot that I’d be coaching him someday.”

MacLean had a a shorter wait than he imagined.

“In his first year of peewee, he was 11, and he’d practise with the bantam AAAs, who were mostly 14 going on 15,” MacLean says. “You could see even then how competitive he was. He wanted every drill to be just right.”

In his second year of peewee, the MacKinnons applied for exceptional-player status to allow Nathan to play up with Cole Harbour’s bantam team in AAA play.

“Hockey Nova Scotia did a lot of homework on it and watched him in practice,” Maclean says. “They talked to his parents (Graham and Kathy). They talked to Nate. [Exceptional-player status] wasn’t anything that they just handed out, but he really deserved it.”

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Though turning out a superstar talent turned out to be a twice-in-a-lifetime proposition for the community, MacLean assumed he was only going to get a single shot with a prodigy and made the most of it.

“Getting to work with a player that talented, it’s a real treat as a coach,” MacLean says. “We had to watch out for him because he was still the smallest kid on the ice and other teams would take liberties with him and try to run him.”

With MacKinnon on the ice and MacLean behind the bench, Cole Harbour beat the St. John’s Hitmen in the Atlantic Canada final.

“We had a really strong team, a bunch of players who went on to play in Quebec (Major Junior Hockey) League and for university teams,” MacLean said, “but Nathan was clearly the most talented kid in the lineup.”

He was also the one who left home the soonest. When MacKinnon enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, he wasn’t just following the trail blazed by Crosby. That first principle of hockey development — always be looking for stiffer challenges — propelled him to leave home.

“Everyone understood that and no one begrudged Nathan (going to Shattuck-St. Mary’s). He had to move on and play with better players, face better competition and, really, get more time on the ice and better coaching. We’d done as much as we could for him here.”

A few years later, MacLean faced his own crossroads, and rather than move up, he chose to move back. His wife, Crystal, is a teacher at Astral Drive Junior High School — yup, Sidney Crosby’s alma mater before he headed off to Shattuck — so it’s not so much of a surprise that Charlie has gone from coaching to teaching on the ice.

“It was really enjoyable working with the bantams and midget teams, but I got to the point that I wanted to spend that time in the arena with my kids,” says MacLean, who currently works with players as young as his four-year-old daughter, Emilia. “And it was the right time to let someone else have the chance to work with the older players.”

Don’t mistake MacLean’s decision as any sort of fading from the scene. He’s currently working with the kindergarten-aged kids alongside his old assistant Dave Peters, and plans to move up the coaching ranks every season.

“With my daughter and kids her age, it’s a different type of coaching, but it’s a lot of fun,” says MacLean. “It’s teaching the game, the basics and fundamentals, rather than doing anything with game strategies. You have to strike a balance at any level — whether it’s bantam AAA or the very youngest kids playing for the first time. You want kids to compete and have fun. Maybe with my daughter’s group, it’s learning to compete as well, something that you’re not having to do with the older kids.”

And the scouting report on his young sons?

“Rylan is six, so he’s a couple of years away from thinking about playing anything like AAA, but my older son is eight, so we’re a season away from when it gets more serious,” he says. “My older boy is a good skater and a pretty good little player, but he’s defensive-minded, so I imagine at some point as he moves up he’ll go to the blue line.”

And it’s just coincidence that his eight-year-old’s name is Nathan.

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