I told Nathan MacKinnon Friday he would hate the question, but I was going to ask it, anyway.
Do you feel like you’re becoming more of a celebrity in this market?
“In Colorado?” he asked, then chuckled. “No, I don’t. I go to eat and nobody knows who I am. I go to the grocery store and no one knows who I am.”
This was after the Avalanche reconvened following its five-day bye and practiced at Family Sports Center before heading to the airport to travel to Dallas for a Saturday game against the Stars.
At that point of his answer, MacKinnon made it clear he wasn’t complaining.
“It’s great, though,” he continued. “Back in Halifax, it’s very different. In Halifax, when you go to eat or go to the grocery store, people want pictures or your autograph or whatever it is. That’s fine. But it’s nice here to just kind of be part of the community and not be too much of a celebrity. I guess, hopefully, it picks up if we keep winning games and we get more fans coming to the games.”
Timeout: The Avalanche has been here 22 years, through glory years and regression, and the area has become a youth hockey hotbed. Even before that, Colorado’s hockey history — while not overflowing with financial successes on the professional level — was deep-rooted. So to portray this as a place where hockey players toil in obscurity would be unfair, misguided and aggravating.
But we all know what MacKinnon meant, and his answer was about what I expected.
The Avalanche is trying to win its way back into the forefront of the area sports market, and if that means progress will be when a 22-year-old center from Nova Scotia is asked to pose for a picture as he eats at an Italian bistro in Cherry Creek, so be it.
The overlap of both: a) MacKinnon’s sudden, light-comes-on transformation from flashy, yet maddeningly inconsistent, to elite play; and b) the Avalanche’s startling single-season improvement and high entertainment quotient, are not coincidental.
Yes, people are talking about both him and his team. Again. They have skated back into the radar of the general sports fan, those who rode along during the glory years and now might need a refresher about that kid from Finland skating on MacKinnon’s line.
Right now, the red-hot MacKinnon is the big story. And, frankly, also the easy one for those who are coming off breaking down the quarterback situation either every day — or every 11 minutes.
Some inside stuff: I’ve written tons about MacKinnon since the Avalanche drafted him in 2013, and some of the links are below here. As general sports fans start paying more attention, the trick will be to write with them more in mind, too, even as the hockey-first fans wonder just how many darned times we have to point out that he was the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, but wasn’t billed as a generational phenom, making the delay for his breakout at least less shocking.
The thing that is unchanged, though, is that he’s still a guy from Nova Scotia. Minus airs, including when I opened the pack interview with MacKinnon after practice Friday by asking his reaction to being named to the Central Division All-Star team this week.
“It’s cool,” he said. “I went last year and I didn’t really feel like I deserved to go last year I know they have to take someone from each team, so that’s why I went. This year, I feel like I deserve it. I feel like I earned an all-star selection, along with lots of other guys on this team that I think deserved a chance as well. I’m obviously very honored and excited to represent the Avs.”
I asked him if this was an additional validation of his breakout season.
“Along with everyone else, I’m just trying to get better every day,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do to be the best player I can be, and it’s a nice honor. That’s all it is.”
Then I asked if he cares, notices, embraces the attention he’s getting from around the league.
“Yeah,” he said. “I think just because I’ve always been used to it from my draft year and my first year in the league especially. Then obviously these last few years, the attention’s gone away. But I don’t really notice anything different. It’s easy when you’re just trying to make the playoffs. With team success comes individual success for everybody.”
MacKinnon said he and his girlfriend spent the bye break at Jackson Hole. “There’s lots of cool wildlife,” he said. “I don’t want to get soft over the break in LA or anything, so I went to where it’s snowy.”
He took advantage of the break, without really caring for it.
“I’d rather have a less compressed schedule,” he said. “Guys have different opinions, but I’d rather have more days of during the season than have five days off in a row. We have 16 games in March. I don’t know the point of it. Guys like it, it was nice to get a vacation for sure, I would just rather keep going, especially the way we’re playing. We won five straight.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar surveyed the large group for availability and then, almost on automatic pilot, answered a familiar question about MacKinnon’s breakout. I’ve asked a variation of the same question several times since November, so I’m not knocking it. But it’s becoming familiar, and I asked Bednar if it’s a good sign that he’s getting the same questions about MacKinnon.
“I think it’s a great sign,” he said. “I mean, I know we’ve talked about it now for a couple of months now. The early articles were why can’t we see this every night. Now we’re starting to see it every night and I think he’s starting to make a believer out of all of us. We know he’s starting to become the player everyone hoped he would be.
“I’ve touched on it. It’s a matter of time for him because of his drive and his passion and his desire to be the best.”
After its bye, the Avalanche has played the fewest games — 41 — in the NHL, so its sinking back into seventh place in the Central Division this week wasn’t alarming.
Minnesota, fifth in the Central, is in the second Western Conference wild-card spot and leads Colorado by three points. But the Avalanche has three games in hand on the Wild.
The bye is over. And Nathan MacKinnon and his teammates hope to pick up where they left off.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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