When Nathan MacKinnon hears his name called from the stage of Newark's Prudential Center at the NHL draft on Sunday, it will mark the end of a long, long wait. Whether he goes early—or whether he goes first—makes little difference to the 17-year-old center. He is simply looking forward to the moment when the speculation, hype and uncertainty will finally be over.
"People have been talking about my draft since I was 14 years old; it's been pretty constant," MacKinnon says. "So it's going to be cool when I just kind of get to start my career.... I'm not doing prom or graduation. My whole life, I've been thinking about June 30, 2013."
Such is the plight of MacKinnon, a prodigy out of Nova Scotia who was touted as the next Sidney Crosby when he was just a freshman in high school. Those lofty expectations were easy to pin on MacKinnon because he was an exceptional talent, but they also came naturally because he hails from Cole Harbour (pop. 25,161), Crosby's hometown. So is there something in the water of the Halifax suburb that helped it to produce an NHL superstar—the No. 1 selection in the 2005 draft—and another potential top pick within eight years? "I don't know," MacKinnon said last week. "Good pH levels, maybe?"
MacKinnon grew up idolizing the Penguins' captain. He had Crosby posters on his wall, a Crosby biography on his bookshelf, even an old photograph in a frame on his dresser that he had taken with a 15-year-old Crosby when MacKinnon's father, Graham, recognized the teenage phenom in the Halifax airport one day. Nathan was seven at the time. "Sid was my role model growing up," MacKinnon says. "I looked at him and said, If he can do it, maybe I can do it as well. He paved the way for kids from small towns who wonder if they can make it."
With Crosby as his inspiration, MacKinnon followed the same path to the cusp of NHL stardom: through Cole Harbour's youth leagues and, when he was 14, on to Shattuck--St. Mary's, the Faribault, Minn., boarding school that has helped develop a handful of NHL stars, including Crosby and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. In 2011, MacKinnon left Shattuck--St. Mary's for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he, like Crosby, impressed everyone with his speed and skill. In 2011--12, his first season, he scored 78 points in 58 games, leading the Halifax Mooseheads to the semifinal of the President's Cup and earning the No. 1 ranking from the NHL's Central Scouting service.
But following Crosby also meant living in the long shadow he cast. "At first I didn't know how to handle it," MacKinnon says. "I hated it. It's tough to live up to those expectations, and I was only a little kid at the time."
He's not exactly all grown up now—at 179 pounds he is still filling out his 5'11" frame—but MacKinnon has learned to deal with the constant comparisons with Crosby. "I knew I wouldn't be [compared with Crosby] if I were from Toronto, Moncton or anywhere else, but it's just the way it goes," he says. "I just realized I'm my own player, and I'm trying to be the best I can be. I think the worst thing you can do is try to be as good as him and do the same things as him. I don't think I'd be where I am if I tried to do that."
The adjustment has been made easier in part because MacKinnon now considers Crosby a friend. They've skated together in Cole Harbour during the off-season and share an agent, Pat Brisson, and a trainer, Andy O'Brien. MacKinnon got a text from his hero last month after he led the Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup, the coveted championship for Canadian junior hockey—and one trophy Crosby never got to lift.
Fittingly, the final pitted the Mooseheads against the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks and star defenseman Seth Jones, who had eclipsed MacKinnon midway through the season as the top prospect in the game, according to the NHL's scouting service. Jones, a native of Arlington, Texas, and son of former NBA star Popeye Jones, enjoyed a stellar rookie year, scoring 56 points in 61 games, and in January he led Team USA to the gold medal at the World Juniors tournament in Ufa, Russia. (MacKinnon and Team Canada finished fourth.) At 6'4" and 205 pounds, the smooth-skating blueliner had quickly become the talk of the hockey world.