ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The up-and-coming face of the Avalanche has two red lines below each eye. There's a tiny gap between his front teeth that you notice when he smiles, which is often. His is a baby face, pale from hours spent in hockey rinks.
Nathan MacKinnon laughs easily as he talks. He's become accustomed to questions and cameras, recorders and notepads. Yet, he doesn't want to be what he is becoming -- a major star, a focus. Colorado's rookie center, and the heavy favorite to win the Calder Trophy, prefers to dodge the spotlight, to deflect all talk of personal accolades back to his team. He gets away with it because he's only 18 years old and saying all the things he needs to say to keep his face merely one among many on one of the NHL's best teams. His face, that is. Not his feet. With the way MacKinnon skates, the way he turns and accelerates and powers down the ice, well, those feet have quickly taken him to center stage in Denver.
On this day, MacKinnon's feet are jammed into athletic sandals, not the size 12 skates that correspond to their size 13.5 shoes -- which means they're not quite mammoth, but certainly oversized. They look like any other pair of feet, unglamorous and better stowed away inside stocks. But watch him on the ice -- watch them, really. When MacKinnon is in motion, his feet run as much as they dance, angle, swoop. They're a big reason why the Avalanche picked him first overall in the NHL Draft last June, why the team's front office believed he could be a key part of the team's turnaround after missing the playoffs three years in a row.
Having won eight of its last 11 games, Colorado is now poised to enter the playoffs with a shot at making a run for the Stanley Cup. The Avs have MacKinnon, in part, to thank for their quick ascendance -- although he wouldn't dare take credit.
MacKinnon's considerable skills were a project long in the making. Beginning when he was seven years old, he would wake up most mornings at 5 a.m., and his father, Graham, would take him to the local rink in their home town of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. There, he would work on his skating technique, hours before his classmates were awake.
He wanted to get better, as simple as that, and when his parents told him of the long odds of him making it in the NHL, he refused to listen, looking instead to his inspiration: Cole Harbour's most famous son, Sidney Crosby.
"Sid was my role model growing up," MacKinnon told SI's Sarah Kwak before the draft. "I looked at him and said, If he can do it, maybe I can do it as well. He paved the way for kids from small towns who wonder if they can make it."
In that sense, not much has changed. MacKinnon has proved to be a receptive student in his first season in the NHL, combing through hours of video with first-year coach Patrick Roy and pushing whatever ego he might have to the side. He started out playing on the third line -- "We didn't roll the red carpet out to him," Roy said -- and earned his coach's trust gradually.
"Everything that he has earned, he has worked hard for it," Roy said. "[Listening to instruction is] not an issue at all. A lot of times, for a player like him, it could be. Everywhere he's been, he's been successful, and coaches were just happy to have him on their team."
But for all the improvements MacKinnon has made to meet the Avalanche's high standards, especially on defense, his speed is what has struck both his coach and his teammates.
"His skating is his strongest ability, I think. I don't think I've seen anything like that from a young player," said Gabe Landeskog, the Avs' 21-year-old captain. "It's amazing how fast he is with the puck."
You note that Landeskog qualified his assessment with the words "young player." MacKinnon's tender age has been in the spotlight quite often lately. On March 6, he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for an 18-year-old by scoring at least one point in 13 consecutive games. MacKinnon is so young that he doesn't even remember Gretzky's playing days, but he certainly understands the import of being compared to the best ever -- even if he doesn't quite think the record matters.
"Any time you get mentioned with the best player of all time ... people like to hype things up," MacKinnon said. "I realized that pretty quickly. When anything cool happens, especially for young players in their first few years, it definitely gets hyped up."
During the streak, which MacKinnon said he was relieved to see end, fans took to tweeting at the rookie. He didn't receive only congratulations, though. The tweeters were also were spouting records, records that MacKinnon had never heard of, records that really didn't matter to him. After all, the day his streak ended, in a game against the Blues, he was so mad about tlosing that he didn't realize the run was over until reporters started asking him about it.
It all sounds like a lot for a kid: Tweets, records, comparisons to Gretzky -- and it is. Luckily for MacKinnon, when he goes home at night, it's with Colorado's backup goalie Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who, at 36, is twice the rookie's age. MacKinnon lives full-time with the veteran, and instead of partying, he plays video games with Giguère's children, the oldest of whom is just six years old. It's a simple life, hardly that of a glamor rookie in the NFL or NBA, and it's enough for MacKinnon. No matter the accolades, no matter the streak, he knows he still has a lot to learn -- and, as the Avalanche hope -- plenty of room to improve.
Even so, Roy has to laugh. For all the video watched, for all the hours of practice time, at some point, the coach shrugged in wonder at MacKinnon's otherworldly skating.
"If you could teach that," Roy said, "I guess there would be a lot of people calling me right now."
No matter. A lot of people are watching right now, so the young face of the Avs clearly has more work to do if he wants to keep deflecting the attention and praise. The deeper his team goes into the playoffs, the brighter that spotlight is going to get.