SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Imagine the best teenaged hockey player in Canada being barred from competing for his country against rival Russia — in his hometown.
Sounds crazy, eh? But it could happen.
Matthew Wuest of Metro Halifax dropped a bombshell on Wednesday morning with a scoop that Hockey Canada's rules will bar 16-year-old wunderkind Nathan MacKinnon from playing in this August's Canada-Russia challenge. The series is a wonderful idea itself, a noble gesture. Instead of its usual summer development camp for the national men's junior team, Hockey Canada is holding a camp in Russia as part of a benefit to provide aid to people affected by the Yaroslavl plane crash last summer. They'll play two games in Yaroslavl and two games at the home arena of MacKinnon's Halifax Mooseheads on Aug. 13-14. Another tie-in is it commemorates the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series.
Now the catch. Because MacKinnon, who's likely to go No. 1 in the 2013 NHL draft, hasn't participated in Hockey Canada's under-18 program, he can't wear the Maple Leaf. The rule has affected other recent phenoms such as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Steven Stamkos. A key difference is back then Hockey Canada wasn't selling $86 ticket packages for a game against its rival, again, in MacKinnon's home market. The Mooseheads also have two other big-time prospects who are ineligible.
As Wuest explained:
Because the Canada-Russia Challenge on Aug. 13 and 14 at the Metro Centre has replaced the under-20 development camp, MacKinnon — and fellow Mooseheads stars Zach Fucale and Jonathan Drouin — can't participate.
All three are entering their 17-year-old junior seasons and would be eligible to join the under-20 world junior program for the final selection camp in December.
Hockey Canada director of communications Andre Brin confirmed the details of the rule to Metro Halifax on Wednesday, but it was news to Mooseheads owner Bobby Smith.
"It seems odd, especially in a year when they changed the rules (to have the Canada-Russia Challenge instead of a development camp)," Smith said. "This and the Super Series and the camp in December are all good evaluation opportunities (for the world junior team), so it surprises me a little." (Metro Halifax)
Shouldn't common sense dictate making an exception when Hockey Canada already made an exception by making playing another country in the summer to prep for the IIHF U20 championship. (Sweden and the U.S., who both own a more recent world junior gold medal than Canada, have done so for years.)
'Should have been at the camp this year'
The Saint John Sea Dogs faced MacKinnon and the Mooseheads eight times during the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Coach Gerard Gallant noted rules are rules, but there was near-disbelief between defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and Charles-Olivier Roussel.
Beaulieu, a Montreal Canadiens first-round pick who played for Canada's junior team this season, counts MacKinnon as a good friend.
"I definitely don't agree with it — I thought he should have been at the camp this year," Beaulieu said. "He's the best 16-year-old hockey player I've ever seen in my life. He's a great kid. He's got a good head on his shoulders. He works so hard and he's so skilled at everything he does. He definitely deserves to be there. Hopefully it all works out."
It was debated whether MacKinnon, then barely 16, would have belonged at Canada's final selection camp last December. Former Hockey Canada chief scout Al Murray said at the time the Cole Harbour, N.S., had a lot to learn. MacKinnon took that to heart and had a superb second half for Halifax. He and Drouin helped the once-moribund Mooseheads overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs and fall two wins short of the league final. He was fifth in playoff scoring behind four members of league-champion Saint John who are each nearly three years older than him.
MacKinnon would likely still be playing in August for Canada's under-18 team at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka tournament. Let's be honest, though: playing in quiet arenas in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and playing in Halifax with the Maple Leaf on his chest are not one and the same. To say nothing of what Halifax hockey fans might think of the series if no Mooseheads are playing.
"It would be tough for sure if he can't go," Beaulieu said. "I know he was disappointed when he didn't get to go to the world junior camp. He had to learn he's 16 years old. For that series to be in his hometown, it would bring people out. He's such an exciting player. It'd be real fun."
"I'm not the one choosing the players, but I haven't seen a player who's 16 years old dominate like him in a long time," Roussel added.
MacKinnon will not even turn 17 until Sept. 1. Beaulieu and Roussel was asked a hypothetical question: if someone unfamiliar with junior hockey walked into a Mooseheads game halfway through, how old would they think MacKinnon is?
"Twenty," Beaulieu quipped. "His face wouldn't show it. He looks like he's been out there for years, four years under his belt already in junior. He's just so confident with puck, so fast, so skilled. He's just such a skilled hockey player."
"He could actually look like a player who already got drafted," Roussel said.
This could be, to play devil's advocate, a tempest in a teapot. MacKinnon, like most prodigies did at his age, could play in the the Ivan Hlinka tourney and make the national junior team in December. Nugent-Hopkins and Boston Bruins centre Tyler Seguin each did so, but both made the NHL without ever playing in the world junior. Crosby was a unique case since he made Team Canada in 2004 when he was only 16.
Still, Team Canada playing in a superstar's hometown and he's barred from playing? That's hockey.
"He's a helluva player," Gallant said. "Everyone knows what the kid's going to be. He's got a chance to be the next superstar. It's too bad. The kid is that good a hockey player. But it comes up every year. Hockey Canada has their rules and they go by rules. Maybe they could have changed it for other guys in the past. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, they have their rules. It's the way things go and I'm sure people would like to see him play in that."
Below are some of MacKinnon's best bits from his yearling season in the QMJHL.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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