SASKATOON — It was billed as one of the best junior hockey matchups at the Memorial Cup in almost a decade. The top-ranked Halifax Mooseheads, champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, pitted against the Portland Winterhawks, the second-ranked champions from the Western Hockey League.
It featured the upper echelon of talent for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft with Portland’s Seth Jones, Halifax’s Nathan MacKinnon and his Mooseheads teammate Jonathan Drouin, ranked 1-2-3 respectively by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service in their final rankings.
Not since Sidney Crosby’s appearance on opening night at the 2005 Memorial Cup against Corey Perry’s London Knights had a Canadian Hockey League game been so anticipated. And like Sid, it was another kid from the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour, N.S., who put on a show.
It was MacKinnon’s hat trick in a 7-4 victory over the Winterhawks that was a grand enough performance for people to question whether those draft rankings were right. Long before Jones slipped into first, it was MacKinnon who had scouts convinced he was No. 1.
Has the tide turned once again?
Realistically, MacKinnon doubts one good game can tip the scales given the hundreds of times he, Drouin and Jones have been viewed and dissected by scouts over the course of their very young careers.
“I’m sure they’ve watched me many times this year,” said MacKinnon after the game. “I don’t know how much one game is going to make a difference. Seth had a good game as well. He really controlled the play and carried the puck really well and the same with Jo (Drouin). The three of us are obviously battling for it (No. 1), but I don’t how much one game will change.”
Jones showed his speed and his offensive flair when he jumped into the rush to finish off a pass from Ty Rattie to tie the game at 1-1 late in the first period. But it was in the second period that MacKinnon showed why he has been the talk of the scouting community before he hit his teen years. With Halifax up 4-3, MacKinnon took the puck in the neutral zone and exploded past Jones like a Ferrari overtaking a minivan. One quick backhand-to-forehand move and the puck was in the net.
"He's a great offensive player, very dynamic,” said Jones of MacKinnon. “He's got great foot speed. You saw on his second goal coming down against me — a quick inside outside move — it’s tough to contain."
Once MacKinnon took centre stage and control of the game, Jones became nothing more than the opening act. It was the first time MacKinnon had bested Jones this year since the 17-year-old had been on the losing end at both the world junior tournament and at the CHL’s Top Prospects Game.
“It’s been a long time coming, I think,” said MacKinnon. “It’s nice to get the win, but if we face him again we’ll have to birdie.”
Teammates, coaches and even opponents often talk about MacKinnon’s impressive “compete level.” That’s hockey jargon for a win-at-all-costs attitude. Fans saw a glimpse of it on Saturday night when he rallied Halifax from a 3-1 deficit in the second period.
It’s not enough that he doesn’t like to lose – he hates to lose. And it’s not just in hockey, it’s in everything.
A challenge to play a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors?
“I would probably break your hand,” said MacKinnon with a laugh. “I’m kidding. I'm kidding. But it really bothers me to lose – in anything – that’s just the way I am sometimes. I try not to get too carried away with little stuff, but sometimes it gets to me.”
MacKinnon was like that even as a child. Something as trivial as a family game of Scrabble with mom Kathy, dad, Graham, and sister, Sarah, during a rainy day at the cottage can become an epic battle.
“He’ll throw (the tiles) at me if he doesn’t like the word I play,” said Sarah MacKinnon of her younger brother. “He’s pretty funny.
“As long as I can remember he’s been like that … any game – Monopoly as kids – he wanted to win. He was in it to win it. I’m pretty competitive myself, but he’s on a different level.”
In hockey, his desire to win is even greater.
“His biggest assets are his compete level and his work ethic,” said teammate Stephen MacAulay, who has known MacKinnon for years as a fellow resident of Cole Harbour. “He doesn’t like to lose any battles. He’s definitely touted for the right reasons and he’s definitely not overrated.”
No one likes to lose, that’s a given, especially in an ultra competitive sport like hockey. But as MacAulay notes, there’s something different when it comes to elite players like MacKinnon.
“The really good ones and the special ones are the ones that hate to lose the most,” said the overager. “He’s a good kid, but he can get frustrated if you beat him at something. He just wants the best for the team and the game.
“It’s because he really cares. If he didn’t, winning wouldn’t matter.”