This story is comprised of several interviews conducted over the course of the 2012-13 Canadian Hockey League season, including the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, and the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon, Sask.
He can’t remember how old he was, 13 perhaps, the first time he was asked to do an interview. What Nathan MacKinnon does remember is being nervous. The interview was going to be on television and he was intimidated.
Even at that tender age, people knew there was something special about the kid from Cole Harbour, N.S., when it came to hockey. He was scoring at a ridiculous rate – 110, 200 points in a single season – and he lived in the Halifax suburb in the shadow of a neighbourhood kid named Sid. Like Penguins star Sidney Crosby, MacKinnon grew up playing in the same minor hockey system. And, and at age 14, MacKinnon followed the same path as the NHL’s current shiniest star and went to play at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a prestigious prep school in Minnesota.
So, long before he suited up for Team Atlantic at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge as a 15-year-old, the comparisons to Crosby had been made. People in the know had already set him up as a potential first-overall NHL pick despite being years away from the draft. MacKinnon had been anointed The Next Crosby.
He was profiled in ESPN the Magazine and MacKinnon’s mother, Kathy, remembers lineups of people waiting for her son to sign autographs when he played in the Canada Games in Halifax. Scattered among the children looking for a keepsake were also adults with binders full of photos for him to sign. The MacKinnons would wait as Nathan signed every autograph because he couldn’t say no – he was worried the strangers wanting his signature might take him for a jerk.
He was in his first year of high school.
“I didn’t really know how to act,” says MacKinnon of the attention. “For me, I’m just going to be myself and not try to put on a show. I definitely became more comfortable as the time went on.”
In his early days playing for his hometown Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, he was asked often about the Crosby comparisons. He learned to recite stock answers until he finally grew tired of explaining that, despite being flattered, he was only ever going to be the best Nathan MacKinnon.
“I kind of put it away last year,” says the 17-year-old. “I let everyone know I’m not him. I’m not Crosby. Next question. I knew I was never going to be him.’’
At the 2013 NHL entry draft on Sunday in Newark, N.J., MacKinnon is hoping to once and for all lay this line of questioning to rest.
When that happens, when MacKinnon becomes property of a National Hockey League team, the microscope will be adjusted and set on Connor McDavid.
McDavid was granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada in order to play in the Ontario Hockey League a year early as a 15-year-old.
One year later, he’s been labeled as the game’s next big thing: The Next Crosby.
It’s Kitchener, Ont., after a loss in February and the now 16-year-old Erie Otters forward is already on his third post-game interview. Outside the visitors’ locker room, McDavid is talking to a journalist who has travelled from Finland to see him. The NHL lockout is long over and most of the writers looking for junior hockey filler are long gone. During his fourth interview, McDavid’s mother, Kelly, runs up to hug her son.
“We haven’t seen him in three weeks,” she tells the reporter, a hint of desperation in her voice. “Are you almost done?”
Unfortunately for Kelly McDavid, this is the new reality for her baby-faced son. At 15, he had already signed a lucrative multi-year deal with Reebok, the youngest hockey player ever to ink a major endorsement contract. He was profiled in the New York Times.
It’s only his rookie season in the OHL and McDavid is asked how many times he’s fielded questions about Crosby.
“Probably a billion times,” he says nonchalantly. “It’s amazing, though, because he was a childhood hero.”
One wonders if what’s amazing now will quickly become an annoyance by the time McDavid is eligible for the 2015 NHL entry draft. McDavid isn’t alone; he’s just the latest in a long line of phenomenal young talents who have been pigeonholed into living up to someone else’s success – to be the next Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or now Crosby.
MacKinnon knows that feeling well.
“There’s always the next somebody,” he says. “I think (John) Tavares was supposed to be the next Crosby, too. McDavid is supposed to be the next Crosby. A lot of kids are supposed to be the next Crosby. I guess I was just one of those kids just because I was from Cole Harbour.
“It’s tough to be the next Crosby. I don’t know if there will be a next Crosby for a while.”
Nonetheless, McDavid is the hockey world’s new shiny toy. Like MacKinnon in his early to mid-teen years, McDavid is the player everyone is talking about even though his NHL draft is two years away. And, like MacKinnon, it’s only a matter of time before people start picking apart every facet of his game.
[Buzzing the Net: Who's the No. 1 pick in mock NHL entry draft?]
“This year everyone is really analyzing my game,” says MacKinnon. “Sometimes no matter how good you do, it’s still...”
He pauses and doesn’t complete the thought.
“I get some recognition,” he continues. “But I’ve realized that there’s also some criticism as well that comes with it.”
The same thing happened to Tavares in his draft year. Prior to the 2009 NHL entry draft, people criticized the New York Islanders star’s skating style. Some hockey pundits wondered whether Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman would be the better top pick. The scouts who had watched him since he was a 15-year-old playing with the Oshawa Generals had no trouble finding faults in his game. Despite the 11th-hour criticism, the Islanders took Tavares first overall.
"Nathan was on the radar earlier, same with Tavares,” says Dan Marr, the director of the NHL's Central Scouting Service. “So there’s a natural tendency the more you see them, the more you want to look closer. I always say in our meetings, ‘You’re using this logic to pick this player apart. Well, use that logic to pick apart a player on an NHL team, because you can pick apart NHL players in the same way.’
"They’re not going to be exceptional every night.’’
At this year’s world junior championship in Ufa, Russia, MacKinnon was used in a limited role on the fourth line. His Halifax teammate Jonathan Drouin, also 17, was on the top line and it was the first time many outside of the junior hockey sphere had heard of him. The tournament hadn’t even finished before talk began that Drouin, a top NHL prospect in his own right, had supplanted MacKinnon as the top draft-eligible forward. There was talk Finnish forward Aleksander Barkov could push the Halifax forward farther down the list. It was only a matter of time before defenceman Seth Jones, who won gold at the tournament with Team USA, became the top-ranked player in the NHL’s Central Scouting Service’s mid-term rankings.
Hockey is a fickle sport. Five months after the world juniors, MacKinnon shone brightly in leading the Mooseheads to their first Memorial Cup championship. He is back in favour among the scouts and pundits, it seems. Six days prior to the draft, Joe Sakic – the Colorado Avalanche’s new executive vice-president of hockey operations – says they’ll likely choose MacKinnon with the top pick. He says the Colorado brass appreciate the way MacKinnon has handled the scrutiny of being The Next One.
“He’s lived under the microscope of being the next Crosby and he’s done pretty well with that,” Sakic told a CBS affiliate in Denver. “I’m not saying he will be (the next Crosby) but he has a lot of upside.”
There is little doubt that by the time McDavid is ready for the draft two years from now, there will be something at fault with his game. If he stays the course, however, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be a top pick, if not the first pick, in 2015. Like Tavares' draft though, don't be surprised if there's another horse thrown into the field.
“He’ll be the flavour of the day and they’ll start to pick Connor’s game apart,” says Marr. “It’s just the natural tendency of the scouting world. But at the end of the day, I don’t think it influences the drafting.”
Marr calls McDavid “impressive” a word that the long-time scout doesn’t toss around casually. He adds that the NHL’s full-time scouts close to McDavid’s current team in Erie will see him play at least 10-12 times a season plus another three to six times depending on their travel crossovers. The NHL's Central Scouting Service already has a book on the high-end underage players.
It’s only a matter of time before the same people who build The Next Crosby, help tear it apart.
“It’s not fair,” says Marr. “These are 17-and-18-year-olds that are playing their hearts out every game. They’re not even physically strong or mentally mature enough to handle some of these adversities game in and game out. But that doesn’t diminish their potential.”