For most players, the pathway to the NHL can take them thousands of kilometers away, into different countries and, sometimes, amongst unfamiliar languages.
For Sault Ste. Marie forward Cole MacKay, that trip has barely extended past his back yard.
MacKay was born and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, ON. and, after a brief, one-year sojourn in Kitchener with the Junior Rangers Minor Midget AAA franchise, MacKay returned to Soo after being drafted by the club.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “I moved away the year before I got drafted to the Soo, so especially coming home my parents are happy. Playing for the team I grew up loving is a big thing for me and I’m really enjoying it. Every day I go out there and play for the logo on my chest, not the name on my back.
“It’s really special to be playing for the team that me, my friends, and my family all loved growing up.”
Admittedly, though, being a hometown boy on a team that’s part of the community fabric was a little intense at first.
It’s not without it’s pressures.
“The first couple of games [last year] being a 16-year-old was kind of different — knowing everyone in the crowd,” MacKay said. “I’ve gotten over that and I’m enjoying it — and not taking anything for granted. There’s no pressure any more; I just go out there and enjoy it.
“It’s everything I imagined it would be. We all loved our Greyhounds — everyone there does — so being able to go out on the ice and be one of the guys that the city follows behind and cheers for, it’s special. It’s a smaller town, so it’s one of the big things we have in the Soo is the Greyhounds.
“They’ve always been there, they’ve always been a good team, so everyone loves them and the fans come out and support us. It’s awesome.”
Greyhounds coach John Dean said the pressure of playing for the hometown fans can get to some guys.
But those with the right makeup, like MacKay, can thrive.
“There’s pressure, home town,” Dean said. “He got a pretty darn big cheer when they announced his name the first game of the season. But he’s a pretty special kid in terms of what kind of human being he is, so I think he embraces it and I think he likes it. He also gets to have mom and dad’s home cooking.
“He’s just a really well-grounded kid, so I don’t think those things impact him. I think he embraces it and, to be quite honest, he’s a really good ambassador for the city.”
And it’s that mental strength, combined with obvious skill, that makes him such an attractive prospect.
“I think it’s one of those things that put you over the top,” Dean explained. “All things being equal, you’d like to have a kid who is diligent, works hard, and is a good human. Those are people you want to be around and those are people who are contagious.
“I would even argue that you would take one of those kids over those who may be a potentially a little more skilled in other areas. But the nice thing about Cole is that I think he’s a pretty talented player. He’s got the personality but he’s got the skill set to boot.”
MacKay has had the opportunity to display that skill set far more this season.
Last year, he joined a stacked Greyhounds’ squad and put up a respectable five goals and nine assists in 42 games.
This year, due to graduation, he’s been able to play a more prominent role on the team, and has responded with 13 goals and 35 points in 37 games. MacKay explained that he looked at last year as an opportunity to learn.
“We were older, but that’s what you expect,” he said. “You’re a young guy and you just take what you can from it. That’s what I did. I just learned from all the guys in practice and watching them in games. I really took a lot from it; I didn’t pout or anything. It was a good learning experience.”
Watching veterans like Boris Katchouk, Jake Kopacka, and Tim Gettinger helped him prepare for this, his draft-eligible season.
But MacKay singles out Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Taylor Raddysh as a player who had an incredible impact on him — even though he only had half-a-year’s worth of exposure to him.
“He’s obviously one of the best right wingers that came through this league,” he said. “I watched him with a close eye in practice. He was a special guy in my development last year and I owe a lot to him, even in the short amount of time that he was in the Soo.
“All the guys we had last year, they know how to be pros. They knew how to carry themselves on and off the ice. All the stuff they did off the ice with their eating, sleeping — Taylor was a big guy that I watched. And on the ice, his play spoke for itself. He was a very special player and a player that made an impact on winning teams.
“If I can watch that guy and learn from him every day, then I’m going to do that.”
MacKay has successfully been able to implement those lessons due to a determination to improve himself — a trait his coach loves.
“I love his work ethic and his compete level,” Dean said. “I know those are things that should be a given, but with him I think those things are on the extraordinary side. He competes like a dog. He’s been absolutely diligent about working on his net-front presence. He’s carved out a real nice little niche for us on how to play that net-front position, how to tip pucks, how to play that net-front spot on the power play.
“And he’s scoring from everywhere. I think some people might think that he’s benefitted from playing with some really good linemates, but he’s continued to score here while both [Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayton] have been at the World Juniors.”
Most impressively, Dean said, MacKay has been able to make improvements in areas that are usually reserved for off-season training.
“Probably the best thing I’ve seen him improve is that he works every day on skating and net-front,” he said. “I don’t think you see a tonne of improvement, usually, during a winter season — usually that stuff happens over the summer — but I believe I’ve seen a step picked up in his game.”
MacKay is using the opportunity he’s received this year to continue that growth.
And he’s doing it close to home.
“I think [the difference this year is] just sticking to my game and trusting myself a little bit more,” he said. “Last year, being 16 and coming into the team that we had last year, it was kind of tough to get confidence and really play the game that I know I can.
“This year I just came in, clean slate, and tried to stick to my game. I know what I can do out there and be confident and do what I do best.”