BSN Exclusive: Inside the mind of the NHL’s fastest-rising superstar

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Credit: Ron Chenoy, USA TODAY Sports

DENVER — He doesn't read anything about himself. Nothing. He won't read this story about him. Even if he were to see himself on the cover of a magazine, he wouldn't pick it up. He has a Twitter account, but he doesn’t look at it at all during a season. The last time he did anything on it was Aug. 25, retweeting something from Conor McGregor.

He never cooks. Like, never never. He has an account with the food delivery service, Postmates, and he might be their biggest customer in Denver. That is, when he isn’t out on the town or when his mother, Kathy, and father, Graham, aren’t in town to spend time with him, which is fairly often.

He still loves Hip-Hop music and fashion, but the channel most likely to be played now on the Sirius XM radio in his car?

Believe it or not, it’s number 92 - the PGA Tour channel.

“Golf has become one of my biggest passions. I love it, I’m obsessed with it. It’s like the hockey channel talking hockey, but they’re talking golf,” Nathan MacKinnon says, taking some time with BSN Denver after a recent Colorado Avalanche practice. “That’s how I unwind in the car driving back and forth from the rink.”

Now for maybe the biggest surprise about MacKinnon and golf: He never played the sport until coming to the Avs as a rookie in 2014, but he’s already a 5-handicap. His hockey career should last a good while longer, but don’t be shocked if, when he hangs up the skates for good, he tries to make a run at the actual PGA Tour.

“Hey, you never know,” MacKinnon says with a laugh. “In the summer, I play every day at 5 p.m. I carry my own bag, too.”

You know what else MacKinnon has been carrying lately? That would be the Avalanche offense. Entering Thursday’’s game in Los Angeles, the 22-year-old center had four goals and six points in the previous three games. In the 13 games MacKinnon and Matt Duchene played fully together, the native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, had 10 points (three goals). In the 20 full games he’s played since Duchene was traded to Ottawa, MacKinnon has 29 points (12 goals).

With the Duchene distraction no longer hovering around the Avs’ dressing room, it’s been a different scene, especially at MacKinnon’s locker. He seems looser, more relaxed. While he’s quick to defer to the team’s actual captain, Gabe Landeskog, this seems more like his team now, his locker room. No more walking on eggshells.

After taking this town by storm in a Calder Trophy-winning 2013-14 season as an 18-year-old, the tidal wave receded the following three seasons. His point-per-game average dropped from .77 as a rookie to .59., then .72 and .65. Now, it’s well over one point a game. He has scored some jaw-dropping goals along the way, including an overtime winner in Detroit that fairly flashed like lightning from his stick to the net, and a multi-deke, rooftop job on James Reimer in Florida a couple weeks ago that made everyone look silly. He scored the only two goals in another win over Reimer and the Florida Panthers at home last week, and Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, he made Sidney Crosby look like a bull charging at a red cape with a late-game deke-and-assist to salt a victory away.

But, getting back to the start of this story, if there is one thing MacKinnon learned from those early days, it’s not to buy into any hype surrounding him.

“When I was 18, it was easy to get ahead of myself,” he said. “You drink the Kool-Aid a little bit. You ride the wave of scoring goals and getting points and stuff. I think, for me now, my maturity is rising. I’m not drinking any Kool-Aid.”

MacKinnon’s closest friend on the team is defenseman Tyson Barrie. They frequently carpool together, and Barrie has noticed subtle changes in him since coming to the Avs as a much-hyped, No. 1 overall pick from the Halifax Mooseheads. For one thing, MacKinnon is more independent (the Postmates/no cooking thing excluded). He was a teenager when he first came to the Avs, living his first two years in the basement of older teammates Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Max Talbot. Now, he owns two houses - one in Denver and a bigger one on the water back home in Cole Harbour. His neighbor just a couple houses down is good friend and still the more famous Cole Harbour native, Sidney Crosby.

“There’s been a lot of growth with him,” Barrie said. “He’s always been a great player, he’s always been super-skilled and I think you saw that right off the hop when he was 18 and won the Calder Trophy and kind of set the league on fire. We’ve gone through some tough years here and we’ve all felt it, and I think he felt it. I think he’s taken a really big step this year with his leadership and maturity. You can really tell, on the ice, that he’s really starting to become a superstar.”

Hockey-wise, it seems like MacKinnon’s mind is now in better sync with his body. He used to try and blow by everyone, especially off to the side (and, playing right wing much of the time as he did, that explains some of it). But now, as a pure center again, he’s developed more of a curl-back move. He would curl back before, but now he does it deeper in the offensive zone, giving him more ice to survey and more teammates to look for on the attack. He’s become a better playmaker because of it, while still remaining a high shot producer and goal-scorer.

“I’m just trying to attack through the (faceoff) dots. I don’t want to be on the outside that much,” MacKinnon said. “I want to be in the middle of the ice, so I can pass on both sides. It’s tough when you get stuck on the wall. I’ll delay when I see the D’s feet turn toward his own goalie, then I’ll delay, so I know I have time. But I want to take it to the net. That’s when I feel like I’m my most dangerous, when I’m in full attack mode, being aggressive. When I’m being passive, passing up shots, that’s kind of when I feel I’m not at my best.”

It’s hard to believe MacKinnon is actually one of the Avs with the most seniority on the club, yet he’s still only been legally allowed to drink in public for a year. He’s still a couple years younger than the average player age on the team. But that’s closer in age than the four previous Avs teams he played on, teams that had several players in their mid-to-late 30s.

It’s a locker room now filled with players that have more in common, MacKinnon says it’s made a difference.

“There’s no cliques in here. Everyone is pretty much 19 to 26. We’re tight. Everyone gets along great,” he said.

This Avs team, MacKinnon says, does more together as a group away from the ice. Whereas groups or two or three guys might go out to dinner on the road, it’s not uncommon for 10 or more to head out, and checks are picked up by everyone through the “credit card game” - where everybody puts their plastic in a hat and someone pulls them out one by one, until the last one remaining gets stuck with the bill. If a rookie making the league minimum gets stuck with the check, though? Chances are, you’ll see a MacKinnon or a Landeskog or an Erik Johnson give them a break and help out. Rookies, after all, already have to pay for one big team meal during the season, as part of NHL hazing tradition.

“Whether you’re making $10 million or $500,000, everyone should be treated the same, with respect. It’s important,” MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon is the Avs’ highest-paid player (a cap hit of $6.3 million) and he’s signed through 2022-23. The way he’s playing, he might already be a bit underpaid. Then again, he’ll only be 28 when his current contract expires. Which brings up the question of money. Has it changed him at all, MacKinnon is asked?

“No. I haven’t changed since I was 15,” he says. “I’m still the same stubborn guy as ever. I don’t think about it. Obviously, you get your paychecks, you get your money and it’s nice. I mean, it’s nice to get paid lots of money. But after a bad game, you’re not thinking, ‘oh well, I made this much.’ You’re still rattled like you were when you were in junior.”

Indeed, MacKinnon is not fun to be around after losses. He’ll sometimes slam his locker door before stomping off to the showers, and he can be acidic to reporters who ask dumb questions after such games. On the day after the Avs’ opening-night victory, in New York against the Rangers in which MacKinnon didn’t do much, coach Jared Bednar spent a lot of time at practice in New Jersey talking to him one-on-one.

“It was about not getting frustrated,” Bednar said recently. “Part of his development started last year, learning to play against teams’ top players every night. For a while, I think it frustrated him, and then he kind of moved past it. It’s a tough task because you see the other teams’ best D every night. But what I really like his game is, generally, he’s not letting the little details slip. He’s defending hard, he’s coming back to the right spots, he’s being physical in the D-zone and in turn getting some transition chances.”

Most of all, MacKinnon just wants to help bring the Avs back to relevance again. Believe it or not, he says he still doesn’t get recognized much around Denver. For a guy who doesn’t care what’s written or said about him, that’s OK in one sense but not OK in important other ways.

MacKinnon will gladly sacrifice some of his privacy and anonymity if the price is being the best player on the best team in town. And, he’ll gladly sacrifice some of his golf handicap if it means having to spend more time on the ice next spring.

“There’s nothing better than winning, and nothing worse than losing,” he said.

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