Nathan MacKinnon: Where's the hate?

Blazing speed, slick hands, quick thinking, fierce competitiveness, funny commercials. What’s not to like about MacKinnon? No one has a bad thing to say about the guy. But that’s also the problem. A true superstar must have at least one fan base that despises him the way Philly fans loathe his Cole Harbour buddy. Oh sure, people in Moncton hate his guts, but MacKinnon would trade his Stanley Bong for a Stanley Cup any day.
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If speed is what separates Nathan MacKinnon from his NHL peers, it did not on this night. But it’s not just about the speed in the fastest-skater event at the All-Star Game skills competition, it’s about the turns, and perhaps MacKinnon took the corners a little too wide. And hey, who knew Mathew Barzal was that fast? Whatever. MacKinnon finished fifth behind Barzal, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel and Chris Kreider. But give these guys a puck and have them try to beat a defenseman wide, and we’ll see where they finish.

Anyway, a guy from the Colorado Avalanche website was trying his best to generate some content from an otherwise forgettable evening when he pressed MacKinnon about why he went clockwise and whether or not he moved his feet enough through the turns. “Ron, you’re reachin’ right now,” MacKinnon said. “I’m just trying to go as fast as I can.”

But then Ron hit on something. He asked MacKinnon whether the St. Louis crowd booing Patrick Kane took a little heat off him, you know, with them being Central Division rivals with the Blues and all. “Do they not like me here?” MacKinnon asked. “We’ve never played them in the playoffs. Chicago and St. Louis have played each other so many times in the playoffs. Maybe if I went to Calgary or…I don’t know who’d boo me.”

That gets you to thinking. MacKinnon is emerging as a legitimate NHL superstar, but there are still a couple holes in his resume. The first is obvious. He hasn’t won a Stanley Cup. Hasn’t come close, actually, but neither has McDavid. The second is it’s tough to develop a real hate-on for the guy. McDavid, now there’s someone you can really despise if you’re not an Edmonton Oilers fan. Ask fans in Philadelphia what they think of Sidney Crosby. Just make sure there aren’t any kids around. MacKinnon works out with fellow Nova Scotians Crosby and Brad Marchand in the summer, and he’s the only one whose middle name isn’t an expletive to rival fans.

MacKinnon needs at least one NHL city to hate him the way the Moncton Mudslides do. The good people of Moncton still have trouble reconciling how MacKinnon was kidnapped to help the Sunnyvale Trailer Park win the Stanley Bong in 2019. “He was unbelievable,” said Ricky LaFleur, MacKinnon’s Sunnyvale teammate. “He was like a racehorse on skates.”

“I mean, he’s in a whole different league than most of the players who were in that tournament,” said Bubbles, another Sunnyvale teammate. “Some of the Moncton S---hawks and some of those people. They’re called the Mudslides, but we call them the S---hawks.”

For those who aren’t in tune with pseudo-Canadian pop culture, Ricky LaFleur and Bubbles are characters on a boundary-pushing mockumentary called Trailer Park Boys, a cult TV hit where F-bombs and other really dirty words are a part of the vernacular. MacKinnon has appeared twice on the show, once on the regular version where he was roped into teaching at Ricky’s hockey school and once in the animated version where he won the Stanley Bong for Sunnyvale.

Here’s how the episode goes: Ricky abducts MacKinnon to help them win the Stanley Bong. But after a thwarted dine-and-dash, MacKinnon is arrested. A rather dubious lawyer gets MacKinnon out on bail and brings him to Sunnyvale in time for the big game. But then on the last play of the game, MacKinnon is cut down by a slash and can’t take the final penalty shot. “He’s not as tough as I thought,” Ricky said. “He got slashed and all of a sudden, he couldn’t take the penalty shot because his legs hurt.”

“They were broken, Ricky!” Bubbles said.

Bubbles ends up taking the penalty shot instead and scores. With his eyes closed, no less, on the advice of MacKinnon. “He was a good guy, really easy to work with,” said Ricky, who gave up nine goals on 10 shots to Peter Forsberg in another episode. “But he didn’t like dope, which kind of disappointed me a little bit.”

“Ricky, he’s an NHL player, he can’t just go smokin’ dope,” Bubbles said.

So now MacKinnon has a Memorial Cup, a World Championship gold medal, a Calder Trophy and an IMDb page. And then there are the ubiquitous Tim Hortons commercials he does with Crosby. (Just so you know, MacKinnon does have to pay for his coffee at Tim Hortons. He said so himself.) So it’s not as though MacKinnon has been underexposed or anything. To be sure, a lot has changed since the shy little boy began drawing comparisons to fellow Cole Harbour star Crosby, who was only 16 himself and hadn’t even played a game of major junior yet. People would refer to MacKinnon as “the next Sid” like it was a mantle any well-adjusted eight-year-old should handle with ease. “It was a pretty easy, almost lazy comparison,” said Jon Greenwood, who coached MacKinnon in peewee and bantam in Cole Harbour.

But it never sat well with MacKinnon. In fact, he hated it. “It was a lot for someone that young, and I didn’t really like it. I just wanted to be my own person,” MacKinnon said. “I was a shy kid growing up, so it didn’t make me feel good. Maybe it would make some kids feel good and get comfortable. I wanted to get better and make the NHL, but I was kind of shy growing up, so I didn’t like that kind of attention. I wasn’t antisocial or anything, but I just kind of kept to myself.”

Of course, MacKinnon could have gone in the other direction and become a big-headed, entitled product of a minor-hockey system that constantly reminds gifted kids how special they are. But there wasn’t much chance of that happening. Not the son of Graham and Kathy MacKinnon of Cole Harbour, which is as working class as it gets. Kathy, who was the youngest Canada Games competitor in 1977 when she swam for Nova Scotia, worked in programming for a nearby city, and Graham, who was a former Jr. C goalie, worked for CN Rail. “They’re the kind of people who go to the rink and sit in the stands quietly,” said Greenwood, now an assistant coach with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads. “They’re very unassuming people, and I think he got that. He wasn’t going to let anything go to his head that way, and I don’t think he has to this day.”

And certainly not the guy with three more years remaining on a contract that will pay him an average of $6.3 million a season, making MacKinnon the undisputed best bargain in the NHL. That puts him 82nd in the league in terms of cap hit, and he’ll be well out of the top 100 by the time his contract expires in 2023. MacKinnon has no trouble with the fact linemate Mikko Rantanen makes an average of almost $3 million per season more than he does. MacKinnon has already said he regrets nothing about his contract and would sign it again if it brought him close to winning a Stanley Cup.

Greenwood remembers an ultra-competitive kid who always expressed himself best on the ice. “Right from the beginning, he was always so competitive and expected so much of himself,” Greenwood said. “Teetering on exploding with competitiveness, no matter what it was we were doing. You kind of knew then that he was a kid who was never going to be satisfied because he was so competitive and demanded so much of himself.”

After being drafted first overall in 2013 and winning the Calder Trophy in 2014, MacKinnon spent the next three seasons spinning his wheels before breaking out as a Hart Trophy finalist in 2017-18. “Something happened to him one summer, and a switch kind of flipped,” said Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars. “It’s not like he was cruising early on – but kind of figuring it out. And once he figured it out, he took another stride, and now he’s consistent with it. That’s how you go from a star to a superstar.”

But this season has represented an entirely new stratosphere for MacKinnon, who was named a Hart Trophy finalist for the second time in his career. He scored 93 points, good for fifth in the NHL, and, unlike other great players in the league, he’s done much of it by himself. David Pastrnak has Marchand and Patrice Bergeron in Boston. McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have each other. MacKinnon’s regular linemates, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, each went down with an injury in late October. In the 17 combined games they missed, MacKinnon scored 12 goals and 30 points and helped the Avalanche tread water with a 9-7-1 record. “I thought that was my best hockey of the season, that stretch in November,” MacKinnon said. “I played with a lot of different guys, and I seemed to really click well with (Joonas) Donskoi. That really seemed to work well. It was just simple hockey, a simple style of hockey. Guys were moving quick and going to the net. I don’t know, it just worked out great. We’re a better team with those two in the lineup, but when they got hurt I definitely felt a sense of urgency.”

The difference between 2018 and 2020 is that the Avs are now a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The sense of artistry has always been there with MacKinnon. Anyone who saw his goal on Henrik Lundqvist at the World Cup in 2016 or has watched the 10 minutes (10 minutes!) of MacKinnon highlights on YouTube can see that. “My five-year-old has probably watched that 500 times,” Greenwood said.

And, oh my, that speed. But now, led by MacKinnon, who had three goals and eight points in Colorado’s first-round ouster of the Flames in last year’s playoffs, the Avs are primed for some very good things. MacKinnon has found a unique chemistry with rookie defenseman Cale Makar, who looks as though he’ll follow in MacKinnon’s footsteps as a Calder winner. With the rosy-cheeked Makar only 21 and MacKinnon just three years older, the possibilities are intriguing.

The rest of the league has taken notice. Kane, a Calder and Hart winner, counts MacKinnon among a small group of players he most enjoys watching when he’s not playing against him. Kane agrees that MacKinnon has entered the superstar ranks in the NHL. “Oh yeah, I don’t think there’s any doubt, he probably did it a few years ago,” Kane said. “He’s one of, if not the best player in the league. He does it night in and night out.

“You can tell the confidence that he has in himself to play that way. But, yeah, he’s a special player the way he kind of gallops around the ice and the way he can stickhandle and make plays. You can tell he knows he’s good on the ice, and you can kind of feel that confidence when you’re watching him play.”

It’s one thing to have eye-popping skills and blinding speed, both of which MacKinnon possesses. McDavid is arguably the only player with faster feet and a quicker mind with the puck on his stick than MacKinnon. And the gap isn’t as wide as you might think. “I think it’s his first three steps in terms of physicality, and I think mentally it’s his first three thoughts,” Seguin said. “He’s just all instincts, and he’s quick with everything. You can tell by the way he reads plays. He sees them quicker than anybody else, and that’s what makes him special.”

The sign leading into Cole Harbour reads: “Home of Sidney Crosby.” It says nothing of MacKinnon. That’s the kind of cachet that three Stanley Cups, two Hart Trophies and two Olympic gold medals gets you. “Nathan would be the first to say he doesn’t deserve that yet,” Greenwood said.

But MacKinnon is just getting started. And he’s getting better. Crosby has held three Stanley Cup parades in Cole Harbour, and MacKinnon would like nothing more than to host a couple himself, perhaps with a Conn Smythe Trophy at his side. If he does win it, however, another stop will be necessary, otherwise Ricky LaFleur might have to kidnap him again. “Bring the Cup to Sunnyvale,” Ricky said.

“I know what Ricky would do with it,” Bubbles said. “He’d try to smoke dope out of it somehow, and he’d probably f---in’ destroy the thing. And I know for a fact that players do dirty things in the Cup. Randy (the assistant manager at Sunnyvale) would probably try to cram his big belly right into the Cup.”

Well, that would be a sight to see. But MacKinnon has to win one first. Like Reggie Dunlop said in Slap Shot, he’s workin’ on it. And he might just get there soon.

This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Superstar Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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