Crosby, MacKinnon Making Cole Harbour Proud
COLE HARBOUR, Nova Scotia -- The sun rose here a little after 7:30 a.m. on a peaceful Sunday, though its effect was blunted by a cloudy morning.
There are as many signs for deer crossings near the actual harbor as there are for speed limits, something that might someday save the life of the four-point buck that had wondered into a front yard on Davies Lane just before sunrise.
First impressions of Cole Harbour probably aren't much different than most towns this size, a little more than 25,000 residents, in any part of Canada.
The welcome sign is in the shadow of the Walmart. There are several Tim Hortons and a grocery store that advertises exclusive access to Schwartz's famous smoked meat.
There is enough elevation around to provide sweeping vistas of trees splashed with every shade of red, orange and yellow leaves that make this time of year so beautiful in this corner of the world. Those trees are everywhere, save for the places human development or a body of water don't allow them.
What separates Cole Harbour from neighboring communities, or any of this size in Canada, is one of this country's most precious commodities. In the currency of hockey players, Cole Harbour has few equals.
That welcome sign is a tourist attraction. It says, "Welcome to Cole Harbour, home of Sidney Crosby." Being home to possibly the best hockey player of his generation made Cole Harbour a cultural novelty, much in the way Brantford and Parry Sound, Ontario, are known to hockey fans beyond Canada's borders as the places Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr grew up.
One hockey prodigy from a town this size is noteworthy, but certainly not unprecedented. Then Nathan MacKinnon came along, and for the second time in eight years, the first player selected in the NHL Draft came from this town named after a small, shallow harbor in Nova Scotia.
The two prides of Cole Harbour will face each other for the first time Monday night when MacKinnon's Colorado Avalanche play Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2, ROOT).
"It is an incredible feat. Two first overall picks is mind-boggling," said Cam Russell, who grew up in Cole Harbour, played parts of 10 seasons in the NHL and is now the general manager of the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), the team MacKinnon played for the past two seasons.
"Nobody knows how to explain it. You've got a very humble community that doesn't want to take any of the accolades for it, but you've got players like Sidney and Nathan that are special, special kids, and it is in them to be the best at what they do, that determination and competitive fire. They have the world-class skill, but it is tough to get there without the right people around you and helping you out. There's a lot of people in Cole Harbour who have never gotten the pats on the back for helping all of us out."
MacKinnon's bedroom was adorned in Crosby memorabilia, and he was garnering attention at the Atom level when Sid the Kid was becoming the youngest player in NHL history to score 100 points in a season.
When Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008, MacKinnon had scored 110 points in 50 games as a 12-year old playing up a level in Bantam, just as Crosby had before him.
It wasn't random coincidence that led MacKinnon to Shattuck-Saint Mary's, a prep school in Minnesota that Crosby helped make famous. While MacKinnon has never been shy about his adoration for Crosby, the pressure of being compared to a generational talent isn't something most pre-teen hockey players have to deal with.
"I think the fortunate part for our town is, we always said this about Sid, but he's a better person than he is a hockey player," said Paul Mason, who coached Crosby at the Pee Wee level (Crosby was 10 years old, the other players were 11 and 12), and is a close family friend. "He demonstrates it all the time. Nathan is demonstrating that he is the same way. They're both great people and we're very proud of that in the community."
There's a tenacity about Crosby, a hatred of losing more than a desire to win, that has defined him. That's one way MacKinnon does compare favorably to Crosby and probably part of the reason the weight of the constant comparisons didn't stop him from becoming the best player in the country in his age bracket and an early favorite for the Calder Trophy in his rookie NHL season.
MacKinnon came home from two years in Minnesota to the QMJHL, and last season accomplished something Crosby fell one victory short of -- winning the Memorial Cup. He could also win rookie of the year honors, which would give him another thing to chirp Crosby about when they skate together in the summer in Cole Harbour and Halifax.
"They've gotten to know each other pretty well the last couple years. Sidney has really been a mentor for Nathan," said Jon Greenwood, who coached MacKinnon at the Pee Wee and Bantam levels in Cole Harbour and also was a teacher/coach of his at the Maritime Hockey Academy. "They've skated together and worked out together. I'm sure it will be special for them. Especially for Nathan, because he grew up idolizing Sidney. The paths are remarkable, but it was a little bit on purpose. Nathan loved Sidney and that was his role model, so I'm sure it will be special."
While there is a Main Street in Cole Harbour, the main street is actually Cole Harbour Road. That's the commercial center, and it's where that now famous sign is posted.
There's little doubt the figurative heartbeat of this town emanates a short drive from Cole Harbour Road at Cole Harbour Place, a resplendent community center complete with an aquatic center featuring three pools and a roof-high slide, a library, areas to lift weights, play racquetball or put on a craft show and fields outside for soccer, baseball and other various sports.
And there are the hockey rinks, Scotia 1 and Scotia 2, which are home to hundreds of kids on skates of all ages on a daily basis. By the time the sun was visible in the sky Sunday, three groups of youth hockey players had already spent time on the ice, and a fourth was sitting patiently in full gear with Timbits sweaters and names not on their jerseys but written on masking tape adorned to their helmets.
There are no No. 87s amongst these pint-sized players, but there is a No. 29 fidgeting with his equipment. The No. 87 is everywhere in Cole Harbour and Pittsburgh, the way kids have always wanted to wear Nos. 9 or 66 or 99.
It might not be long before No. 29, the one MacKinnon wears for the Colorado Avalanche, joins that group, especially in this part of the country.
"We're very fortunate as coaches to be in their path when they come through," Mason said. "Very few kids in Cole Harbour had parents as coaches. In that era for those two guys, there was almost none. I think these kids would be where they were regardless, but it is nice to hear like ... I know Nathan is very fond of Jon and Sid has said some very complimentary things about me in different avenues. We appreciate it, but we're lucky to have been in their path. That's just the truth."
Producing two players picked No. 1 in an NHL Draft is an incredible distinction for any hockey community, but the scope of it being Cole Harbour is beyond normal words. The entire province of Nova Scotia has produced one player in the Hockey Hall of Fame (Al MacInnis) and only three other players besides Crosby with more than 400 career NHL points (MacInnis, Bobby Smith and Glen Murray).
And yet Crosby and MacKinnon are not alone as Cole Harbour alums. Cam Russell, a defenseman who played nearly 400 games in the NHL for the Chicago Blackhawks and the Avalanche, grew up here. Joe DiPenta, who played 176 games in the NHL and has his name on the Stanley Cup from his time with the Anaheim Ducks, also grew up here and has recently moved back.
Stephen MacAulay, a sixth-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in 2010, is from Cole Harbour and joined the Mooseheads for their Memorial Cup run in a midseason trade last year. Brendan Duke, a defenseman who is two years older than MacKinnon but played with him when he was pushed up a level in their youth, is in his third season with Halifax.
Mitchell Maynard, who won the Memorial Cup with Shawinigan in 2012, lived down the street from Duke. Cole Murphy, currently playing for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, did too.
"I went through there 35 years ago, but we always had great coaching," Russell said. "Not taking anything away from the other coaches out there, but we never had coaches that had a son or a daughter on the team, so they were taking their own holidays to spend time with the team. They were very devoted.
"We had one coach named Wallace Deveau, who went to Russia 35 years ago for a coaching seminar. This was 35 years ago, like before the (Berlin) Wall came down. Clary Mullane brought in Pierre Page back then for skating instruction. They were cutting-edge guys, and you could tell there was a real love of the game. There was also a lot of teaching of accountability and responsibility."
It's not just the boys, either. Crosby's sister, Taylor, is a senior at Shattuck-St. Mary's and considered one of the best Canadian goaltenders at her age level. Alexis Crossley is a freshman at the University of New Hampshire after also being part of the Cole Harbour to Shattuck-St. Mary's shuttle, and was part of Canada's Under-18 world championship-winning squad in 2012.
Cole Harbour has become something of a hockey factory, the way similar small towns in Ohio or Pennsylvania once produced football stars at a rate similar to larger communities in places like California, Florida and Texas.
Albeit the scale is smaller, but Cole Harbour Place overshadows the aging high school next door in a way that feels a little like what Buzz Bissinger described when he arrived in Odessa, Texas, 25 years ago to write his famous book about high-school football in that state. Sunday Morning Skates would lack the drama of Friday Night Lights, but not the community's passion for its beloved sport.
"I think this is what Sidney and Nathan both have in common, too," Greenwood said. "It is very middle class here. There's not a lot of really high-end and not a lot of low. It is really a middle-class town, which I think is perfect for hockey. Everyone can afford to play and can have the support to play, however I think they both still have that Maritime work ethic and pride. There's not a lot of entitlement. You see that here. The best athletes play hockey, but there is that small-town work ethic and pride."
The sun will rise Monday morning over Cole Harbour, and by then a group of Novice Advanced players (7- and 8-year-olds) will have already been on the ice for an hour practice before school starts. There will be many more practices and games Monday night (bad timing for those kids).
Most towns never have a kid like Crosby. Places the size of Cole Harbour never have two. If the pattern holds, there is a 9- or 10-year-old here just warming up to be the top pick in the 2021 or 2022 NHL Draft.
"I don't know. You hate to say that or put that on anyone," Greenwood said. "I'm sure the next time a kid from Cole Harbour scored 70 or 80 goals, everyone's going to hear about it, but that's a lot to put on a kid. I'm sure all the kids want to be like that, but you almost need to talk about the other guys because it is really, really hard to aspire to be like those two.
"But no, there isn't anyone here now that people are saying, 'Oh, he could be the next one.' Truth is, there might never be another one."
There has been two though, and the two phenoms will square off for the first time Monday. Mason said he wished he could be at Consol, and he's heard of several residents who will be making the trek.
It should make for an interesting viewing experience. Loyalties, in a town typically painted black and gold, will be tested.
"I'm assuming almost anyone who is a hockey fan in Cole Harbour, which basically is all of Cole Harbour, will be watching that game," Mason said. "I hope it is an 8-7 game and both guys get a [hat trick]. It's funny, but because of my connections to Sid, I'll be rooting for him to get the winner in the shootout or overtime, and I'm guessing Jon will be hoping it is Nathan who scores the winner."
Maybe someday that sign next to the Walmart will read, "Welcome to Cole Harbour, home of Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon." If it does, people from this town will probably nod at the tourists taking pictures, and they'll remember the times they saw a tiny kid named Sidney Crosby do something unbelievable for a kid that age ... and the times a tiny kid named Nathan MacKinnon made it believable again.
"I hope it does," Mason said of the sign. "Nathan is off to a great start. Sid really made his mark here and then went off and made his own path. Nathan is doing the same thing. We're really proud of them as a community."