DENVER — Nathan MacKinnon wants the record set straight.
He didn’t fall, he was pushed.
In the midst of a heated exchange on the bench with Colorado coach Jared Bednar, the two things that interrupted MacKinnon’s verbal assault included him throwing a water bottle and him falling backwards off the bench.
The early-January exchange was all caught on camera at the Saddledome in Calgary where the Avs were seconds away from their eighth loss in nine outings.
“I got pushed,” smiled MacKinnon ahead of Game 3 against the San Jose Sharks.
“Gabe (Landeskog) pushed me because he was like, ‘Nate, stop, stop, stop.’ I couldn’t hear him, so he hit me harder and then I fell over. That’s what I wanted to tweet out but I’m like, ‘I can’t tweet something now.’ I wish he said something and admitted it.”
The video went viral, putting an unwanted spotlight on an ugly exchange in which MacKinnon appeared to tell Bednar, “Just do your job.”
“Nate did a good job explaining it in Montreal the next day saying, ‘I let the emotions get the best of me and I should have handled it better,’” said Landeskog of an incident he, MacKinnon and Bednar agree was a tremendous learning experience.
“For him that’s one of his greatest qualities is how passionate he is and how badly he wants it. Sometimes it bubbles over and he takes it out on the bench and things like that are going to happen. For us at that point in the season we kept losing and couldn’t get an end to it. We’re able to look back at it and laugh now.”
Pausing, Landeskog proved it.
“If anything he’s, what, 200 pounds? And I just did this (he motions a small push backwards with his right arm) — that shows how strong I am.”
The strength of their club was evident soon thereafter as they battled their way through a horrific mid-season funk to sneak into the playoffs, and land where they are now — tied 1-1 in the second round with the pre-season Cup favourites.
It has been a rocky road to be sure, but one MacKinnon has learned tremendous lessons from along the way.
MacKinnon is the most talented, compelling and dominant player left in the playoffs, while also showing humility, and approachability superstars generally shed.
Down the hall sits a Sharks team full of big names who are loathe to share much of anything with the media, while MacKinnon is an open book whose humble, engaging nature sets the tone in a room full of approachable sorts.
“I was pretty s––––– my first four years,” said MacKinnon of a career he feels has only recently started to reflect what he’s capable of.
“I went from 50 to 100 (points) last year. It just took me a while to get comfortable and figure out my game. I feel like I’ve improved drastically in the last couple seasons.
“It took me four years to kind of get where I am today.”
With the help of fellow Cole Harbour, N.S. native Sidney Crosby, the Avalanche first-overall pick in 2013 made a conscious decision to turn his fortunes around following a 16-goal, 53-point season two seasons back.
He cut out dairy, abandoned guilty pleasures like chips and salsa and forged a new path while training alongside Crosby.
“I took everything as seriously as I could — my mind, nutrition, I revamped my focus off the ice and I think it really translated on the ice,” said MacKinnon, receptive to all sorts of lessons he’s learned from his last few years
“When you’re serious about one thing it kind of translates into other things in your life I think. When you cheat one thing you kind of let everything go.”
MacKinnon has drawn endless praise from Crosby, Connor McDavid, Mark Giordano and the rest of the hockey world as the best player left in these playoffs.
He’s playing with next-level assertiveness and confidence bolstered by a simple text from Sid on the opening night of the playoffs.
“Just before Game 1 he told me not to see how Calgary is gonna come, and just go attack them and dictate the pace of the game,” said MacKinnon, whose 11 points have him just one behind the playoff leader.
“We didn’t win that game, but I think we set the tone and won in 5.”
He credits Crosby’s guidance as being integral to MacKinnon’s evolution as a player and leader who finished with 41 goals and 99 points this year — just one behind Sid, whom he trains with all summer.
“We talk a lot — I think he’s my biggest supporter right now. It’s kind of like a brother relationship,” said MacKinnon, still just 23.
“I’m rooting for him and I know he’s rooting for me.
“He’s got three Cups and he’s done it all and is one of the best players ever. It’s cool to have his support and get some wisdom from him whenever he’s available.
“He’s done 10 times more than I have. I’m starting to experience a little bit of it. I can relate to him a little more now I guess. I’m sure if we played in the finals he wouldn’t be giving me any advice. (But) it’s a long ways away from the finals.”
Not as far as he may have thought previously, as the lessons he’s been learning the last few weeks have helped him and his teammates start to believe in themselves more.
“We feel like we can win the Cup now,” said the six-foot, 205-pound bullet train, who had never been to the second round.
“We didn’t know if we could make the playoffs and now we feel pretty confident we can beat anybody. It’s just such a cool feeling. I’ve never really felt like this before. I don’t think anybody’s really had this belief in this team in this room. It definitely has been a long time coming, so it’s really exciting.”
It has him thinking back to the nights he sat with pals at the Stubborn Goat gastropub in Halifax, watching Crosby hoist the cup.
“I’ve been to two of Sid’s Cup parties — I have a good time there as well, but I don’t touch it,” he said of the age-old practice of keeping hands off until it’s earned.
“I definitely looked at it pretty close, but I wasn’t going to touch it or raise it or anything like that.”
So, he’ll continue to text Crosby, soak in the experience, lead assertively, avoid bench confrontations, milkshakes and nacho chips while learning a little more each day about what it takes to win when it matters most.
He’s more prepared than ever for the wild emotional swings of the playoffs, not to mention the threat of being shoved off his bench.