NEWARK, N.J. -- Kathy MacKinnon has the kind of boisterous laugh that can fill a room. When you hear it you can’t help but smile, because there’s something strangely comforting about it – like a hug from a parent. Her daughter, Sarah, fittingly describes it as genuine.
On Sunday, Kathy MacKinnon cried. They were tears of joy as her son, Nathan, had been selected first overall at the NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. Upon hearing his name, MacKinnon stood up and hugged his father, Graham, first before moving on to Kathy and then Sarah.
They were the first people he thanked when speaking to the media after his selection.
“It was so nice that my dad was the first person I got to hug here along with my mother and sister,” said MacKinnon, wearing his new Avs jersey. “I’m so fortunate to have such a great family. I wouldn’t be here without them and I’m glad that they’re here with me in New Jersey.”
The MacKinnons were watching their son complete a major step en route to his dream of one day playing in the NHL.
“That’s the most special thing about this experience,” said Kathy. “It’s the “pinch-me” moment, that your child is living his dream. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Kathy knows all about those dreams because as an elite-athlete, she had them, too. As a teenager she was a competitive swimmer specializing in sprint distances. Much like Nathan, she was completely immersed in her sport. Her specialty in the pool was the backstroke. At 13, she was the youngest swimmer to compete in the 1977 Canada Games when she swam for Nova Scotia.
“She was a great swimmer,” said Nathan. “The youngest swimmer at the Canada Games, she had a fantastic career. I always hear from my grandmother about how good she was. It’s cool that I have some athletic genes.”
But Kathy eventually gave up swimming in high school to take a job coaching younger kids so she could save money for university. In hindsight, she wishes she had kept her own dream alive.
“Regrets? Yes,” she said. “I wish I had pursued it through to university for sure.
“You know we all look back and have a couple of regrets and that would be it. I wish I had pursued it.”
One of the great things about the MacKinnon family is that none of them take themselves too seriously.
“It’s just fun teasing,” said Kathy. “We do laugh at a lot. We kinda like each other.”
They all share an endearing sense of humour and they’re not beyond of poking fun of themselves – or more importantly – each other.
“My dad and I always make fun of her for (quitting swimming),” said Nathan, with a big smile. “She quit because she wanted to coach and make a little money. I don’t know where that money is now.”
One of the intangibles that MacKinnon has been noted for in his play is his competitiveness. Like everyone, MacKinnon hates losing, but his desire to win at all costs started as a child. Kathy says she remembers Nathan trying to outrun older kids as a toddler up a hill near their home in Cole Harbour, N.S.
“He did it faster and better than anybody else,” says Kathy. “We always giggled about it, because if he saw someone take a golf swing, he would pick up a stick and that was now his golf club. It was always interesting because even as a toddler he was competitive. It was just born right in him.”
Kathy says her son’s competitive nature comes from both parents.
“I like to call it a gift,” said Kathy, along with her trademark laugh. “He’s not losing period, end stop. It contributes to keeping that fire (for hockey) lit to pursue your dream.”
When Graham is asked where Nathan gets it from, there’s no hesitation.
“Kathy,” he says.
It was a big day for the MacKinnon family.
Sarah is his biggest fan and can usually be seen proudly wearing her No. 22 MacKinnon jersey during his games. As a joke, Nathan would leave her tickets with her name scrawled, with child-like letters, as “Sarah MacKinnonnon.” During the QMJHL final she was disappointed she couldn’t be there to watch the final because she was on a trip to Fiji to help build a school and a water system for local children.
“She’s his biggest cheerleader,” says Kathy. “They complement each other so well and they get along as people. We’re definitely aren’t dragging her kicking and screaming to games.”
It was dad, Graham, who had been his sounding board, ready to listen and advise whenever Nathan needed guidance. As Sarah points out to her dad, it was his words that held the most sway with the young hockey phenom.
“He doesn’t come to us and ask about his play,” said Sarah, sitting at a table next to her dad. “He doesn’t really care about my opinion on his play – he cares about yours though.”Graham says he and Nathan would always put hockey in perspective and that he would never allow any negative talk about his play or his opponents.
“We’ve always talked,” said Graham. “I’d never let him say he sucked or another guy sucked. And we never ever talked about stats. Stats are stats and you can get carried away with them. We’d talk about little things like working hard.”
There’s no doubt the MacKinnons did their share of hard work for Nathan as well. The trips to the rinks, the early morning skates, the miles they put into travelling, on top of all the love and emotional support, have all been part of MacKinnon’s journey to Sunday’s draft. For Kathy, it was a special moment knowing she and her family had finished one part of Nathan’s special journey through hockey to the NHL.
“He’s been chasing this all his young life and now to see it roll out – and it’s real. There’s no more ‘he’ll make the NHL, I know he will’ and you’re just hoping and crossing your fingers.“It’s happening and it’s so surreal.”