Nearly two decades later, McKinnon has racked up four victories from fulfilling his avalanche dream.
Although the 26-year-old never had the opportunity to play for Sakic, the Hockey Hall of Fame forward was the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations for Colorado when he picked him up with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Nine years later, he became The kid on the hockey card and his childhood idol is about to get something special.
Colorado will host the first of its Best 7 Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Ball Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).
“It’s fantastic,” McKinnon said Tuesday during the final media day of the 2022 Stanley Cup. “I hope it happens. I think it’s every child’s dream to be in this situation.”
In his first eight seasons of the National Hockey League, McKinnon and Avalanche never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. There was a different account of this postseason; Colorado is 12-2, with consecutive victories over the Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Edmonton Oilers.
The toughest test begins on Wednesday when Avalanche faces the two-time champion Lightning. Although he smiled on Tuesday when his childhood card was pointed out, McKinnon said there would be time for such nostalgia after achieving the trophy-winning goal.
“I’m not trying to fall into the trap of all this,” he said. “This is a whole new series. Whether it’s the first round or the final, we are playing with one team in this play-off round. I think we have to narrow our focus, stay in the present, prepare for just tomorrow night and go from there.”
By all accounts, McKinnon is ready, especially with the disappointments of years past still remaining. When the avalanche favorite was defeated by the Vegas Golden Knights in six games in the second round last season, his frustration finally faded.
“There’s always next year,” McKinnon said then. “Everything we talk about, I feel it. I mean, I’m going into my ninth year next year and I haven’t won [anything]So I’m definitely excited.”
After speaking of words, he definitely walked down that path. McKinnon averaged 1.35 points per game with 88 (32 goals, 56 assists) in 65 games during the 2021-22 regular season and followed it up with 18 (11 goals, seven assists) in 14 playoffs. All the while, he’s taken for granted that he’s become a more complete player, focusing so much on playing him in his own territory.
It was a twist on MacKinnon who jumped to Wayne Gretzky, the all-time NHL scorer who was part of TNT’s on-site coverage of the Western Conference Final between Avalanche and the Oilers.
“The first thing you notice is its speed,” Gretsky said. “He’s very fast. He obviously has superb offensive skills, but what we really noticed, and we covered on the broadcast, was how aware he really was of defensive play.
“He’s never bluffed the puck, so he’s always third man. So his commitment to playing on the other side of the puck, I think his teammates liked that more than they liked his offensive skills. His offensive skills are very good, so he’s good.”
The Lightning team adopted the nickname “The Tampa Bay Whatever-It-Takes” during their third consecutive championship run. Colorado coach Jared Bednar said he’s seen the same trait in the McKinnon game this season.
“I think the evolution of what Nate has done in these qualifying is he didn’t put a lot of weight on his shoulders to be the most productive guy,” Bednar said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to win, and I think he sacrificed a bit of his game for what’s best for the team. He’s taken the big checking roles in all of our series, trying to win those games knowing that we have the depth to win the games below him. So It’s the biggest mission out there, and he’s beating those matches and still doing an amazing job on the checking side. So, that’s growth for him.
“For me, he’s focused on keeping the puck out of our net and then still turning. I think maybe in the past years, you know, he put a lot of pressure on himself to make sure he’s the difference-maker on the offensive side of things. So, he understands where to go. Our team has arrived. Really good growth in his game. I loved his playoffs so far.”
Who is number 1?
Patrick Roy has asked a question that will change avalanche fortunes for more than a decade.
It was the spring of 2013 and they were holding meetings to discuss the candidates to choose from with the best selection in the next draft.
“I remember Nate McKinnon’s draft, I was so lucky that Joe was so 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 Hall of Fame hockey goalkeeper, who played for the Colorado team when they won the Cup in 1996 and 2001, had just been appointed as the coach of the Avalanche on May 23. He has served the previous eight seasons as the Quebec coach and general manager for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had coached against McKinnon, who had 75 points (32 goals, 43 assists) in 44 games for Halifax during the 2012-13 season.
McKinnon followed up to wow scouts and fans alike by leading his budding team to the Memorial Cup with 13 points (seven goals and six assists) in four games. In the process, he showed the kind of flair Roy believed Colorado needed.
So, he set the record straight for Sakic.
“These others, they are very good hockey players, but McKinnon was a star,” Roy said. “I said to Joe, ‘What do you want, do you want to bring people into the building or just have a very good hockey player? “
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It didn’t take long for Sakic and the avalanche to come up with an answer. McKinnon was the choice.
“He’s probably right,” said Sakic, now general manager, with a chuckle Tuesday about Roy’s analysis. “From the moment he enters the league, he can wow you and make you jump out of your seat for sure.
“He’s got great speed, explosive speed, and not just speed. He’s a very strong guy and nobody wants him more than him. He’s a real competitor and that’s what you get from him. We remember, he’s like, you want to win, but you also have to want to be entertained.”
Since 2013, McKinnon has ranked sixth in the NHL in the regular season with 648 points (242 goals, 406 assists) in 638 games, all with avalanche. Barkov, who was picked by Florida as second place, is 25th in that period with 553 points (220 goals, 333 assists) in 596 games. Jones, picked by Nashville as fourth, is 19th in goal-scoring among defenders since the 2013 draft with 337 points (70 goals and 267 assists) in 658 games with the Predators, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blackhawks.
“I think these three players had a great career,” said Sakic. “But he was the only changer who could entertain the fans as well. We are very fortunate to have Nathan on our squad.”
Roy, who has returned to coach Quebec, agrees with what he saw of MacKinnon in the post-season.
“McKinnon, when he’s riding his horse, when he’s flying, oh my God, it’s fun to watch,” Roy said. “I’m watching ‘Mac’ playing games, he’s being pushed, but there’s no retaliation. You could tell he’s on a mission.”
Cole Harbor is a community in Nova Scotia eight miles north of downtown Halifax. It is usually a place to cheer for the Penguins of Pittsburgh, since it is also the birthplace of the Center Sidney Crosby.
But with the penguins eliminated in the first round by the New York Rangers, allegiances shifted, at least for the next two weeks. Avalanche flags are flying more and more throughout the city in support of McKinnon, who is also a citizen of Cole Harbor.
“Hi, I cheer him up too,” said Troy Crosby, Sydney’s father. “I would have preferred to cheer the Penguins in the final, but that didn’t happen. So, I hope [MacKinnon] All the best.
“Nathan is Sydney’s neighbor on the lake, so I’ve gotten to know him really well over the years. They’ve become great friends. Together they filmed Tim Hortons commercials. He’s a very talented kid. It surprised me that the community is in his corner. He’s one of us.”
John Greenwood echoed those sentiments. He was one of McKinnon’s junior hockey coaches and mentors and remembers the boy who starred in the AAA Bantam Cole Harbor Wings when he had 145 points when he was 13 years old.
“You can see how much he wants it, and society wants it too,” Greenwood said in a phone interview from Nova Scotia. “With Nathan in the final, this is the area behind him and the avalanche appeared. It’s usually the Penguins area for obvious reasons, but now Colorado is the favorite team for the next period.”
During the holiday season, Greenwood runs daily skates at a circuit that includes striker McKinnon, Crosby and Boston Bruins. Brad Marchand.
“They are friends far from the ice, but they are pushing each other on the ice,” Greenwood said. “At the end of sessions, when there are puck fights in the corner, these guys are really competitive. There are no friends in those drills.”
Crosby (2009, 2016, 2017) and Marchand (2011) won the Stanley Cup, something McKinnon is trying to emulate.
“There’s a little bit of chirping about that, but Nathan knows what’s at stake,” Greenwood said. “He doesn’t need the motivation. He’s really very competitive. He looks like he’s on a mission now.”
For McKinnon, having the people of Cole Harbor on his corner is just another boost to his confidence.
“There are a lot of Penguins fans out there, and rightly so,” he said. “But yes, there was always a lot of support for our team, even when we weren’t doing well. Everyone was very supportive and very kind.
“Obviously I’m not around, I don’t see it, but I definitely hear about it. I hope we make them very proud.”
NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs and Nicholas J. Cotsonika contributed to this story.