TORONTO -- Going head to head in a spirited game of EA's NHL 14 video game, Jonathan Drouin got the better of longtime junior teammate Nathan MacKinnon, beating him 3-1. It was a fun back-and-forth that earned the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft some major bragging rights.
And it definitely won't be the last time the two face off as opponents.
MacKinnon was taken with the No. 1 pick by the Colorado Avalanche in June's draft, followed two picks later by Drouin, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning. With both players expected to earn roster spots this season and embark on their respective NHL careers, it effectively splits up one of the most successful duos in junior hockey history.
"We're both going our own ways and I know he's going to do great in Colorado," Drouin told NHL.com. "We had great years behind us and we enjoyed them."
To call their time together in junior hockey "great" would be a disservice. The pair is as decorated as any linemates in junior hockey history. As 16-year-olds, they led the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on an unexpected run to the conference final. Despite not advancing to the league final, MacKinnon and Drouin ranked fifth and sixth respectively in playoff scoring that year, leading all rookies.
It was the beginning of the MacKinnon-Drouin era in Halifax, but not the beginning of their time together on the ice.
"We played together in spring hockey when we were 10 for a tournament. There's a picture of us on the same team. It's pretty cool," said MacKinnon, who was reunited with Drouin two years ago when both joined the Mooseheads. "We just became friends a couple of years ago and spent a lot of time together. I feel like I've known the guy for 10 years now. We became pretty close."
Since finding their chemistry on the ice together in Halifax, the pair has been practically inseparable. They know each other's quirks and instincts inside out. MacKinnon has grown so accustomed to calling Drouin by his nickname, "Jo," that any references to "Jon" only cause confusion.
The legend of "Nate and Jo" only grew over the past year. The pair started the 2012-13 season by leading Canada to a win at the Memorial of Ivan Hlinka in the Czech Republic, with MacKinnon leading the tournament in scoring. By Christmas, they were the only draft-eligible players named to a Canadian team that finished fourth at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. But their greatest accomplishment together was yet to come.
The Mooseheads team led by MacKinnon and Drouin stampeded through the QMJHL playoffs, posting a 16-1 record on their way to the Memorial Cup. It was in junior hockey's ultimate tournament that the duo combined for 22 points in four games, leading Halifax to the title as MacKinnon cemented tournament MVP honors with a hat trick in the deciding game against the Portland Winterhawks. Not to be outdone, Drouin collected five assists in the clincher.
It was their single greatest accomplishment as a pair, but it was also the end of a remarkable run for the two friends.
"Probably the last game of the Memorial Cup, after he made a flip pass over my head, I realized, 'I don't know if I'll ever get a pass like that from a skilled player like that [again],'" MacKinnon told NHL.com. "I love playing with him. I think that moment kind of sunk in that it was a pretty special thing. Obviously, winning it all made it sink in as well."
"Without the Memorial Cup, it wouldn't have been the same," Drouin said. "[Winning the] Memorial Cup was probably the greatest thing that could have happened to our team."
From there, the spotlight on MacKinnon and Drouin only got brighter. And as the draft fast approached, the two star prospects could confide in one another, sharing the details of a truly surreal experience that culminated in their donning NHL jerseys at the draft podium.
With both players expected to make the rosters of their respective NHL teams, it's the beginning of an exciting new chapter for MacKinnon and Drouin, one that will see them compete against one another at the highest level. Both players admit it's going to take some adjusting.
"We don't really know what to expect. It's going to be different, for sure, seeing him in a different colored jersey," MacKinnon said. "We've been linemates for a couple of years now. It's going to be weird splitting up."
Assuming both stick with their NHL teams and stay healthy, the pair will go head to head for the first time on Jan. 25, when MacKinnon's Avalanche visit Drouin's Lightning in Tampa Bay. By then, both players will have learned some of the nuances of the NHL game. They already know each other inside and out.
"Nate's a winner in pretty much everything. He doesn't like to lose," Drouin said. "Even if it's video games or basketball with friends at school, he doesn't like to lose."
So he probably wasn't too pleased about, say, losing 3-1 in NHL 14?
"Oh, he was mad," Drouin said.
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