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Nathan MacKinnon: Already a Mile Higher

Nathan MacKinnon could not be any nicer of a guy. Nathan MacKinnon could not be any more of a  "hometown" guy. He's a genuinely nice Nova Scotian boy who followed in his hometown hero's footsteps and came into the NHL as the number one draft pick in 2013.

And if your hometown hero is Sidney Crosby, those are big footsteps.  MacKinnon laughs easily, manages a self deprecating shrug that is neither falsely modest nor disingenuous, and smiles somewhat shyly when the matter is raised. One gets the idea that he is asked about it a lot. A very, very small town in a very, very small province has managed to produce two of this century's most prominent hockey players. It's a talking point that can't be avoided.

At 5,280 feet above sea level, MacKinnon's future is already a  "mile higher" than his past as he heads from the sea level of his home to the greater heights of Denver. He is more in the Crosby mold than the Kane mold and will be unlikely to aggravate the Avalanche faithful with public displays of "bad boy" behaviour. The Avalanche's PR team must be positively aglow with anticipation and happiness. Here is someone they can definitely promote.

A Public Relations Dream Come True

It did not shock me that they selected him first overall or that they did not trade the coveted first pick to another team in some sort of fancy deal that would have seen them pick local boy Seth Jones in the first round. While Seth Jones is certainly a marquee player, defensemen tend not ignite the hearts and minds of fans like forwards do. Although the Avalanche's most pressing hockey need is, in fact, on their blue line, it may be that their most pressing public relations need is on the front line.

They even made a point of creating a bit of media hype that felt a lot like an advance scouting party, softening the approach of the main army. They would select the best player overall and take MacKinnon, they announced, ending speculation that Jones was going to be their guy. It was a deft move that served a variety of purposes from letting Jones down easy to building momentum amongst their fan base and the industry in general. In almost all news reports regarding the announcement, words to the effect of "in a move unusual for Sakic" appeared. 

It was a headline to the Avalanche faithful: "We are bringing you the best player on the market." While it seems a redundant statement to make about a number one pick, this year's class was so close in the top three or four prospects, that speculation was rife as to who was the best player available. MacKinnon's own team mate from the Halifax Moosehead, Johnathon Drouin, was also rated top three.

Hype sells tickets and builds anticipation. People read more papers, listen to more talk radio, scour the internet more. Imagine how many Avalanche fans have Googled "Nathan MacKinnon" since the announcement.

The Avalanche fans will not be disappointed. MacKinnon is an exciting, goal scoring player. He's talented and big. A hard hitting, hard skating, hard playing guy. He will definitely put on a show.

The Crosby Connection

Much has been made about his relationship with Crosby and he did, in fact, grow up, in a lot of ways, under Crosby's wing. He drank the same water, went to the same rinks, did his early training with the same people. If there is a "do it like Crosby" program, MacKinnon is the first product of it. Distinct enough not to be directly compared, but similar enough to inspire hope. Kind of like trying out for the band when Jimmy Page was your guitar teacher. This is important stuff to marketing people. 

He comes already branded, saving a great deal of trouble, expense and potential pitfalls. MacKinnon enters the NHL a "made man". He's already a commodity. His summer spent training with Crosby, from running through the sand dunes of Prince Edward Island in July to skating with a host of other notable players in Halifax's Civic Arena under trainer Andy O'Brien's tutelage in August, have done nothing but add to his shiny, new legend.

Here's a guy, the Avalanche fans will be saying, who takes this seriously. And they will take him seriously. From the time we are born, the idea of a "hard working" person having greater merit than anyone else is ground into us. If they fail, it's never because they didn't want it enough. You can't buy that sort of insurance against fan displeasure.

Nice Guys Make Fans Happy

Nice guys are the new bad boys. They finish first in this generation. MacKinnon screams "Apple Pie" louder than an orchard full of Granny Smiths.

Being as interested in the "cult of hockey" as much as the on-ice aspects, I find it both interesting and impressive that the NHL has stuck so steadfastly to the the demands it puts on its players to represent the game with honour by insisting on the continuation of rules of public behavior than might otherwise seem old fashioned.  Maybe because the game is so violent and so many injuries occur, it is a very important thing to ensure the players are seen, as much as is possible, as honourable gentlemen. Athletes. Men of character.

While other professional sports leagues seem to have less control over their stars and their public images are sometimes characterized by trash talk, big talk and chest-thumping, the NHL players still get off the bus in suits and ties, say please and thank you to reporters and never talk trash about their teams, their team mates or the league itself. 

Even during the lockout when tempers must have been hard to manage, the worst you heard was a grumble about wanting to get back to the game. While this can sometimes translate to "wouldn't say shit if their mouths were full of it", the fact is, they should be applauded for their decency and not mocked for their lack of  ... courage, shall we say. Saying exactly what is on your mind is not always a team, league or sport building exercise.

Keeping the Brand Safe

When Tyler Seguin was traded, one wondered whether it was as much because he was turning into a bit of a PR liability for the Bruins as Jaromir Jagr had once been for the Penguins.  When the Winnipeg Jets held a "social media seminar" as part of their prospect camp one wondered whether this was to prevent any more kerfuffles like the one Seguin had created when he tweeted his famous "steers and queers" line on the very first night in his new hockey town of Dallas. One imagines Sidney Crosby doesn't use Twitter, in part,  for the same reason most of us don't keep a gallon of chocolate ice cream ... the temptation to use it unwisely is always there.

Crosby has a brand to protect, there are very few of them as valuable as the one he possesses. It would lose value overnight if he started tweeting and about trifles and traumas. Part of the magic of a valuable brand is not knowing too much about its inner workings. In the marketing of carbon-based commodities, familiarity does indeed breed contempt. The market, like your old hound dog, is most responsive when it's hungry. 

MacKinnon's allure to the Avalanche is that, if he has any sort of success this season, if he comes out of the gate like a raging bull, his brand value will be very high. High, high. Crosby has been around long enough not to be the wonder-kid and the market is ripe for another one. Although I do not for a moment suggest there is anything staged about their friendship, it benefits one as well as the other in marketing terms. Gold rubbing off on silver.

In a world where our impressions of hockey players are formed as much by what people Tweet about them or put on their Instagram, Facebook and other such pages, as what they bring to the ice, it's no wonder players like MacKinnon are held in such high regard. He's a genuinely nice guy from a nice family and he seems to have taken the lessons of his youth, about remaining humble, about behaving with decorum, seriously.

MacKinnon's Twitter account reads like you'd hope it would. Fun, sometimes funny, usually positive, PG13 safe, often entertaining. This will meld with whatever his on-ice performance will be this year and form the public's perception of him. It's not enough, anymore, to be a great hockey player. We want our hockey heroes to be great guys, too.

And I think Nathan MacKinnon is exactly what he seems to be. A great guy. A nice young man.

The Colorado Avalanche marketing people must be positively squirming in their seats.

Previously on Sidelines:
Jordan Eberle: To the Top of the Mountain

Next on Sidelines:
The Old Man and the C