HALIFAX — On this night, the smell of success for Nathan MacKinnon is more pungent than pure. A three-goal performance on this evening means the sweat-soaked MacKinnon is walking around the basement of the Halifax Metro Centre in black baseball cap, red undershirt, and a chocolate brown fur coat.
He might look ridiculous, but there's swagger in MacKinnon's walk.
The fur is a totem the Halifax Mooseheads have been giving their player of the game to wear this season. Its provenance is unknown, though it looks like something you might find in grandma’s attic.
And the coat reeks. Badly. It’s a gag-inducing mix of hockey sweat and wet fur.
“I’m sure you can smell it from here,” says MacKinnon, laughing and standing a foot away.
Yes, you can.
“It’s getting pretty gross,” he continues. “This is the ninth (playoff) game we’ve played and nobody showers before putting it on, so it’s definitely a little stinky. But it adds character, for sure.”
Character is something MacKinnon knows all too well. He’s had to develop it exponentially over the course of his young, but already storied hockey career. It comes with the territory when you’ve been a highly touted NHL prospect for as long as he has. At present, he’s ranked No. 2 by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, behind Portland defenceman Seth Jones, and ahead of linemate Jonathan Drouin.
He has been the centrepiece for the Mooseheads, who are the top team in the Canadian Hockey League. Halifax has lost only 10 games this season – just six in regulation – and is undefeated in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. Still, this season has had it's share trying times for MacKinnon, particularly in the second half.
In December, he earned a coveted spot on Canada’s world junior team as a 17-year-old, but was relegated to a fourth-line role. While Drouin was wowing the scouts in Ufa, Russia, with his offensive wizardry, MacKinnon was relegated to the unfamiliar job of bit player.
“You probably saw me on the ice a little bit more this time,” says MacKinnon with a wry smile.
Canada lost in the bronze medal match, and it was the first time in 14 years the hockey-mad nation finished without a medal. In the tournament post-mortem, many questioned why Canada would use a dynamic offensive player like MacKinnon in such a limited role on a checking line. MacKinnon took some heat for what was essentially an ill-suited fit.
Mooseheads head coach Dominique Ducharme says he noticed a difference when the native of Cole Harbour, N.S., returned from Russia. He believes something good came out of the tournament for MacKinnon and his overall development.
“He matured,” says Ducharme of his star centre. “Every experience at that age counts. It makes you grow. Going to the world juniors makes you just grow faster. It was a good experience to be there at 17 and playing that position during a lockout year – that was really a strong position on Team Canada. It was good for him to live that.
“There was nothing wrong with anything that happened there. It’s all good for him.”
Then there was a minor knee injury that kept him out of the lineup for 14 games just before the end of the regular season, after he caught his foot in a rut. Given the amount of hockey he had played, the Mooseheads had no problem giving him a little additional time to rest and repair before returning to the lineup two games before the start of the playoffs.
Slowly but surely, MacKinnon has returned to form. He went without a goal in a second-round sweep of the Gatineau Olympiques, but more than made up for it with a hat trick and an assist in Game 1 of the QMJHL semifinal against Rouyn-Noranda.
“After my first goal (of the night) I almost wanted to puke,” says the 17-year-old matter-of-factly. “I think it was a long shift and I jumped into the glass and I regretted it right after. I was gagging. Other than that, I felt great.”
He followed the hat trick with another four-point night in Game 2. Drouin, his offensive partner in crime, was right there, too, with nine points in the first two games of the series.
“It’s the same Nathan we see all the time,” says Drouin. “Lately, me and him haven’t been getting five points a night in the playoffs, but we don’t mind.”
Most players can only dream of lamenting the inconsistencies of their five-point performances. But that’s their reality. That's just how good Drouin and MacKinnon are together in the Halifax lineup.
It’s pretty much impossible to write a story about on MacKinnon without mentioning Drouin. They’re almost always together – even off the ice – as MacKinnon drives Drouin to school and practice every day.
“He is a good driver,” says Drouin of his chauffeur. “But there’s room for improvement.”
Teammate Martin Frk, who has spent time as a linemate and regularly skates with the dynamic duo on the Mooseheads’ top power-play unit, says sometimes he can’t believe how lucky he is to play with them.
“They’re amazing,” says the 19-year-old winger, a second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings. “They’re two years younger than me, but they are better than me. They’re better than everyone in the league.
“That’s how they were born. God made them to play hockey.”
Playing with them though, can be difficult, as Frk notes, not only because of their drive and attention to detail, but because they’re usually at least two steps ahead of everyone else on the ice.
“I’m trying to give them the puck the most,” says the Czech winger. “It’s not that easy because sometimes they get cranky a little bit when I miss my play, but I try to do my best. I hope they are not too mad at me, when I miss a play.”
MacKinnon says they don’t really care about the points just as long as they’re creating an opportunity for Halifax to win, whether that’s at even strength, working the power play or drawing penalties.
“The way me and Jo look at things, a lot of guys can get points in blowouts against decent teams, but Jo and I really want to step up when it matters,” says MacKinnon. “Whether that’s no points or five.
“We’re just trying to make little differences.”