- He grew up in the same town as Sidney Crosby and followed his path to the NHL. Now Nathan MacKinnon is ready to deliver on his early promise and join the league's pantheon of young superstars.
A version of this story appears in the Oct. 8, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Ask anyone who knows Nathan MacKinnon about his ascent in the hockey world, and they will instead talk about golf. Four years ago the Avalanche center couldn’t swing a club, let alone sniff the fairway. “Horrendous,” says team captain Gabriel Landeskog. And failure, famously, does not sit well with MacKinnon. It wasn’t quite that he would snap putters or chuck balls. Still . . . “I used to hate riding with him because he was a f------ lunatic,” Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie says. “He had no business getting mad, but still he would scream. And if you laughed, he’d yell at you.”
For most NHLers, the links provide a soothing summer reprieve from the rink. Not for MacKinnon, the 23-year-old rocket booster who finished second in Hart Trophy voting last season. He devoured PGA Tour highlights on YouTube and teaching videos on Instagram. He hired a private swing coach, occasionally sending clips of himself hitting balls in his Denver basement for extra evaluation outside their weekly sessions, and installed artificial turf at his offseason home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. These days MacKinnon crushes 320-yard drives at sea level—350 at Denver’s mile-high altitude—while sporting a five handicap. As he explains with a shrug, “I just didn’t want to suck anymore.”
Such focused intensity surprised exactly no one in MacKinnon’s orbit. Not his mother, Kathy, who would schlep sandwiches and hot chocolate through the winter freeze because young Nathan refused to quit skating on the neighborhood lake. Not personal trainer Andy O’Brien, who remembers a teenage MacKinnon once performing a high-knees drill for five minutes because O’Brien got distracted and forgot to say stop. And definitely not his offseason workout partner. “It’s not uncommon to see a stick broken in half over the summer,” says Sidney Crosby. “When he’s upset, you can tell.”
At 6 feet and 205 pounds, with 7.5% body fat and browbeating strength, MacKinnon is the ultimate physical unicorn for today’s game. Consider this gushing testimony from the only other player capable of challenging for that title, the Oilers’ 6' 1", 193-pound Connor McDavid: “He’s got so many different attributes that can hurt. He’s got that eye-popping speed, then that strength where he can just bull through you and take it right to the net. It’s something you don’t really see a lot of. He’s the total package.”
It all harmonized last season when MacKinnon’s career-high—by far—97 points sparked the Avs’ worst-to-first-round revival. (They lost to Nashville in six.) “His welcome-to-being-a-superstar moment,” Barrie says. “He finally broke out of his shell. I think a lot of people knew he had it in him.”
Others, of course, wondered what took so long. After leading his Halifax Mooseheads team to the CHL’s Memorial Cup and going No. 1 in the 2013 draft, MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy, turning in the best offensive season (24 goals, 39 assists) by an 18-year-old rookie since Crosby’s in 2005–06. Then came three largely pedestrian years—38, 52 and 53 points, respectively—which, of course, meant plenty of time for golf.
“There’s no limit to what Nate can do,” Landeskog says. “I don’t see why he can’t be the best player in the world.”
As far as youth hockey trading cards go, this one proved eerily prophetic. A seven-year-old MacKinnon appears on the front, smiling and sporting his number 19 jersey for the 2002–03 Cole Harbour Novice Stingers. A tongue-in-cheek scouting report on the back reads:
Nathan has a power slap shot and many fans compare him to a young Joe Sakic! Goaltenders simply don’t have time to get set when this guy gets the puck. ... Colorado scouts are closely watching Nathan’s games!
A decade later, fresh on the job as Colorado’s executive VP of hockey operations—the franchise with which he had spent his entire Hall of Fame career and wore number 19—Sakic leaned into a microphone in Newark and handed the future to a swagger-filled 17-year-old . . . who upon entering the Avalanche locker room promptly declared that everyone should call him Nate Dogg, or The Dogg. “If he says it’s not self-proclaimed, he’s lying,” Landeskog says. “It was pretty clear from the get-go. That’s just who he is. He came in and took the team by storm.”
Today, Sakic maintains an open-door policy with MacKinnon, welcoming suggestions on everything from roster construction to breakfast menus. They also golf several times a year; Sakic is around a one handicap, according to MacKinnon. “Barely even talk about hockey,” he says. “I respond to that better than a hardass. I know where he stands. I’m not wondering what Joe is thinking.” Known for his even keel on the ice, Sakic has also helped smooth out MacKinnon’s rough edges—mostly body language that could fluster teammates when MacKinnon grew frustrated. “A good calming influence on him,” Barrie says.
Their relationship weathered the stiffest tempest two years ago when coach Patrick Roy abruptly resigned six weeks before training camp, leading to the hasty hiring of Jared Bednar from the AHL. The ensuing 22-56-4 train wreck set an NHL record for cap-era futility; MacKinnon, through it all, shot a career-low 6.4%, scored just twice on the power play and finished with 53 points, tied for 72nd in the league. “You just drown in the misery,” he says. “Nothing you can do, man. It gets tough to be that bad.”
Last season didn’t start much better. MacKinnon opened with a six-game goal drought and took a stick to his right eyeball against Anaheim, losing vision in it for 10 minutes. “My hockey career flashed before me,” says MacKinnon, who actually healed quick enough to return the next night. “So painful. Really scary.”
Then, three days before Halloween, while some Halifax buddies were visiting Denver for the first time, MacKinnon was flanked by Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen for a home game against Chicago; the trio combined for seven points in a 6-3 rout. “That’s when I felt it,” MacKinnon says. “That’s how I had to play every night. I was having fun.” The good vibes rolled into a rollicking mid-November trip to Sweden, right after the Avalanche dealt center Matt Duchene. They lost twice against Ottawa—Duchene’s new club—but spent a week straight visiting local spas and eating group dinners every night. “Super loose,” Barrie says. “The team took off after that.”
No one more than MacKinnon. Bednar says that players “talked about wanting to earn back and belief from our fans” after finishing 28th in attendance, so MacKinnon topped the league with 68 points at home, including four three-point bonanzas during a 10-game winning streak that bridged New Years’ Day. By the end he had produced Colorado’s best offensive season since—who else?—Sakic in ‘06-07, notching 39 goals, including an NHL-best 12 game-winners, and 58 assists. His 1.31 points per game also trailed McDavid by 0.01 for the NHL lead. Had MacKinnon not suffered a right A/C joint sprain against Vancouver on Jan. 30, which kept him sidelined for eight games, he believes he could’ve eclipsed McDavid and won the Art Ross Trophy as overall point leader, “for sure.”
As with Sakic, MacKinnon keeps an ongoing dialogue in the coaches room. His breakout was fueled, in part, by a request that he made to switch from the middle of Colorado’s power play to the left-half wall, which Bednar and assistant coach Ray Bennett implemented before the season. This allowed him to attack downhill with his forehand and led to 12 goals and 20 assists (both career highs) at man-advantage. “It’s nice to have a conversation with someone, not feel like they’re being condescending,” MacKinnon says. “We can bounce ideas off each other.”
Perhaps more meaningful to the Avs—and terrifying for everyone else—was how MacKinnon excelled. Bednar noticed greater diversity in his attack methods: patiently pulling up in the offensive zone for passes, probing for give-and-gos rather than trying to blow past defenders. “He was moving the pieces around the chessboard better than he had in years past,” Bednar says. “Every time he touched the puck, you were like, ‘Oh, he’s going to score,’ which is crazy.”
“There were games where I literally felt like I was playing bantam hockey,” says Barrie, who was mesmerized by watching MacKinnon from his defenseman spot. “Nate would have one [goal] and three [assists] and 20 chances and he was toe-dragging guys, blowing by them.”
One such moment occurred on Dec. 18, when Colorado hosted Pittsburgh. During an intermission, Penguins assistant strength and conditioning coach Alexi Pianosi was hustling around the visitors’ locker room, passing out energy bars and nutrition shakes, when he noticed a defenseman staring off into space. Turning to a nearby teammate, the defenseman sighed and said, “Holy crap. He comes at you fast.”
Pianosi was already familiar with MacKinnon’s speed, having helped O’Brien train him for the past 10 years. At the biomechanical level, MacKinnon is built perfectly for open ice thanks to his mesomorphic physique—heavy muscle packed on small bones, like a big engine fueling a light car. Paired with a knack for re-accelerating on lateral movements, he is hockey’s equivalent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, capable of covering massive swaths of ice in a single, seemingly effortless crossover.
“People joke with me and Andy, like, ‘Oh my god, you created some sort of hockey freak,’ ” Pianosi says. “Well, there has been a lot of time put into programming for Nathan.”
A few weeks later, Pianosi recounted that locker room story to MacKinnon, who chuckled. “I heard one guy who was saying it,” Pianosi says. “But there were 100 others thinking the same thing.” Including, perhaps, the Penguins’ no-doubt Hall of Famer and the face of the NHL.
Or, as Nate Dogg knows him, the neighbor nicknamed Li’l Cros.
Around nine on the morning after the 2013 NHL draft, MacKinnon had every right to still be sleeping—or celebrating—in Newark. Instead he was hundreds of miles away, exhausted from an overnight flight and fueled only by yogurt parfait, bent over along the sands of Brackley Beach on Prince Edward Island, determined to keep pace with his childhood idol. “Didn’t even bat an eye,” Crosby says. “He puked everywhere and was like, ‘O.K., what are we doing next?’ ”
Back then, MacKinnon was skating in Crosby’s full shadow. That was mostly due to a quirk of geography, two hockey prodigies emerging from the same community—Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia (pop. 25,151)—eight years apart. But the two had also traveled along strikingly parallel tracks: boarding school at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Fairbault, Minn.; No. 1 pick in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; ditto in the NHL. Comparisons were unavoidable, especially when reporters discovered that MacKinnon had an autographed Sid the Kid poster hanging in his childhood bedroom. “Big fan,” he says.
But hero worship has long been a thing of the past. They strolled through the streets of Prague together as linemates on Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championships, which they won, and then shared a Santa Monica, Calif., condo for three weeks of oceanfront workouts later that summer. Their families spend each Canada Day together, barbecuing at the Crosby homestead and watching NHL free agency coverage on television. And Crosby always drafts MacKinnon first at his invite-only skills camp in Vail, Colo., where a handful of big-name players—John Tavares, Taylor Hall, Jason Spezza—train every summer, competing in drills (and an NHL trivia contest) for points and, eventually, a trophy.
Their relationship reached another level last summer when MacKinnon built his house a minute away on Grand Lake in Halifax, driveway to driveway. Most days they work out at one of their gyms in the mornings with Pianosi and O’Brien—”He’s got mirrors all over his,” Crosby says, “I don’t have one mirror”—and then Crosby cooks everyone lunch. “People always think I’m saying things like, ‘What mentorship can I get from you today?’ ” MacKinnon scoffs. “I’m not just asking him s--- all the time. He’s my buddy.”
As such they would make a halfway-decent network sitcom, MacKinnon ripping Crosby for his wardrobe choices, Crosby firing back about the “questionable songs” on MacKinnon’s workout playlist. But mostly they push each other. MacKinnon laughs about the time he nearly broke his foot kicking a medicine ball, upset that Crosby had won a drill. O’Brien laments how simple warmup laps would become full-contact races, so this summer the trainer all but banned exercises that pit them head-to-head.
Pat Brisson, the agent for both players, remembers how sour MacKinnon seemed while attending the 2017 NHL awards to support Crosby’s bid for the Hart Trophy. “I didn’t want to be there like that,” MacKinnon told Brisson this June when they returned to Vegas, where MacKinnon narrowly finished behind Hall for the same MVP award.
No doubt the prevailing tone was set at Brackley Beach. At the end of their inaugural session Crosby challenged MacKinnon to 10 30-meter sprints. After losing the first nine, MacKinnon surged to an early lead on the final rep . . . until Crosby grabbed his ankle, yanked him down and crossed the finish line. They may dominate on the ice through vastly different strengths—Crosby performing small-area surgery below the face-off dots; MacKinnon scorching poor backcheckers with neutral-zone speed—but they are linked by the same drive. “Sid sees his ultra-competitiveness in Nathan,” Brisson says. “They’re both tigers.”
It will be a tall task for MacKinnon to catch Crosby in Stanley Cups (three), MVP awards (two) or scoring titles (two) by his 30th birthday (Crosby just turned 31 in August). But, consciously or not, MacKinnon has been auditing a master’s class. Crosby, meanwhile, sees no reason why MacKinnon, entering his sixth season, can’t stake his claim alongside McDavid—not to mention Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and others—in the pantheon of young superstars. “He definitely has all the tools to be in that conversation, to be at the top of the scoring lead, every year,” Crosby says.
MacKinnon enjoys a simple life in Denver, where the air is crisp and the country clubs operate year-round. Outside of golf, his hobbies include playing Fortnite and hanging out with Cox, a protection-trained German shepherd who only knows Deutsch commands. (“A badass,” MacKinnon says.) Not that he is shy about stepping out in public. “When I leave the house, I’m not expecting anyone to know who I am,” he says.
That should change. MacKinnon is already a celebrity back home, if not for his deft stickhandling then for his Tim Horton’s ads with Crosby and for a cameo on Netflix’s Trailer Park Boys. Playing a youth hockey instructor on the dopey—and doped-up—mockumentary based in Nova Scotia, MacKinnon gets introduced to one of the main characters by a grade-school boy like this: “That’s Nathan MacKinnon, you dumbass.” Then again, MacKinnon prefers privacy; he hasn’t posted on Instagram in more than a year. “People get so caught up in social media,” he says. “Our life isn’t a movie. It’s not some inspirational thing.”
Tell that to Tyson Jost. The 20-year-old Avs center grew up mimicking YouTube videos of MacKinnon’s signature move—a forehand saucer shot chipped over the goalie’s glove-side shoulder, surprising him like an off-speed pitch—outside his suburban Edmonton home. Now they spend half an hour shooting pucks together before most Colorado morning skates, and Jost writes down pregame reminders on his phone just as MacKinnon taught him. And it was at MacKinnon’s encouragement that Jost started training with O’Brien this summer, making his first pilgrimage to star-studded Vail. “I met Nathan when he was training with Sid, his idol,” O’Brien says. “It’s neat for me to meet someone like Tyson, who now looks at Nathan in that same light.”
With nine roster players under 25 and two first-rounders in next year’s draft—including the surefire high-lottery pick that they received in the aura-cleansing Duchene deal with Ottawa last November—the Avalanche are much like their superstar, barely on the cusp of what is possible. Sakic mostly stood pat on the transaction wire last offseason, aside from acquiring goalie Philipp Grubauer from Stanley Cup-winning Washington and signing defenseman Ian Cole, a member of Pittsburgh’s back-to-back run. But the Avalanche have five more years remaining of MacKinnon at an absurdly luxurious $6.3 million annual cap hit. “Best [contract] in the league,” Barrie says. “You don’t get a guy like that for that price. We’ve got to make it work.”
MacKinnon is ready to play his part. The way he sees things, Sakic purposefully stayed “patient” on the transaction wire this summer with an eye toward 2019. As such, MacKinnon is ready to ramp up his recruiting efforts, pitching big-ticket free agents on the year-round golf and super-chill GM. “I’ll be calling guys in the offseason,” he promises. “I don’t want to be patient for too much longer.”
So watch out, NHL. Wondering who that f------ lunatic was who just blew past?
There’s only one answer: That would be Nathan MacKinnon, you dumbass.