Nathan MacKinnon is getting more comfortable playing in the crush of traffic. But once off the ice, the pack of national media descending on a routine Canada Games practice is still a lot for a 15-year-old to deal with.
The hot young forward is the most-watched player on the Nova Scotia squad playing here. He's probably the most-watched athlete in the whole Games. That's what happens when you grow up in minutes from Sidney Crosby's home in Cole Harbour, show great on-ice potential and then go off to shine at the same U.S. school Crosby attended.
In 50 games as an atom player, he totalled 200 points. Playing bantam AAA for two seasons, he put up 110 and then 145 points. At Shattuck-St. Mary's in Minnesota, he is second in scoring among the under-16s.
And there is growing speculation MacKinnon will be chosen first overall in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft.
Parallels with the Pittsburgh Penguins star are unavoidable, and the storyline has proved irresistible. But people close to the teenager say it's too much pressure for a young player to bear.
"It's totally unfair to put a kid in that situation," said Chris Donnelly, who is coaching the Nova Scotia squad at these Games.
"I'm sure if you went back a few years and asked Sidney Crosby if he was the next Wayne Gretzky, he wouldn't have felt too comfortable with that either. I mean, you're talking about one of the most dynamic hockey players in the game. And you're talking about a 15-year-old kid that's still trying to find his way and discover what kind of player he's going to become and what kind of person he's going to be become."
MacKinnon himself sighs a bit when the question comes up. But he's learned to expect it as part of the off-ice attention. And he handles the media attention well, sitting for interviews and stick-handling the inevitable comparisons.
"It's never fun to be compared to the best player in the world, but I guess I take it as a compliment," he said after a recent practice, a Penguins hat jammed backward on his head. "I know I'll never be Sidney Crosby. I just want to play my own game and not his. I don't like to compare myself to him too much, because you can't, he's too good."
He knows that sports history is littered with the stillborn careers of athletes once touted as future superstars. For now he wants to focus on these Games and then go back to school and continue laying the foundation for a professional career.
"He's not afraid to go to dirty areas and that's the biggest thing I've noticed in the growth of his game," said Darren Sutherland, general manager of Team Nova Scotia, who has watched MacKinnon play for years.
"He's a pretty explosive skater and his vision on the ice is very, very good. And also … for being a highly skilled player he's not afraid to play on the boards, not afraid of traffic."
MacKinnon started in a Tim Hortons-sponsored house league and rose steadily through the system in Cole Harbour, a suburb of Halifax.
"He did take to it very quickly," said his mother, Kathy MacKinnon. "He could've [played]seven days a week and not blinked an eye."
Soon enough he was putting up eye-catching numbers.
Tom Ward, the Shattuck-St.Mary's director of hockey, said that MacKinnon has "outstanding" physical skills. But he stressed that the youth is still developing and mustn't let hype turn his head.
"He needs to go sweat a few more buckets of sweat," Ward said. "As long as he stays hard-working and humble and keeps his nose in the dirt and doesn't read the paper, he can be a good player."