Publish date:

POISED TO BLAST OUT OF SID'S SHADOW

Author:

NATHAN MACKINNON GREW UP IN THE SAME HOMETOWN AS SIDNEY CROSBY AND FOLLOWED THE SAME PATH TO THE NHL. NOW THE AVALANCHE CENTER IS READY TO DELIVER ON HIS EARLY PROMISE AND JOIN THE GAME'S GREATS

ASK ANYONE who knows Nathan MacKinnon about his ascent in the hockey world, and they will instead talk about golf. Four years ago the Avalanche center couldn't swing a club, let alone sniff the fairway. "He was horrendous," says team captain Gabriel Landeskog. And failure, famously, does not sit well with the 23-year-old rocket-booster-on-skates who finished second in the MVP voting last season. It wasn't quite that he would snap putters or chuck balls. Still ... "I used to hate riding with him because he was a f------ lunatic," defenseman Tyson Barrie says. "He had no business getting mad, but still he would scream. And if you laughed, he'd yell at you."

For most NHLers, the links provide a soothing summer reprieve from the rink. But not for MacKinnon, who devoured PGA Tour highlights on YouTube, studied teaching videos on Instagram, hired a private coach and installed artificial turf at his offseason home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. These days MacKinnon crushes 320-yard drives at sea level—350 at Denver's mile-high altitude—while sporting a five handicap. As he explains with a shrug, "I just didn't want to suck anymore."

Such focused intensity surprised exactly no one in MacKinnon's orbit. Not his mother, Kathy, who would schlep sandwiches and hot chocolate through the winter freeze because young Nathan refused to quit skating on the neighborhood lake. Not personal trainer Andy O'Brien, who remembers a teenage MacKinnon once performing a high-knees drill for five minutes because O'Brien got distracted and forgot to say stop. And definitely not his offseason workout partner, Sidney Crosby, who says, "It's not uncommon to see a stick broken in half over the summer. When he's upset, you can tell."

At 6 feet and 205 pounds, with 7.5% body fat, MacKinnon is the ultimate physical unicorn for today's game. Consider this gushing testimony from the only other player who's capable of challenging for that title, the Oilers' 6'1", 193-pound Connor McDavid: "He's got so many different attributes that can hurt. He's got that eye-popping speed, then that strength where he can just bull through you and take it right to the net. It's something you don't really see a lot of. He's the total package."

It all harmonized last season when MacKinnon's career-high—by far—97 points sparked the Avs' worst-to-first-round revival. (They lost to Nashville in six.) "His welcome-to-being-a-superstar moment," Barrie says. "He finally broke out of his shell. I think a lot of people knew he had it in him."

Others, of course, wondered what took so long. After leading his Halifax team to the CHL's Memorial Cup and going No. 1 in the 2013 draft, MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy, turning in the best offensive season (24 goals, 39 assists) by an 18-year-old rookie since Crosby's in 2005--06. Then came three largely pedestrian years—38, 52 and 53 points, respectively—which meant plenty of time for golf. But now? "There's no limit to what Nate can do," Landeskog says. "I don't see why he can't be the best player in the world."

AS FAR as youth hockey trading cards go, this one proved eerily prophetic. A seven-year-old MacKinnon appears on the front, smiling and sporting his number 19 jersey for the 2002--03 Cole Harbour Novice Stingers. A tongue-in-cheek scouting report on the back reads: Nathan has a power slap shot and many fans compare him to a young Joe Sakic! Goaltenders simply don't have time to get set when this guy gets the puck.... Colorado scouts are closely watching Nathan's games!

A decade later, fresh on the job as Colorado's executive VP of hockey operations—the franchise with which he had spent his entire Hall of Fame career and wore number 19—Sakic leaned into a microphone in Newark and handed the future to a swagger-filled 17-year-old ... who soon joined the Avalanche locker room and promptly told everyone to call him Nate Dogg, or the Dogg. "It was pretty clear from the get-go," Landeskog says. "He came in and took the team by storm."

Known for his even keel on the ice, Sakic has helped smooth out MacKinnon's rough edges, including body language that could fluster teammates when he became frustrated. "A good calming influence on him," Barrie says of Sakic, who maintains an open-door policy with MacKinnon, allowing the player to offer suggestions on everything from roster construction to breakfast menus. "I respond to that better than a hardass," MacKinnon says.

Their relationship weathered the stiffest tempest two years ago when coach Patrick Roy abruptly resigned six weeks before training camp, leading to the hasty hiring of Jared Bednar from the AHL. The ensuing 22-56-4 train wreck set an NHL record for cap-era futility; MacKinnon, through it all, shot a career-low 6.4%, scored just twice on the power play and finished with 53 points, tied for 72nd in the league. "You just drown in the misery," he says. "Nothing you can do, man. It gets tough to be that bad."

Last season didn't start much better. MacKinnon opened with a six-game goal drought and took a stick to his right eyeball against Anaheim, losing vision in it for 10 minutes. "My hockey career flashed before me," he says. "So painful. Really scary." Then, three days before Halloween, Bednar flanked MacKinnon with Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen; the trio combined for seven points in a 6--3 rout over the Blackhawks. "That's when I felt it," MacKinnon says. "That's how I had to play every night."

MacKinnon finished with 39 goals, including an NHL-best 12 game-winners, and 58 assists. His breakout season was fueled, in part, by a request he made to switch from the middle of Colorado's power play to the left-half wall. This allowed him to attack downhill with his forehand and led to 12 goals and 20 assists (both career highs) at man-advantage. Overall, his 1.31 points per game trailed McDavid by 0.01 for the league lead. Had MacKinnon, who finished fifth in overall points, not suffered a right A/C joint sprain against Vancouver on Jan. 30, which kept him off the ice for eight games, he believes he could have led the league and won the Art Ross Trophy, "for sure."

Perhaps more meaningful to the Avs—and terrifying for everyone else—was how MacKinnon excelled. Bednar noticed greater diversity in his attack methods: patiently pulling up in the offensive zone for passes, probing for give-and-gos rather than trying to blow past defenders. "He was moving the pieces around the chessboard better than he had in years past," Bednar says. "Every time he touched the puck, you were like, 'Oh, he's going to score,' which is crazy."

"There were games where I literally felt like I was playing bantam hockey," says Barrie, who was mesmerized by watching MacKinnon from his defenseman spot. "Nate would have one [goal] and three [assists] and 20 chances and he was toe-dragging guys, blowing by them."

One such moment occurred on Dec. 18, when Colorado hosted Pittsburgh. During an intermission, Penguins assistant strength and conditioning coach Alexi Pianosi passed protein bars around the visitors' locker room when he noticed a defenseman who had been burned by MacKinnon staring off into space. Turning to a nearby teammate, the defenseman sighed and said, "Holy crap. He comes at you fast."

Pianosi was already familiar with MacKinnon's speed, having helped O'Brien train him for the past 10 years. MacKinnon is biomechanically built for open ice thanks to his mesomorphic physique (heavy muscle packed on small bones, like a big engine fueling a light car). Paired with a knack for re-accelerating on lateral movements, he is hockey's equivalent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, capable of covering massive distances in a single, seemingly effortless stride. "People joke with me and Andy, like, 'Oh my god, you created some sort of hockey freak,'" Pianosi says. "Well, there has been a lot of time put into programming for Nathan."

A few weeks later, Pianosi recounted that locker room story to MacKinnon, who chuckled. "I heard one guy who was saying it," Pianosi says. "But there were 100 others thinking the same thing." Including, perhaps, the Penguins' no-doubt Hall of Famer and the face of the NHL.

To Nate Dogg, that would be Li'l Cros.

AROUND NINE on the morning after the 2013 NHL draft, MacKinnon had every right to still be sleeping—or celebrating—in Newark. Instead he was hundreds of miles away, exhausted from an overnight flight and fueled only by yogurt parfait, bent over along the sands of Brackley Beach on Prince Edward Island, determined to keep pace with his childhood idol. "Didn't even bat an eye," Crosby says. "He puked everywhere and was like, 'O.K., what are we doing next?'"

Back then, MacKinnon was skating in Crosby's full shadow. That was mostly due to a quirk of geography, two hockey prodigies emerging from the same community—Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (pop. 25,151)—eight years apart. But the two had also traveled along strikingly parallel tracks: boarding school at Shattuck St. Mary's in Fairbault, Minn.; No. 1 pick in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; ditto in the NHL. Comparisons were unavoidable, especially when reporters discovered that MacKinnon had an autographed Sid the Kid poster hanging in his childhood bedroom.

But hero worship has long been a thing of the past. "People always think I'm saying things like, 'What mentorship can I get from you today?'" MacKinnon scoffs. "I'm not just asking him s--- all the time." They strolled through the streets of Prague together as linemates on Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championships, which they won, and then shared a Santa Monica, Calif., condo for three weeks of oceanfront workouts later that summer. And Crosby always drafts MacKinnon first at his invite-only skills camp in Vail, Colo., where a handful of big-name players—John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Jason Spezza—train every summer, competing in drills for points (and, eventually, a trophy). Recently they became neighbors when MacKinnon built his house a minute away on Grand Lake in Halifax; typically, they work out in the mornings with Pianosi and O'Brien, and then Crosby cooks everyone lunch. "He's my buddy," MacKinnon says.

And, as buddies, they push each other. MacKinnon laughs about the time he nearly broke his foot kicking a medicine ball, upset that Crosby had won a drill. Pat Brisson, the agent for both players, remembers how sour MacKinnon seemed while attending the 2017 NHL awards to support Crosby's bid for the Hart Trophy. "I didn't want to be there like that," MacKinnon told Brisson this June when they returned to Vegas, where MacKinnon narrowly finished behind Hall for the same MVP award. O'Brien, meanwhile, laments how simple warmup laps would become full-contact races, so this summer the trainer all but banned exercises that pit them head-to-head.

No doubt the tone was set at Brackley Beach. At the end of their inaugural session Crosby challenged MacKinnon to 10 30-meter sprints. After losing the first nine, MacKinnon surged to an early lead on the final rep ... until Crosby grabbed his ankle, yanked him down and crossed the finish line. They may dominate on the ice through vastly different strengths—Crosby performing small-area surgery below the face-off dots; MacKinnon scorching poor backcheckers with neutral-zone speed—but they are linked by the same drive. "Sid sees his ultracompetitiveness in Nathan," Brisson says.

It will be a tall task for MacKinnon to catch Crosby in Stanley Cups (three), MVP awards (two) or scoring titles (two) by his 30th birthday. But Crosby sees no reason why MacKinnon, entering his sixth season, can't stake his claim alongside McDavid—not to mention Toronto's Auston Matthews, Winnipeg's Patrik Laine and others—in the pantheon of young superstars. "He definitely has all the tools to be in that conversation every year," Crosby says.

MACKINNON ENJOYS a simple life in Denver, where the air is crisp and the country clubs operate year-round. Outside of golf, his hobbies include playing Fortnite and hanging out with Cox, a protection-trained German shepherd who only knows Deutsch commands. ("A badass," MacKinnon says.) Not that he is shy about stepping out in public. "When I leave the house, I'm not expecting anyone to know who I am," he says.

That should change. MacKinnon is already a celebrity back home, if not for his deft stickhandling then for his Tim Horton's ads with Crosby and for a cameo on Netflix's Trailer Park Boys. Playing a youth hockey instructor on the dopey—and doped-up—mockumentary based in Nova Scotia, MacKinnon gets introduced to one of the main characters by a grade-school boy like this: "That's Nathan MacKinnon, you dumbass." Then again, MacKinnon prefers privacy; he hasn't posted on Instagram in more than a year. "People get so caught up in social media," he says. "Our life isn't a movie. It's not some inspirational thing."

Tell that to Tyson Jost. The 20-year-old Avs center grew up mimicking YouTube videos of MacKinnon's signature move—a forehand saucer shot chipped over the goalie's glove-side shoulder, surprising him like an off-speed pitch—outside his suburban Edmonton home. Now they spend half an hour shooting pucks together before most Colorado morning skates, and Jost writes down pregame reminders on his phone just as MacKinnon taught him. And it was at MacKinnon's encouragement that Jost started training with O'Brien this summer, making his first pilgrimage to star-studded Vail. "I met Nathan when he was training with Sid, his idol," O'Brien says. "It's neat for me to meet someone like Tyson, who now looks at Nathan in that same light."

With nine roster players under 25 and two first-rounders in next year's draft—including the surefire high-lottery pick that they received in the aura-cleansing Matt Duchene deal with Ottawa last November—the Avalanche are much like their superstar, barely on the cusp of what is possible.

So watch out, NHL. You don't want to get caught wondering who that f------ lunatic was that just blew past your defensemen. Because there's only one answer: That would be Nathan MacKinnon, you dumbass.

"THERE'S NO LIMIT TO WHAT NATE CAN DO," LANDESKOG SAYS. "I DON'T SEE WHY HE CAN'T BE THE BEST PLAYER IN THE WORLD."

NHL 2018--19: THE PICKS

TORONTO'S DROUGHT WILL END—SORT OF. THE LEAFS WILL MAKE THEIR FIRST FINAL SINCE 1967, BUT IT'S THE PREDATORS WHO WILL LIFT THE CUP

1

WINNIPEG

LOS ANGELES

W

2

NASHVILLE

ST. LOUIS

3

1

SAN JOSE

DALLAS

W

2

LAS VEGAS

CALGARY

3

WINNIPEG

NASHVILLE

WESTERN CONFERENCE

SAN JOSE

LAS VEGAS

NASHVILLE

SAN JOSE

®

NASHVILLE

defeats

TORONTO

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

TORONTO

®

COLUMBUS

TAMPA BAY

TORONTO

EASTERN CONFERENCE

FLORIDA

COLUMBUS

1

TAMPA BAY

PHILADELPHIA

W

2

TORONTO

BOSTON

3

1

PITTSBURGH

FLORIDA

W

2

COLUMBUS

WASHINGTON

3

AWARDS

SI's picks for who will be holding the hardware when the 2018--19 season ends

MVP

HART TROPHY

CONNOR MCDAVID

Edmonton Oilers

BEST DEFENSEMAN

NORRIS TROPHY

ERIK KARLSSON

San Jose Sharks

BEST GOALIE

VEZINA TROPHY

ANDREI VASILEVSKIY

Tampa Bay Lightning

BEST COACH

JACK ADAMS AWARD

PAUL MAURICE

Winnipeg Jets

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

CALDER TROPHY

ELIAS PETTERSSON

Vancouver Canucks