CALGARY— Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are almost inseparable. They do practically everything together in Halifax, where they are linemates with the Quebec Junior Hockey League’s Mooseheads.
This week, they are getting the opportunity to experience their first world junior selection camp together.
“We’re friends and we wish the best for each other,” said MacKinnon. “It’s not a competitive relationship. We play together, we go to school together, we eat together. We’re buddies.
”Hopefully we can both do good things.’’
So far, so good.
Playing in the first intrasquad scrimmage of the tryout camp on Tuesday night, MacKinnon and Drouin showed the same kind of off-the-charts chemistry that has helped propel the Mooseheads to the top of the QMJHL standings. They were dynamic every time they were out on the ice, playing with players older and bigger, but never once did the pair of 17 year olds look overmatched or out of place.
“I think they were both nervous early,” said Team Canada head coach Steve Spott after Team Red’s 3-1 victory. “Both kids made plays with the puck that they didn’t look like (17-year-old) kids to me. They looked like 19 or 20 year olds out there, so I thought both kids played real well.”
Earlier in the day, at a morning practice at the Markin MacPhail Centre, the draft eligible dynamic duo was paired with 19-year-old JC Lipon, 19 of the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers.
“People are like, ‘Oh, you’re playing with two 17 year olds’, but they’re unreal,” said Lipon of his first on-ice session with the pair. “They’re pretty fast dudes, so I’m just going to take the body and hopefully get open and they’ll find me.”
Drouin said that having MacKinnon by his side gave him a sense of familiarity in the very unfamiliar camp setting.
“We already have great chemistry together in Halifax,” said Drouin. “So it was great to play with him because I was maybe less nervous than if I was playing with someone else. We’ve been playing together all year and it’s more fun to play on the same line.”
So are they like typical teenaged hockey players?
“In a way yes, but in another way . . . definitely not,” explains former Mooseheads captain Cameron Critchlow, who played with the pair last year. “Off the ice they’re both great guys… they’re like any other kids just going to high school, but once they’re on the ice, there’s nothing typical about them.”
Critchlow, who now plays with the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, keeps in touch with both his former teammates regularly. He is set to make his acting debut with MacKinnon in January when they’ll appear as students on the CBC TV show Mr. D. He said both players share a good sense of humour.
“Last year I was just the older guy and they were so young (at 16),” said Critchlow. “I’d look at them and just look at them sometimes and go, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ They’re both funny in their own way and they like to joke around.
“Nathan’s jokes are always a little goofy. He’s a funny guy and away from the rink he likes to have fun, he likes to play video games like any other kid. But when he gets to the rink – he’ll surprise you.”
It’s no surprise that MacKinnon and Drouin are highly touted for the 2013 NHL entry draft. MacKinnon is second in league scoring with 22 goals and 30 assists in 30 regular-games. Drouin, his partner in crime when it comes to terrorizing opposing goaltenders, has 19 goals and 29 assists in 24 games.
MacKinnon has been talked about as a future No. 1 pick in the NHL entry draft since he was 15. He’s drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby, not because he plays a similar game, but mostly because he was highly skilled at a young age and grew up in Cole Harbour, N.S., just like the Pittsburgh Penguins captain.
At the Canadian junior camp MacKinnon has been rooming with Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the NHL’s top pick in 2011.
“Those are two young men that I think have unique experiences,” said Spott. “I think that if there’s someone that could lend some advice to Nathan, that maybe Ryan would be a good mentor for him. I think if anything, helping him through this process that Ryan’s been through so obviously there was some thought put into that.”
Last year, MacKinnon wasn’t invited to Canada’s camp despite taking the QMJHL by storm as a 16-year-old. The snub stoked a lot of controversy, particularly in junior hockey circles. MacKinnon responded to the omission by scoring five goals against the powerhouse Quebec Remparts.
The hype, combined with Hockey Canada’s decision to not have him compete for a spot on last year’s world junior team, sparked some controversy. But he says he doesn’t feel more pressure to show the Hockey Canada braintrust it made a mistake a year ago.
“I think there’s less pressure on me, to be honest,” said MacKinnon. “There are so many good players here who are all capable of filling these roles. A lot of guys are battling for the same positions.”
Unlike MacKinnon, who has been in the spotlight for years, Drouin’s star has only been rising rapidly since joining the Mooseheads last December. There is talk now that Drouin could not only find himself in the top three picks along with Portland defenceman Seth Jones, but even surpassing his linemate and friend in the pecking order at next June’s draft.
Critchlow believes the on-ice rivalry will help the pair in the long run, especially when it comes to big events like the world junior tournament.
“It’s good for them to have each other,” he said. “Now that Jonathan has come into the spotlight as well, I think that will help Nathan. It will motivate him as well as take the pressure off the kid. I mean, he’s had so much interest surrounding him – everyone wants a piece of him – so it’s good for them to go through this together. They’ll be able to help each other out.”
After going back-and-forth with various line combinations at the start of the season, Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme finally put the pair together and they clicked.
“It just seemed to work very well last year so they started together this year,” said Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell. “They’ve been great together, so it’s tough to break that up.”
From their play on the opening day of camp, they’re making that decision difficult for Spott to make as well. According to the coach, the first round of cuts will come on Wednesday after Team Canada’s afternoon game against a Canadian university squad.
Typically, the world junior tournament has been a showcase for the world’s best 19-year-olds. As MacKinnon and Drouin have been proving this season, however, they aren’t your run-of-the-mill teenagers.
“Every now and then you get kids coming along at 16 or 17 that play like 19-year-olds,” said Russell. “They’ve got the ability to give themselves a legitimate shot at it, for sure.”