Halifax Mooseheads Nathan MacKinnon moves between Quebec Remparts' Gabriel Desjardins (57) and Axel Rioux (93) during the third period of their QMJHL playoff game at the Metro Centre in Halifax on April 11, 2012. (PAUL DARROW/QMI AGENCY)
SAINT JOHN, N.B. - Growing up in Cole Harbour, N.S., Nathan MacKinnon practically drank the same water as the hero of almost every young Canadian hockey player.
So, from the time he was a pint-sized superstar dominating his minor hockey teams, the comparisons with Sidney Crosby have shadowed the Halifax Mooseheads star like the dogged checking he faces most nights in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Links between the kid and the Kid were a natural, if somewhat unfair, even as MacKinnon went through an adolescent growth spurt, continued to develop his game and emerged as a bright, young talent. But the more he performs, the more he sets himself up to be the second player within a decade from the Halifax suburb to be selected first overall in the NHL entry draft.
With the NHL lockout casting gloom over hockey for most of the past two months, MacKinnon's emergence and continued progress has become one of the good-news stories in the sport. With a quick start to his second season in the "Q" he has done nothing to diminish his status as the early consensus No. 1 prospect for next June's draft, slightly ahead of his friend and Portland Winter Hawks stud defenceman, Seth Jones.
From NHL scouts to general managers to big advertisements in the newspapers of towns the Mooseheads visit, MacKinnon's star power is gaining momentum. Judging by the 11 goals he scored in his first 10 games this season, the 17-year-old isn't bothered by the pressure, the comparisons and the expectations that go with them.
"I'm OK with the attention -- the comparisons with Sid have kind of prepared me for this," MacKinnon said in a recent interview in this New Brunswick port city where his Mooseheads were facing the Memorial Cup champion Sea Dogs. "I know how to handle different expectations along the way.
"I knew right off the hop that I was never going to be Sidney. I admire his game but, other than that, I know I'm not him. The comparisons are made because of where I'm from, but I'm just trying to create my own game and be known for what I do myself."
With each game he plays with the league-leading Mooseheads, the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder moves closer to forging that identity on his own. He is an ace on faceoffs, a natural centre who isn't afraid to get his nose dirty around the opposition net. With a talented sniper on his wing in Jonathan Drouin -- another potential top 10 pick in 2013 -- most nights the show is as impressive as the advance billing.
In our 15-minute chat following a feisty victory over the Sea Dogs, MacKinnon is polite and polished, but not necessarily predictable. While comfortable talking with the media and no doubt trained for it, he sounds anything but scripted. He's as confident in his words as he is with his moves on the ice and is so unbothered by the Crosby comparisons that he weaves Sid the Kid into conversations on his own.
Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell praised MacKinnon's demeanour.
"He's excellent -- similar to Crosby, he has been used to this for the past four our five years of his life," the former rugged NHLer said. "He speaks well, he's respectful of his teammates and his opponents and he handles it all with ease."
Credit Russell and Mooseheads management with helping the process by limiting MacKinnon's off-ice obligations where possible. Interview requests are granted but with discretion so as to not interfere with school work and the business at hand.
While MacKinnon will help sell tickets in every barn around the league, the team is doing its best to keep him grounded during a season in which expectations are high for MacKinnon personally and the Mooseheads at large.
"It's nice being in the spotlight some times, but at the same time I'm here to win," MacKinnon said. "I'm not playing for the scouts and whoever is up in the stands. You can't put too much thought into it. It's just hockey. You can have a great year but if your team doesn't do well, it's just not a fun time."
Russell, who grew up in Cole Harbour himself before going on to a career that saw him play 396 NHL games, most with the Chicago Blackhawks, was well aware of MacKinnon when the kid was just a 10-year-old. Word travels quickly in hockey circles, and with Crosby in the early stages of his superstardom, the rush to christen the next one -- especially with such obvious geographic parallels -- was inevitable.
"I've known him for a long time, ever since he was a kid," Russell said. "He was always a real good player, always the best player on his team, but he was really small. The comparisons with Crosby started locally a long time ago but probably it was around the time that he went to Shattuck that people all of a sudden saw he was the kind of player he is and that this kid was going to turn into something special."
Shattuck would be Shattuck-St. Mary's, the Minnesota high school known for refining scores of future NHLers, including Crosby. By the time MacKinnon was done prepping at Shattuck, he was in hot demand as a junior. Drafted first overall by Baie-Comeau, MacKinnon was reluctant to sign there and, with Russell pushing hard, the Drakkar dealt him to Halifax.
In his first season with the Mooseheads, MacKinnon had 31 goals and 47 assists in 58 games leading to the status that awaited him in this all-important draft campaign.
So what kind of a player are the pro scouts and general managers who have been flocking to Mooseheads games this season seeing?
"I'm very impressed with him and I'm not alone," as scout from a Western Conference NHL team said. "His burst of speed really separates himself from his competition, which isn't easy to do when you are 17. His hockey sense is impossible to ignore as well. His instincts are impressive."
Russell has a similar, if slightly biased, analysis but one that comes from seeing MacKinnon at various stages of development through the majority of his hockey life.
"He can reach top speed in two strides and he has a terrific set of hands," Russell said. "The hardest thing for him is that the spotlight is always on him. It's easier for some of the other players in his shadow. For him, if he doesn't do something dazzling every shift, people are ready to jump all over him and criticize, but there's no taking away that this is a world-class talent."
And one who so far is following a world-class path.
UP CLOSE WITH CROSBY
Just because they are from the same hometown doesn't mean that Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby are fast friends.
They are half a hockey generation apart, after all, and if MacKinnon does become the first player selected in next June's NHL entry draft, it will be eight years after Sid the Kid was the star of that show in the 2005 class.
But when MacKinnon finally had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the player who was once his idol, they were special moments in more ways than one. They were part of a group of players skating at a rink in Cole Harbour, N.S., in the summer, perhaps the latest step on the 17-year-old's road to being a top three pick in the NHL.
"We skated with each other nine or 10 times this summer and we just tried to skate with each other and push each other as much as we could," MacKinnon said. "We're not buddies or anything. I just met him in the summer and spent a little time with him.
"He's a hard-working guy and I really admire him."
MacKinnon said he gained a lot from being in Crosby's presence, but the Pittsburgh Penguins captain didn't feel the need to give him any advice on how to handle the spotlight shining on him this season and likely beyond. And MacKinnon certainly took a lot away from the example Crosby set for him on the ice.
"He knows what it's like, he has been down the same road and knows how to deal with all the stuff," MacKinnon said. "You can either handle the pressure and accept it or you don't.
"He does everything perfect, every little thing. It's amazing. He works so hard and it seems like he never gets tired out there. It's pretty cool."
TOP 10 PROSPECTS
Halifax Mooseheads star Nathan MacKinnon began the season rated as the prospect for the 2013 draft by NHL Central Scouting. Here are the top 10: