SASKATOON, Sask. — Seth Jones and Nathan MacKinnon will share the Memorial Cup stage on Sunday. Wasn't that how the whole production started last Wednesday?
With no Canadian-based NHL team still alive and only one Stanley Cup playoff game on TV Sunday, a final featuring the two pre-tournament favourites and top three NHL draft prospects should draw a lot of eyeballs to junior hockey. If it doesn't, either the Canadian Hockey League needs to pose tough questions about its marketing or hockey fans need to search themselves for why they don't seek out this level of the sport except at world junior time.
The 1979 NCAA final between Magic Johnson and Michigan State and Larry Bird and Indiana State pushed college basketball to a new rung in the American media pecking order. Junior puck will probably stay at its accustomed level next season, but it is telling when the only handy comparison happened 34 years ago in a different sport.
The 18-year-old Portland Winterhawks defenceman and 17-year-old Halifax Mooseheads centre, whose close friendship predated the media-made rivalry, have consistently demurred from being drawn into it. Hockey's humbling ways proscribes such preening. Regardless of the result Sunday, this is already a trip for Jones, MacKinnon and the centre's linemate, left wing Jonathan Drouin.
"It's going to be a lot of fun, it's going to be an exciting game for sure," Jones said after helping Portland shade London 2-1 on Friday. "I know the fans are going to be in it. I know our team is looking for a bit of redemption.
"Nathan had way too much time with the puck in the first game," Jones added, referring to Halifax's 7-4 win on Day 2 of the tournament, where MacKinnon had a hat trick and an assist. "He scored a power-play goal, he scored a short-handed goal as well. We have to eliminate some mistakes."
Jones (left), Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin at their May 15 joint press conference …Junior hockey fans should find enough succor in having the top two teams survive and advance to Sunday. That's a rare enough occurrence at the Memorial Cup. The last final that involved neither the host team nor an Ontario Hockey League club hasn't happened since 2002.
"I read predictions about this game back in October," said Portland right wing Ty Rattie, who is Jones' roommate and shares the tournament scoring lead with MacKinnon with eight points. "To get a berth into the finals of the Memorial Cup is an unbelievable feeling. We can't get let it get to us, we just need to be in the moment."
Deepest draft in a decade
The upcoming NHL draft is considered the deepest since 2003, with Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin at the head of the pack. The trio have given draft prognosticators plenty of cherries to pick all season in a competition, covered very much like a horse race, that they are loath to discuss any more than is necessary. Jones helped Team USA win the world junior in Ufa, Russia, while MacKinnon saw spot duty for the fourth-place Team Canada. Jones overtook MacKinnon for top spot in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking, then was on the winning side in January's CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game on Drouin and MacKinnon's home ice in Halifax. There was a Drouin vs. MacKinnon sidebar that comically overlooked shooting percentages.
Each helped his team capture their league titles, moving the debate to the tournament. While junior hockey tends to seem like a bit of a rigged game in terms of prospects dictating where they will play, one wonders when this scenario will reoccur. Could you foresee an Erie Otters-Seattle Thunderbirds final featuring Connor McDavid and Matthew Barzal in 2015? Then again, two years ago this time, Jones was property of the Everett Silvertips and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar had the inside track on drafting MacKinnon into the QMJHL.
Once the tournament started, MacKinnon reignited the debate in the the public's mind, if not necessarily Colorado's, with that hat trick. It included a goal where he blew by Jones.
MacKinnon has enjoyed the give-and-take of interviews all week. These are likely his last days as a junior, so why not be loose? On Thursday, when talking about the Mooseheads' off-day, he bluntly said he was "bottom five" on his team at miniature golf. Then he lauded centre Ryan Falkenham for being the team's closest equivalent to Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera in the batting cages: "Falksy, he’s kind of the natural athlete, good at everything, good at school — kind of the perfect human."
The drawbridge only goes up when he's asked about the rivalry with his buddy Seth.
"Trying to put bunch of expectations on yourself is tough," MacKinnon said Thursday. "I didn't come here trying to prove I should be first. The biggest game of my junior career is coming up on Sunday and I think everybody’s looking forward to that challenge.
"My competitive nature to win is what’s driving me to win right now," he added.
The Avalanche also reached into the QMJHL this week to hire Patrick Roy away from the Quebec Remparts. It seems farfetched a rookie NHL head coach would have a say in GM Joe Sakic's decision.
"He was obviously a Q coach and he may like a Q player more than myself," Jones said of Roy on Friday. "Or vice-versa, but who knows?"
Jones has had a commendable tournament, if not a world-beating one. Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot was Portland's best blueliner Friday, making two goal-saving plays and also helping keep a puck inside the London blueline to maintain pressure on Rattie's game-winner. One could wonder about the Winterhawks thinking past the semifinal to a rematch with the Mooseheads.
"My heart was beating a thousand beats a minute," Jones said of the game's frantic finish.
Direct comparisons are daunting. On top of playing different position, the lithe Jones is 11 months older than MacKinnon, who will likely be the youngest player in the National Hockey League next season. Given that, well, teenagers age, perhaps it's not shocking the older phenom was indomitable in the first 10-day showcase and MacKinnon has shone at the season-ending event. In any event, he is making the case he probably was underused in Ufa. As a reminder of that, Hockey Canada dismissed Kevin Prendergast as head scout on Friday.
"It's tough to show a whole lot at the world juniors," MacKinnon reflected. "Our team's coaches knew what they were doing. There were a lot of good players in front of me. But obviously it's nice to do well. I’d be lying if it wasn't satisfaction but at the same time I’m still hungry to win.
"To try to prove anything to anybody makes it harder."
After all, even to a teen with Jones' and MacKinnon's gifts, getting all this attention can still feel like a thrill a minute. Viewing it that way keeps it light, maybe lets them keep a piece of their youth in a sport that makes young men grow up very fast. It's not surprising they peel away from playing up the head-to-head duel. Everyone else will do it for them.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.