MacKinnon's Past is Avalanche's Present
Support from family, hometown has molded Avs rookie into NHL's next big thing
The original version of the following appeared throughout January and February in 'AVALANCHE,' the official gameday magazine of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Club. Stay tuned to ColoradoAvalanche.com for more magazine feature stories or check out the latest story by purchasing a copy of the magazine during an Avs home game at Pepsi Center. All proceeds support Colorado youth hockey associations.
Nathan MacKinnon’s first NHL goal came Oct. 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C. A little more than two minutes remained in the second period of what would become a 5-1 Avalanche victory against the Capitals.
Nathan MacKinnon’s first NHL goal started with perfect passes from Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog and alternate captain Paul Stastny. Landeskog was stuck near the end wall in the Caps’ zone, but he was able to flick the puck behind him and to the left. It found Stastny camped to the right of goal, and he slid behind the netting before catching a glimpse of MacKinnon slicing across the slot to just inside the right face-off circle.
Nathan MacKinnon’s first NHL goal crossed the goalmouth a split second later. Stastny threw the puck his way, and MacKinnon was there with stick raised, poised to fire.
Washington netminder Michal Neuvirth never had a chance.
Left side of the goal.
Just like that. Just like a finger snap.
All Neuvirth could do was watch the puck zip past, like a rubbernecker might look doing a double take on Interstate 25.
Nathan MacKinnon’s first NHL goal was then celebrated.
It is entirely possible at that moment that someone in the Verizon Center bowl muttered with a curmudgeon bent, “Act like you’ve been there before, kid.”
Because MacKinnon, in fact, celebrated that first NHL goal like he had never been there before. And rightly so. He raised his arms and stick above his head, brushed right past an open-armed Landeskog, dipped his arms low, then high—think cross-country skier digging for speed—and then body slammed himself into the corner glass.
“Kind of blacked out there,” he told reporters after the game. “There was so much excitement.”
His teammates soon crashed the one-man party, with Stastny and Landeskog and Erik Johnson and P.A. Parenteau all dishing out shoulder slaps and helmet taps before MacKinnon made his way to the bench and glided along, pushing his hand through a gauntlet of outstretched black, padded hockey gloves.
Nathan MacKinnon had arrived. It was a moment he will never forget and one that represented a milestone 16 years in the making.
Graham MacKinnon is a former junior goalie and Nathan MacKinnon’s father. He strapped ice skates on his son when he was a toddler, probably hoping to one day cultivate a skating partner at the very least, a pond shinny teammate if everything went well. After MacKinnon took to the sport exceptionally well, though, Graham decided to convert the family’s Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia garage into a practice area. A shooting gallery.
Lots of hours spent on that concrete floor—at first slipping puck after puck at his father and then later slapping puck after puck past his father—led MacKinnon to the past 36 months or so. In that time he has evolved from being a Canadian junior star to being one of the world’s top prospects to being the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s NHL Draft, where he was anointed by some, “The Future,” for a Colorado franchise that represented, “The Now,” for much of the 1990s and early 2000s.
This whole thing for MacKinnon really started to gain steam when he was 14, when he and his father and mother, Kathy, and older sister, Sarah, decided the best place for him to build on his exceptional talent was at boarding school Shattuck-Saint Mary’s in Faribault, Minnesota.
It was there he began to leave his youth behind and begin working toward NHL dreams.
“They are the reason I’m here, for sure,” MacKinnon says when asked about his family. “I’m very happy that they’ve been so supportive of me. They pushed me in the right direction and really supported me all the way through.”
You know by now the type of success MacKinnon has wrought in his first year in Denver, so it should be no surprise to note that MacKinnon took the family’s decision and ran with it, authoring a dominant two years at SSM, tallying 99 goals and 194 points in 98 games across two levels. As he is now, he was then always one of the youngest players on his team in Minnesota, but often left opponents wondering, “Who’s the kid?”
Two memorable years followed in the Quebec Major Junior League with the Halifax Mooseheads, where he had 63 goals and 153 points in 102 regular-season games and 24 goals and 61 points in 34 postseason games.
He threw in 32 goals and 75 points alone in his second season with Halifax and scored 11 goals and 33 points in the playoffs to help lead his team to the league title. He then won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as the most valuable player in the Canadian Hockey League's Memorial Cup tournament after totaling seven goals and 13 points in four games to lead Halifax to the championship.
That all was enough for MacKinnon to garner some notice. And in a sport as internationally based as hockey, “Nathan MacKinnon,” began to escape the mouths of scouts and team executives across the globe, from North America to Europe.
All the talk built to a crescendo before peaking Oct. 12 in Washington D.C.
MacKinnon has gone on to score more goals, of course—he had 22 as of March 2 and was in the midst of an 11-game point streak, the second longest by an NHL rookie in 15 seasons—and before he even found the net that night in our nation’s capital he had already become the youngest NHL player since 1944 to record two or more points in a game when he had two assists in his season debut 10 days earlier.
But MacKinnon didn’t practice at all hours and on all days of the week and move away from home and sacrifice parts of his youth because he was thinking of all his future NHL assists.
This kid is a goal scorer, and his first such snipe will always be something special. It came on the same sheet where superstar Alex Ovechkin calls home. It came against a team he often watched as a kid as he was rooting on another Cole Harbour native in Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
It came at the highest level of the sport that he had been honing in on since before he could remember.
“I wasn’t sure when that first tally was going to come,” MacKinnon says, “but I was happy that it did at the time. Scoring on the road in Washington was pretty special, for sure. I’ve always liked watching Washington, especially with the Pens-Caps rivalry, so it was pretty fun to score against them.”
Much of MacKinnon’s present, from Opening Night until today, has been shaped by his past. If you’re looking for the “how” to this story—“How is this kid this good at hockey?”—a good place to start is there, with a finger point on a map just to the right of Maine, over on the southeastern side of Nova Scotia, just to the southwest of Newfoundland.
That’s where you’ll find Cole Harbour. That’s where you’ll find Halifax. That’s where you’ll find the MacKinnons.
Cole Harbour is thrown out for discussion for an interview for this story, and MacKinnon’s eyes immediately widen. A quick, almost whispered, “Yeah!” slips from his lips before the question is really even asked.
“It’s a middle-class town,” MacKinnon says. “There’s no really wealthy people, no really less-fortunate people, I guess. It’s pretty levelheaded and really has a lot of character to it … and that’s me. I was pretty fortunate to have great people around, with my friends and family as well as minor hockey coaches growing up.
“I don’t know what it is about Cole Harbour, but it’s really shaped me and a lot of good hockey players coming up, and I’m sure it will in the near future, as well.”
That is really what MacKinnon’s story is and will always be about. Much of the fabric of MacKinnon’s life was on display that night on the Verizon Center ice.
His family. His hometown. His journey.
All three were there and all ran through his mind as the puck whizzed past Neuvirth.
“A lot has changed in my life, obviously,” MacKinnon says, “and it’s changed for the better. You’re forced to grow up pretty quick and become a man pretty quickly when you go the route I chose. I was just in junior hockey last year and in high school, actually, so lots of things have changed, and it’s all happened pretty quickly. But I’m very happy.
“This entire process has been awesome. It’s even better than I expected it to be. The NHL is such a fun league to play in, and traveling with the guys as a professional and being in new rinks has been so much fun. And playing at the Pepsi Center, in front of our fans has been a blast so far.”
A blast. Much like that first shot that led to that first goal.