Hockey players often say being a spectator is a difficult thing. When you are used to the fast pace, adrenaline and emotion of being a contributor on the ice, watching from afar can sometimes leave one feeling helpless.
For Nathan MacKinnon, however, being a fan of his Halifax Mooseheads only lasted 14 games. So while he sat out, mending a knee injury, he was able to appreciate some of the small details you only catch with a bird’s-eye view.
“It just seems like there’s always a little more time than you think when you have the puck,” said MacKinnon of what he learned from watching. “Sometimes you can rush a little bit if you think you’re under pressure, but I found that you can definitely create more time.”
It’s a difficult virtue to master even for those of us who aren’t 17-year-old hockey prodigies. But it speaks to MacKinnon’s attention to the finer points of his game.
“It’s maturity more than anything,” said Halifax general manager Cam Russell. “It’s nice to see that he’s a student of the game and that he’s picking up details like that and learning. That’s what good hockey players do. They don’t just watch the game, they try to learn from it.”
MacKinnon said he put what he learned into practice when he returned to the lineup three games before the season ended for the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.
“In the last couple of games I think I really tried to find that patience and applied it to when I was playing.”
If there was a difference, it was subtle enough for Russell – who has seen MacKinnon play more than most – not to notice.
“I watch Nathan with the puck and he always has really good patience with it, as far as I’m concerned,” said Russell with a chuckle. “But he’s striving for excellence.”
On Friday night, MacKinnon will have that patience tested by the defending President’s Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs in the opening round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs.
MacKinnon said his knee is fully healed and that he’s quickly getting back into game shape. While no one likes being injured, the time off the ice helped in a season where he has played non-stop hockey – under-17 tournament, world junior championship, Top Prospects Game, you name it – since the summer.
“It was good to take some time off and rejuvenate a little bit,” said the native of Cole Harbour, N.S. “I was able to get some of the strength back that I had lost. We have a really cool team to watch, though obviously I never want to sit in the stands.”
Despite being the reigning league champion, Saint John is no longer the top dog. That title belongs to Halifax and their 58-6-3-1 record, which tied the QMJHL record for wins in a season.
Everyone expects Halifax to win, especially since the core group that made a surprising run to the QMJHL semifinal last year is still intact.
“I think all our players have extremely high expectations of themselves,” said Russell. “I don’t feel that the guys feel that pressure … we’re not really paying attention to what anyone else thinks.”
During the 2011-12 playoffs, the young Mooseheads were still finding their way. It wasn’t until they completed a stunning, come-from-behind victory over the favoured Quebec Remparts that people took notice. In that quarterfinal, Halifax rallied from a 0-3 series deficit to win in Game 7. It was an invaluable learning experience for players like MacKinnon, linemate Jonathan Drouin and goaltender Zach Fucale, who are all draft-eligible.
“Never take any team for granted,” said MacKinnon. “I think Quebec, for example, took us lightly last year. They were up a couple games and we really took full advantage of that.”
That lesson will come in handy against the Sea Dogs, who finished a ridiculous 73 points behind the Mooseheads in the regular season standings and – according to Buzzing the Net statistician Rob Pettapiece – have a one percent chance of beating Halifax.
“The standings speak for themselves,” said MacKinnon. “But we’re going to get after them quick. We don’t want to let anyone get off the hook and definitely try to win that series as quick as we can.”
And while the immediate focus is on Halifax, you can’t help but wonder how a long post-season run will impact how both MacKinnon and Drouin are perceived for the June NHL draft. At present, Portland Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones is the top-ranked player according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. It was a title long held by MacKinnon. After Drouin’s stellar play for Canada at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, there are some scouting services that have placed the winger ahead of MacKinnon.
Some might think this kind of situation would be rife with rivalry and jealousy, but that’s not the case. Any notion of unhealthy competition between the two is a construct.
“They’re good friends, but they push each other,” said Russell. “It’s great because they play with each other and they help each other out. They both play at a world-class level and they both want to be the best.”
In fact, it’s their friendship and chemistry together that many in the organization believe has helped the team’s success as a whole.
“Everyone is really close. There are no cliques,” said MacKinnon. “Things are going to happen in the playoffs – we are going to face adversity, we are going to be down in games, or maybe down in some series as well. But we know we can count on one another.”