Nearly two decades later, MacKinnon is four wins from fulfilling his dream with the Avalanche.
Though the 26-year-old never had the opportunity to play with Sakic, the Hockey Hall of Fame forward was Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations when it selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Nine years later, the kid on the hockey card and his childhood idol are on the verge of something special.
Colorado will host Game 1 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Ball Arena on Wednesday (8 pm ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).
“It’s cool,” MacKinnon said Tuesday during 2022 Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “Hopefully that can happen. I think it’s every kid’s dream to be in this position.”
In his first eight NHL seasons, MacKinnon and the Avalanche never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. There has been a different narrative this postseason; Colorado is 12-2, with series wins against the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers.
The toughest test starts Wednesday when the Avalanche face the two-time defending champion Lightning. Though he smiled Tuesday when his childhood card was referenced, MacKinnon said there would be time for such nostalgia after the goal of winning the Cup had been achieved.
“I’m not trying to get caught up in all of this,” he said. “This is a brand new series, obviously. Whether it’s the first round or the final, we’re playing this one team in this playoff round. I think we have to narrow our focus, stay in the present, just be ready for tomorrow night and go from there.”
By all accounts, MacKinnon is ready, especially with the disappointment of years past still lingering. When the favored Avalanche were defeated by the Vegas Golden Knights in six games in the second round last season, his frustration finally bubbled over.
“There’s always next year,” MacKinnon said then. “It’s all we talk about, I feel like. I mean, I’m going into my ninth year next year and haven’t won [anything]so I’m just definitely motivated.”
After talking the talk, he’s definitely walked the walk. MacKinnon averaged 1.35 points-per-game with 88 (32 goals, 56 assists) in 65 games during the 2021-22 regular season and has followed it up with 18 (11 goals, seven assists) in 14 playoff games. All the while, he admittedly has become a more complete player, concentrating as much on his play in his own zone.
It was a development in MacKinnon’s game that jumped out for Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer who was part of TNT’s on-site coverage of the Western Conference Final between the Avalanche and Oilers.
“The first thing you notice is his speed,” Gretzky said. “He’s got great speed. Obviously he’s got uncanny offensive skills, but what we really noticed, and we covered it on the broadcasts, was how really conscious he was of the defensive play.
“He was never cheating the puck, so he’s always in the third-man-high position. So, his commitment to playing on the other side of the puck, I think his teammates are more impressed by that than they are by his offensive skills . His offensive skills are so good, so he’s good.”
The Lightning have adopted the nickname “The Tampa Bay Whatever-It-Takes” during their run for a third consecutive championship. Colorado coach Jared Bednar said he has seen the same characteristic in MacKinnon’s game this season.
“I think the evolution of what ‘Nate’s’ done in this playoffs is he hasn’t put so much weight on his shoulders to be the top-producing guy,” Bednar said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win, and I think he’s sacrificed a little bit of his game for what’s best for the team. He’s taken on the big checking roles in all of our series, trying to win those matchups knowing that our depth can possibly win the matchups underneath him. So, it’s the biggest task there is, and he’s come out on top of those matchups and still while doing an amazing job on the checking side of it. So, that’s the growth for him.
“To me, he’s focused on keeping the puck out of our net and then still chipping in. I think probably in years past, you know, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to make sure he’s the difference-maker on the offensive side of things. So, he understands where our team’s gotten to. Real good growth in his game. I’ve loved his playoffs so far.”
Who’s No. 1?
Patrick Roy asked a question that would change the Avalanche’s fortunes for more than a decade.
It was the spring of 2013 and they were holding meetings to discuss the candidates from which to select with the top pick in the upcoming draft.
“I remember Nate MacKinnon’s draft, I was very lucky because Joe was very supportive of myself,” Roy said last week. “I was in those meetings. They were talking about (Florida Panthers center) Alexander Barkov and (Chicago Blackhawks defenseman) Seth Jones.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame goalie, who played for Colorado when it won the Cup in 1996 and 2001, had just been hired as Avalanche coach on May 23. He worked the previous eight seasons as coach and general manager of Quebec in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had coached against MacKinnon, who had 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists) in 44 games for Halifax during the 2012-13 season.
MacKinnon followed that up by wowing scouts and fans alike by leading his junior team to the Memorial Cup with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in four games. In the process, he’d shown the type of flair Roy thought Colorado needed.
So, he put things into perspective for Sakic.
“Those others, they’re very good hockey players, but MacKinnon was a superstar,” Roy said. “I said to Joe, ‘What do you want, do you want to bring people to the building or have just a very good hockey player?'”
[RELATED: Stanley Cup Final coverage | Stanley Cup Final schedule]
It didn’t take long for Sakic and the Avalanche to come up with an answer. MacKinnon was the choice.
“He’s probably right,” Sakic, now their general manager, said with a chuckle Tuesday of Roy’s analysis. “Right from when he broke into the League, he can wow and get you to jump out of your seat for sure.
“He has so much speed, explosive speed, not just speed. He’s such a powerful guy and no one wants it more than him. He’s real competitive and that’s what you get out of him. We remember, it’s like, you want to win , but you also have to want to entertain.”
Since 2013, MacKinnon ranks sixth in regular-season NHL scoring with 648 points (242 goals, 406 assists) in 638 games, all with the Avalanche. Barkov, who was selected No. 2 by Florida, is 25th in that span with 553 points (220 goals, 333 assists) in 596 games. Jones, picked no. 4 by Nashville, is 19th in scoring among defenseman since the 2013 draft with 337 points (70 goals, 267 assists) in 658 games with the Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blackhawks.
“I think those three players have had great careers,” Sakic said. “But he was the one game-changer that could really entertain fans as well. We’re extremely fortunate we have Nathan on our team.”
Roy, who is back coaching Quebec, agrees, especially with what he’s seen from MacKinnon this postseason.
“MacKinnon, when he gets on his horse, when he’s flying, my God, he’s fun to watch,” Roy said. “I’m watching ‘Mac’ play the games, he’s getting pushed around, but there’s no retaliation. You can tell that he’s on a mission.”
Cole Harbor is a community in Nova Scotia eight miles north of downtown Halifax. It is normally a place that cheers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, given that it is also the hometown of center Sydney Crosby.
But with the Penguins having been eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, the allegiances have changed, at least for the next couple of weeks. More and more, there are Avalanche flags sprinkled throughout the town in support of MacKinnon, also a Cole Harbor native.
“Hey, I’m cheering for him too,” said Troy Crosby, Sidney’s father. “I would have rather that I could be cheering for the Penguins in the Final, but that didn’t happen. So, I wish [MacKinnon] all the best
“Nathan is Sidney’s neighbor up on the lake, so I’ve gotten to know him pretty well over the years. They’ve become great friends. They’ve filmed Tim Hortons commercials together. He’s a very talented kid. It doesn’t surprise me the community is in his corner. He’s one of ours.”
Jon Greenwood echoed those sentiments. He was one of MacKinnon’s minor hockey coaches and teachers and remembers the boy starring for the AAA Bantam Cole Harbor Wings when he had 145 points as a 13-year-old.
“You can see how much he wants it, and the community wants it too,” Greenwood said in a phone interview from Nova Scotia. “With Nathan in the Final, this area is behind him and the Avalanche. It’s normally a Penguins area for obvious reasons, but now Colorado is the team of choice for the upcoming period.”
During the offseason, Greenwood runs daily skates at an arena that features MacKinnon, Crosby and Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
“They’re friends off the ice, but they really push each other on the ice,” Greenwood said. “At the end of the sessions, when there are puck battles in the corner, those guys are really competitive. There are no friends in those drills.”
Crosby (2009, 2016, 2017) and Marchand (2011) have won the Stanley Cup, something MacKinnon is trying to emulate.
“There’s a bit of chirping about it, but Nathan knows what’s at stake,” Greenwood said. “He doesn’t need the incentive. He’s already very competitive. And he looks like he’s on a mission right now.”
For MacKinnon, having the people of Cole Harbor in his corner, is just another boost to his confidence.
“A lot of Penguins fans there, and rightly so,” he said. “But yeah, there’s always been a lot of support for our team, even when we weren’t doing well. Everyone was so supportive and super nice.
“Obviously I’m not around, I don’t see it, but I hear about it for sure. Hopefully we can make them super proud.”
NHL.com columnists Dave Stubbs and Nicholas J. Cotsonika contributed to this story