How Nathan MacKinnon came to personify 'all-in'
If you want to see someone all-in on trying to win a championship, look no further than Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon. Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP.

This was a very different Nathan MacKinnon than the one who stands before us today. This was a man struggling to find pride in his organization and wondering about his own place in the game.

“Bet you guys probably didn’t think an Avalanche was going to be here,” MacKinnon quipped as he stepped in front of reporters during the 2017 NHL all-star weekend in Los Angeles.

That moment of candour revealed a lot about his competitive fire and now serves as evidence that five years is basically an eternity in pro sports. Both player and team have shot into the stratosphere ever since.

And as the Stanley Cup Final opens Wednesday night in Denver, the truth is we all thought the Avalanche would be here. They were an extremely popular pre-season pick back in September and have been among the betting-line favourites all year long. They remain favourites for the final best-of-seven even after drawing Tampa Bay, the two-time defending Cup champions.

Colorado is averaging 4.64 goals per game during these playoffs and sits four wins away from completing a worst-to-first climb since MacKinnon sheepishly made his appearance in a packed conference room at the JW Marriott LA Live.

That was a low point for the Avalanche organization. It appeared lost at sea. The team finished the 2016-17 season with just 48 points – 21 behind the next-worst finisher! – and saw the losing continue in the draft lottery with New Jersey, Philadelphia and Dallas all leapfrogging them thanks to better bounces from the ping-pong balls.

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The all-star weekend where MacKinnon reluctantly flew his team’s burgundy and steel blue coincided with the NHL’s centennial celebrations and included a gala event where the Top 100 players of all-time were unveiled.

“Hopefully the [draft] pick we get this year will be in the Top 100 as well,” said MacKinnon, while not sounding overly convinced.

As fate would have it, he’ll probably be a candidate the next time that kind of list is compiled.

Cale Makar became the “reward” for a lost season after Nico Hischier (Devils), Nolan Patrick (Flyers) and Miro Heiskanen (Stars) were called to the draft stage ahead of him – something we can look back on now as a moment where Colorado’s fortunes shifted dramatically.

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic did his part, too, turning an unhappy Matt Duchene into Bowen Byram and Samuel Girard and then plucking Nazem Kadri from Toronto for Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. He unearthed huge value by signing Valeri Nichushkin after his buyout from Dallas and got increasingly aggressive with trades, adding Andre Burakovsky, Devon Toews, Darcy Kuemper, Artturi Lehkonen, Josh Manson and Andrew Cogliano in separate deals.

Then there was the explosion in MacKinnon’s game. He’s blossomed into a superstar these last five years and left no stone unturned in his pursuit of greatness – working out with hometown-hero-turned-close-friend Sidney Crosby each summer, moving a performance rehabilitation specialist to Denver for daily treatments in-season, committing himself to a strict diet and working with a sports psychologist.

If you want to see someone all-in on trying to win a championship, look no further than No. 29.

Part of what makes the Stanley Cup Final so compelling is it represents the culmination of a long journey. It’s also an incredibly rare opportunity, even if Pat Maroon and the Lightning might entice us to ignore that fact by stubbornly returning year after year after year.

Beyond Tampa, no other team has reached the NHL’s final series multiple times since 2017.

The Avalanche knocked at the door for half a decade before blowing it right off the hinges this spring. Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton were completely overmatched while seeing Colorado blaze into the Final with a 12-2 record.

Makar has been the team’s best player, logging 27 minutes of ice per night and forever playing downhill, while MacKinnon has delivered several big moments while scoring 11 times in 14 games.

They are the fastest team in every track meet and that speed could pose a serious challenge for the Lightning.

“They’re the best team in the West,” Oilers GM Ken Holland said after getting swept out of the conference final. “They won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, and they’ve been good for two to three years now. They’ve been building to be good.”

 It was anything but easy.

Erik Johnson, currently the longest-tenured athlete in Denver sports with 12 years under his belt, brought up that disastrous 2016-17 season with reporters on Tuesday afternoon. He noted that only a handful of players from that roster remain – himself, MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog.

“Some guys wanted out, some guys wanted a fresh start and that was their right, but we all wanted to stick together and try and get it done,” said Johnson.

MacKinnon made that abundantly clear at that time.

As openly frustrated as he was during that memorable all-star weekend media session, he was also adamant about not wanting to be traded. Even after labelling his own team “fragile,” he said: “I want to stay in Colorado and figure this thing out.”

“I mean it could be a blessing,” MacKinnon added that day. “Eventually, I will make the playoffs and I’ll be on a winning team; hopefully in Colorado that will happen for us.

“I’m not going to take it for granted again.”

You can be sure he’s savouring every bit of this now. 

We’ve all been expecting to see MacKinnon on this stage, but only he understands how hard it was to get here.

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