SASKATOON — Long before Seth Jones and Nathan MacKinnon were the top-ranked players for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, they were friends. And before they became good friends, they were roommates.
The two junior superstars first met in Los Angeles at an elite summer camp run by the agency – CAA - that represents both players. They were barely 15 and still relatively under the radar in the grand scheme of hockey’s star system.
They spent two weeks rooming together.
“We just started bonding and sharing each other’s similarities,” said Jones, a defenceman with the Portland Winterhawks. “It’ just took off from there.”
[2013 Memorial Cup: Do the host Saskatoon Blades have what it takes?]
In every summer camp since that initial meeting, they’ve continued to share a room.
“Seth is a neat guy for sure,” said MacKinnon, a forward with the Halifax Mooseheads. “He’s pretty easy going. We like to have some late night food runs in the room and it’s pretty simple... he’s pretty solid and we like to have a good time together.”
The friends will become foes on Saturday when the QMJHL champion Mooseheads face the WHL champion Winterhawks at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. The tournament, for the Canadian Hockey League championship, begins Friday night with the host Saskatoon Blades facing the OHL champion London Knights.
Sometimes, particularly before the NHL draft, there is a tendency to pit players against one another. The whole Taylor Hall versus Tyler Seguin storyline was a construct sold prior to the 2011 draft in which Hall went first overall to Edmonton and Seguin second to Boston. Tension and animosity make for better stories, but in this case, Jones – ranked No. 1 by NHL central scouting – and MacKinnon, ranked No. 2, are as thick as thieves.
“He’s just goes with the flow,” said Jones of MacKinnon. “We both have pretty much the same interests when it comes to types of music and those types of things – he’s just a good guy – he’s not selfish.”
The pair, along with the MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate, Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 ranked skater for the NHL draft, had a press conference of their own on Thursday. It’s rare to have three of the top ranked draft eligible skaters at the Memorial Cup, so organizers felt it better to hold a conference for the trio to prevent them from being swarmed after their first practice.
It’s a long way from two barely-teenaged kids talking in California about the possibility of one day making The Show.
“I was in Bantam and I think (Seth) was coming out of Midget,” said MacKinnon of their first meeting. “But obviously we both wanted to make the NHL one day, like just any other kid. I never thought in a million years it would end up like this both at the Memorial Cup playing against each other on Saturday night.
“It’s kind of funny how things turned out.”
And yet here they are, the centre of attention, much as they were in over the Christmas break when Jones was lead Team USA to a gold medal while MacKinnon and Drouin played for Canada at the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. The trio was also the focal point for the media during the CHL’s Top Prospects game in January, when MacKinnon and Jones were captains of opposing teams.
MacKinnon and Drouin said they kept tabs on Portland throughout the playoffs. They expected to see Jones and the Winterhawks here.
“It wasn’t really a big surprise,” said Drouin. “They probably dominated the whole year. When they were leading against Edmonton (in the WHL final) … we were expecting to play them at the Memorial Cup.
Likewise, Jones said it was hard to avoid the talk of MacKinnon and Drouin’s exploits through the QMJHL playoffs where the Mooseheads only lost one game en route to capturing their franchise’s first President’s Cup title.
“It’s tough not to hear about Nathan or Jonathan make a sick move or a highlight reel goal,” said Jones. “It’s been pretty easy to keep up with them.”
All three players said they’re not concerned about the draft at this point. All three have had their games scrutinized by scouts, fans, and media, throughout the course of the season. There’s still the hope that a good performance in an extra viewing at the Memorial Cup could help either boost or solidify their draft rankings.
[2013 Memorial Cup: The dynamic duo - MacKinnon and Drouin]
“It’s hard to say how much it could help you, since it’s only four or five games you get to play,” said MacKinnon of the tournament. “I’m sure the (NHL) teams have watched you play 30 or 40 times this year. Having a good tournament could help, but we just want to win. That’s why we’re here.”
At this point, however, the pressure of a big game or a big tournament is old hat. The nice thing about Halifax’s dynamic duo is that MacKinnon and Drouin have been able to go through it together as teammates.
“Me and Nathan have been living the same thing,” said Drouin, the QMJHL playoff MVP. “It’s fun to have one guy that has the same feelings as you, that has the same pressure and that kind of stuff. You can talk about that when you’re going through hard times. It’s been great this year.”
Being in their draft year has also meant having to deal with additional media requests for Jones, MacKinnon, and Drouin. The Mooseheads have tried to be proactive in trying to limit the number of interviews and appearances their draft duo has done this season.
“I think all three of us would be lying to you guys if we didn’t think this year has been pretty hectic, media wise,” said Jones. “But like they said, it’s been a joy, it’s been fun. There are a lot of other kids who would want to be in our position.
“I wouldn’t trade my position for anything else in the world.”