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In the gym and on the ice, the kid would let The Kid go first. Nathan MacKinnon would watch Sidney Crosby start whatever exercise or drill they were doing. He would study his technique. He would study his intensity. And then he would try to match them.
But on the hill, it was a race to the top.
“I’m sure he’d say it, too,” MacKinnon said, smiling. “I’d beat him pretty bad running up the hill. That’s something where I’d push him. On the track or running up hills, I’m pretty quick, I guess. He gets pretty fired up. He’s got these short, wide legs, and I’ve got these long legs.”
“He uses that as an excuse sometimes.”
For so long, MacKinnon has followed Crosby. He grew up in the same place (Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia). He attended the same school (Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn.). He went in the same spot in the NHL draft (No. 1 overall), going to the Colorado Avalanche in 2013 after Crosby went to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005.
Now he shares the same trainer (Andy O’Brien).
They spent this summer side by side – MacKinnon, the reigning winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year; Crosby, the reigning winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. They worked out together in Los Angeles and Halifax and Estero, Fla., and Vail, Colo., and they formed a deeper bond.
MacKinnon, who turned 19 on Sept. 1, seems like a younger brother. He looks up to Crosby, who turned 27 on Aug. 7. He copies him. He competes with him. He loves to beat him up the hill and razz him about being over the hill someday.
“When you see a guy three, four times a week and on weekends and stuff – hang out, get dinners all the time – you become close with him,” MacKinnon said. “Or you hate the guy, I guess.”
“We’re pretty good friends,” MacKinnon continued. “I try to keep him young, because when he’s 30, 33 or whatever, I’ll be in my prime. He says he’s nervous for that.”
MacKinnon said he added about 12 or 13 pounds of muscle while keeping his body fat the same, about 6 or 7 percent. He’s listed at 195 pounds but said he weighs about 208 now. Scary thought for the rest of the NHL, considering how explosive he was before filling into his body.
“Having to chase him around on the ice has probably been a good thing for me, too,” said Crosby, looking as chiseled as ever himself. “He’s pretty eager and full of energy.”
* * * * *
MacKinnon made it look so easy. He entered the NHL at 18 – a young 18. He moved in with veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere and lived out of a suitcase for weeks, until his mom visited and unpacked for him. He would forget to bring a toothbrush and toothpaste on the road. He would need his teammates to get him to the bus on time.
Yet he racked up 24 goals and 63 points, leading rookies in scoring, showing off tremendous speed and skill. He went on a 13-game point streak, breaking the NHL record for 18-year-olds set in 1979-80 by … Wayne Gretzky. His teammates teased him by calling him “Wayne” or “Wayner.” That made him uncomfortable. At first.
“He would never say, ‘I’m Wayne,’ or anything like that,” said Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. “But I think he liked it a little bit.”
Why wouldn’t he?
“It was cool,” MacKinnon said. “It was the only Gretzky record I’ll ever break.”
MacKinnon can come off so casual, so oblivious, like he doesn’t realize this is the real world, this is the NHL and this is supposed to be hard. He doesn’t seem to worry. He doesn’t seem to overthink. He doesn’t seem to feel pressure.
“When he was in the midst of breaking Gretzky’s record, he could have easily taken a step back and been thinking about, ‘What am I really doing here? This is crazy,’ ” Landeskog said. “But Nate-style, he just keeps going and just keeps going and just plays, and he’s so relaxed. It’s great, and it rubs off on all of us. It’s that swagger that you need to be a great player.”
But MacKinnon will tell you it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and he didn’t have as much swagger as it seemed. He was unhappy with his start (three goals in 23 games), even though he could have made excuses in addition to his age: He bounced from position to position, playing all three forward spots, and never had consistent linemates.
“I don’t think I was playing with much confidence,” MacKinnon said. “I was scared to make plays, scared to mess up. The switch kind of flipped after Christmas. I just figured I need to start playing my game.”
Although he felt he played well in the middle of the season, he was unhappy with his finish (two goals in 24 games).
“I don’t think it was as good a season as everybody’s saying it was,” he said. “Obviously I had to learn some stuff. There were a few bumps in the road. …
“I expect more out of me. I feel like I can really take the next step this season. I had a year of growth, but now I need to prove that I can be a dominant player in the league more than last year.”
* * * * *
MacKinnon trained with Crosby a little bit last summer. They did some running on the track. They skated. But this summer, they did a lot more together, especially in the gym. Two weeks in Los Angeles. About two months in Halifax, with a week in Florida and a finale in Colorado.
O’Brien has several NHL clients and designs a program for each individual, tailored to his needs and goals. Crosby was trying to cut weight. MacKinnon was trying to put on weight. Some days, they did their own thing. But for the most part, they did the same thing.
In the gym, they would train in a skating position – lunges, squats. They would do a lot on a single leg. “Because in a game,” MacKinnon said, “you’re never really on two feet.” You need to train the muscles the way they will be used.
“Our trainer’s so smart,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously with Sid, he’s been working with him for 12, 13 years, whatever it’s been. He’s so good at everything. You see on the ice how low he is, how powerful. He’s the best in the world. I just try to keep up in the gym.”
Outdoors, they would sprint on the track and climb the hill. On the ice, they would do a lot of hand drills, and they would work on body positioning. A key to Crosby’s game is how he buzzes down low. He and MacKinnon would practice getting in front of defensemen, keeping them on their backs, protecting the puck.
“I like training with somebody – especially Sidney Crosby,” MacKinnon said. “He’s such a workhorse in the gym. I just try to follow that. …
“He’s always doing extra stuff. He’s always on the treadmill. Even after a tough workout, he’ll be running. Even before, he’ll get there early. It pushes me to do the same thing.”
MacKinnon did extra on his own, too. He hasn’t gotten a place yet – he’s still so young he’s living with his parents in Halifax and will live with veteran Max Talbot in Denver this season – but he built a deck in his folks’ backyard. The deck faces trees and a lake, but it wasn’t for relaxation.
“It’s a cool view when I shoot,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon would take a bucket of 100 pucks and fire at a beat-up goal (until he got a new one), trying to score on the cutout of a goalie, working on fundamentals. He put up netting to keep stray pucks from flying into the water. He’d be out there a couple of hours a day, as if he were 9, imagining he was an NHL star, not 19, an NHL star already.
“I felt like I really improved this off-season,” MacKinnon said. “I feel great. I think I’m going to make the next step this season.”