Being an underage player with Team Atlantic is only one element that Nathan MacKinnon has to overcome at the 2011 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
There’s also the inevitable comparisons to a certain Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medallist that shares MacKinnon’s hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S.
"It is flattering to be compared to him, but it is pretty big shoes to fill," MacKinnon says of Sidney Crosby, who grew up just around the corner from the MacKinnon family in the Halifax suburb.
The similarities between the two are obvious – both played minor hockey in the Cole Harbour system, both have spent time at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a U.S. prep hockey factory in Faribault, Minn., and both made U17 teams as underagers; Crosby captained Nova Scotia as a 15-year-old at the 2003 Canada Winter Games, while MacKinnon is leading Atlantic in scoring through three games.
For MacKinnon, following in Crosby’s footsteps to Shattuck has benefited his game; the 15-year-old feels like he has improved on his decision making during games, learning to react to different situations on the ice. He says it was the strength of the program and the alumni, which include the last two Stanley Cup-winning captains, Crosby and Jonathan Toews, that motivated him to move 2,400 kilometres from home to chase his hockey dreams.
He starred last year for Shattuck’s Bantam Tier I team, putting up 101 points (54 goals, 47 assists) in 58 games, helping the Sabres reach the semifinals at the U.S. national championship, and has 41 points (22 goals, 19 assists) at the Christmas break for the school’s U16 team this season.
U16 head coach Christian Bragnalo says that MacKinnon’s strengths in skating and competitiveness are a "dangerous combination" for his competitors, but it is too early to compare him to Crosby. Although Bragnalo never coached Crosby, he says, "there is no doubt that Nate is a dynamic character, just like Sid."
John Lafontaine, who coached MacKinnon last year in Bantam, says it would be "unfair to put Nate under that kind of pressure" of comparing him to Crosby. He does say that MacKinnon has great potential and is stronger on his skates than almost any other player that he has coached at that age.
MacKinnon agrees that his greatest strength as a player is his skating, a skill he has been working on since he was young. MacKinnon’s father, Graham, says that he first put him in hockey skates when he was two years old and "he just took off on the skates, running on the ice."
The second youngest Canadian player at the U17 tournament – only Quebec’s Jérémy Grégoire is younger, by just four days – MacKinnon says he won’t be thinking about his age when he steps on the ice in Winnipeg, just taking advantage of a "great learning experience."
His coach at Shattuck is confident that MacKinnon will stand out at the tournament, even as an underage player, and there’s a simple reason why.
"There is no secret to why he is a good player," says Bragnalo. "He works hard at it."