True Star: Nathan MacKinnon shines brightest in Denver

Mar 13, 2018; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon (29) celebrates his goal in the third period against Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Stars shine.

By their very definition, that’s what they do. On Saturday night, Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon lit up Denver – all the way from Calgary. That’s how bright he shined.

Come to think of it, MacKinnon is the Colorado’s brightest star. He’s also youngest and rising fastest. But the thing is, there’s no denying he’s a star. There’s no “he will be.” There’s no “he’s got the potential.” There’s no “just give him time.”

At the tender age of 23, he is. Already.

Perhaps more interesting – or ironic, maybe – is that he’s a star in sport that’s largely devoid of stars. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of great hockey players – there are. It’s just that the culture and strategy of the sport practically prohibit any kind of “look at me” mentality. In the NBA and NFL, that sort of thing is more or less the norm; if the stars aren’t promoting themselves with every dunk, flex or celebration dance, the teams, leagues and shoe companies will do it for them. In hockey, if you’re a noticeable star, you’ve unquestionably earned it.

And it’s not that Nathan MacKinnon is showy. He’s not a self-promoter by any means. It’s just that you simply can’t take your eyes off the kid when he’s on the ice.

I have a theory as to why the NHL is fourth among the “Big 4” sports in terms of popularity, and it’s not because the game is any worse or less exciting. It’s a great game to watch, but, in most games, the average fan can’t easily identify which player on the ice is the best. A trained eye most certainly can, but the average fan can’t sit down, watch two teams play and confidently say, “See there, that guy – No. ‘XX’ – he’s the best player in this game.” By nature of the sport, it’s just not as easy to tell. Skaters are on and off the ice. The puck doesn’t stay with one player for long (not like basketball, for example) and there’s no dead time for an announcer to talk about the same player who gets opportunities to make plays all game long over and over (say, Tom Brady, who takes the snap on every offensive play, making it easy to explain who he is and what he’s doing). Statistics in hockey don’t jump off the scoreboard like they do in other sports.

In actuality, these are all good things – probably a reason many hockey fans like hockey. It’s just that the game doesn’t cultivate or promote its stars easily.

In hockey, if you stand out, it’s because you’re really, really good. And MacKinnon is. He’s faster. He’s shiftier. He scores more. Even for a hockey layman, he’s doing things that are noticeably “better” – call them “different” – than most anyone on the ice.

I once watched Alexander Ovechkin play at Pepsi Center early in his career. The hype surrounding him was unusual, so I had to go see for myself. But in that particular game, it wasn’t easy to tell he was that good. Just one of those games; neither the puck nor many offensive opportunities found him that night. I watched Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan play in person several times, too. Not once was there any confusion as to who the best player on the floor was on those nights. Anyone could tell. That’s not to say either scenario is good or bad, it’s just how the games and their respective stars are different.

And that’s why MacKinnon is so special. Because you can tell.

The Denver star who entered Saturday night with the most attention was Nikola Jokic. When Saturday night was over, MacKinnon was the one being labeled a star.

MacKinnon scored one of the most clutch goals in Avalanche history. It was the only one, and it came in overtime. But that one instance – a blink of an eye really – still has people talking.

Jokic, conversely, had a “nice” game – on paper. He posted yet another triple-double (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists), his 13th on the season. But for those who watched, his impact on the game was debatable. Ten points weren’t enough. And they didn’t arrive when they were needed most. “Clutch” – doing the biggest thing in the biggest moment – is one of the key ingredients to being a star.

MacKinnon was clutch in the game’s defining moment. Jokic was not. The Avalanche won. The Nuggets lost. The Nuggets needed a star. The Avalanche got one.

MacKinnon won’t win a Q-score ranking, not even amongst Denver athletes. That only means that significantly fewer people follow hockey than they NFL football. Von Miller – unquestionably a star for all the same reasons MacKinnon is – would rank higher when it comes to sheer popularity; so might Jokic, for that matter.

But today, heading into Game 3 with the Avalanche-Flames round-one series tied at 1-1 – largely because of his heroics on Saturday night – MacKinnon is the biggest star in Denver.

I remember a night, looking up in the sky and seeing a sea of stars, but there was one that shined brightest. Turns out, it was actually a planet. The point, is, though, you couldn’t “not” notice it. I still remember that night; you just don’t forget the shiniest.

And I won’t forget MacKinnon’s overtime winner, either. I’m not sure I’d go with the old cliché “a star was born” because he already was one.

It’s just that MacKinnon shined so damn bright. That’s what stars do.

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