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  • Training partners in the offseason, Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby exhibited their incredible skills in a Wednesday night showdown.
By Alex Prewitt
November 29, 2018

For much of the past two years, Sidney Crosby convinced Nathan MacKinnon that he was moving. Normally this wouldn’t cause any alarm, except for the small detail that MacKinnon was just finishing construction on a summer house along Grand Lake in Nova Scotia … less than a one-minute walk from Crosby’s estate. The plan had been for them to train together, using their respective private gyms and mutual conditioning gurus. No doubt MacKinnon was generally pleased about becoming neighbors with a close friend and fellow Cole Harbour native too.

Finally, as MacKinnon’s place was just nearing completion last offseason, Crosby gave up the gag. “He was pretty upset over that,” Crosby says. “I had him going for a while. Then I told him one time, ‘I’m not going anywhere. It’s all good.’”

And so their natural summer schedule resumed, MacKinnon popping over most mornings for workouts and Crosby cooking everyone lunch afterwards. It is that kind of relationship, two all-world superstars hailing from the same map-dot hometown in the Maritimes, pushing each other through every shuttle run and skating drill. In fact, their competition grew so stiff that coach Andy O’Brien all but quit scheduling exercises that pit MacKinnon and Crosby one-on-one. “The form would go, the purpose would go, and it’s just be about who’s winning and why am I not winning and what do I have to do to beat him,” Crosby says. “It was just more productive for us this way.”

“It got pretty heated,” MacKinnon adds. “Andy said enough.”

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All of which made Wednesday night seem as though both men were making up for lost competition time. The Avalanche emerged with a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh, but Crosby and MacKinnon uncorked a nationally televised spectacle in Denver that could well have been filmed at Grand Lake. There was MacKinnon, dishing two assists as Colorado took a 3–0 lead. There was Crosby, hacking and whacking his way to a natural hat trick that lifted the Penguins back into contention. And there was MacKinnon, receiving the last laugh by feeding linemate Gabriel Landeskog on the eventual game-winner, then later potting an empty-netter for good measure.

No wonder the first words out of MacKinnon’s mouth when he sat down with NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire later were, “That was an awesome game.”

The truth is that similar battles have been waged for years. The first time that MacKinnon trained with his childhood idol, mere hours after going No. 1 overall in the 2013 NHL draft, he wound up puking on a beach from exhaustion … and then continued racing Crosby in deep-sand sprints. “Everyone has a buddy who’s the puker,” Crosby says. “That’s him.” But their dynamic quickly evolved, MacKinnon no longer looking to simply keep up with someone whose poster once adorned his childhood bedroom.

“People always want to label it as that mentor-mentee relationship,” said Alexi Pianosi, who works with O’Brien and has trained MacKinnon for the past decade. “There’s some of that, but they’re just really good friends. It grew very organically and naturally.”

Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Indeed, the atmosphere is mostly kept casual. A workout might be scheduled for 8:30 but won’t start until 9:15, so busy was everyone chit-chatting about about hockey or other sports news. Whenever their sessions eventually begin, MacKinnon often films mock hype videos as a goofy pump-up ritual, announcing everyone in the room. “Make sure you put in the article that his nickname is Lil’ Cros,” says MacKinnon.

In downtime they lounge by MacKinnon’s pool, barbecue at Crosby’s house for Canada Day, escape on weekend golf getaways … “That youthful energy is fun to be around,” Crosby says, citing MacKinnon’s “questionable” musical tastes and affinity for making fun of the Pittsburgh’s captain’s clothing. “Every morning, it’s like, what’s he going to rip about what I’m wearing? It wouldn’t matter if I had something he liked, he’d chirp me about it anyway. I don’t expect a compliment, let’s put it that way.”

On the ice, the opposite is true. Crosby will gladly gush about MacKinnon’s powerful skating stride, or sneaky changeup wrist shot, or how his buddy blossomed into last season’s Hart Trophy runner-up while engineering Colorado’s worst-to-playoffs turnaround.

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And MacKinnon, of course, couldn’t help but recognize what Crosby accomplished on Wednesday night, when they spent almost 12 minutes on the ice together at 5-on-5, both teams scoring twice in that span. “He’s one of my closest friends,” MacKinnon told McGuire. “It’s cool to see him get a hat trick.”

It is a shame Pittsburgh and Colorado only meet twice each season, robbing the hockey world of more showdowns like these. Fortunately, we don’t need to wait long for the rematch on Dec. 4. And who knows? Maybe the Cole Harbour torch will officially get passed in the Stanley Cup final one day; behind the early-season dynamism of MacKinnon, Landeskog and NHL points leader Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche certainly look like serious contenders.

Then again, we still have some time. At the top of their games, at the summit of their sport, Crosby and MacKinnon aren’t going anywhere.

It’s all good.

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