To test your hockey knowledge with a Pictou County angle, I’m beginning 2020 — the year, not anyone’s eyesight — with a trivia question.
Be careful. It may seem easy, but perhaps it’s not.
What graduate of East Pictou Rural High School has the record for most years spent with NHL teams?
Got it already?
I’m sure it wasn’t difficult coming up with the name of Thorburn’s Lowell MacDonald, who finished his high school studies in 1959 before going on to 13 seasons in hockey’s best league with the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Want me to buy you a Tim Hortons coffee for your answer? Sorry, I can’t do that.
You see, you were wrong.
The answer I was looking for wasn’t Lowell. It was Lismore native Derek MacKinnon, who finished high school at East Pictou in 1992.
Maybe that’s understandable but, if you study the question carefully, you’ll see I made no reference to actually playing in the NHL.
So where, indeed, did Derek MacKinnon’s road lead after he left the county and found a career in professional hockey?
Realizing at an early age that he’d never follow MacDonald into the highest level of the sport, Derek was smart enough to find his way into a hockey career.
It began when he spent five years — from 2003-04 to 2007-08 — as a video coach with the Dallas Stars. He switched organizations to put in six years — starting in 2008-09 until 2013-14 — as a professional scout with the Phoenix Coyotes. Since then, he’s been employed — three years as a pro scout, the last three as director of player personnel — with the Calgary Flames.
That’s 17 years for Derek, four more than Lowell’s NHL playing days.
The Calgary website displays photos of key people in the organization — from general manager Brad Treliving, to assistants Craig Conroy, Brad Pascall and Chris Snow, to senior vice-president of hockey operations Don Maloney, to player development head Ron Sutter and — there with the rest — director of pro personnel Derek MacKinnon.
So how did a kid from Lismore get to such positions with NHL teams?
He had the normal hockey dream when he was a kid, an easy thing to do when you hear about others making it to major junior and NHL ranks. He knew of local stars who reached the top, coming from both sides of Lismore — Lowell from Thorburn, Paul MacLean from Antigonish.
But Derek’s hockey trail seemed ended when he made a decision at nearby St. Francis Xavier University where he planned to wear the blue and white.
His playing days had begun in Thorburn before Pictou County had its current association. It was in the Vale that he spent his novice, atom and peewee years. He finished peewee and had his bantam and midget period under the county banner.
MacKinnon played for the Pictou County Weeks Construction AAA Midgets, then coached by Hughie Sim. He had two years with that club.
Derek was proud of his time with Weeks, and proud to later see three Weeks players — Jon Sim, Colin White and Derrick Walser — reach the NHL.
By then, he had signed a commitment to play for St. FX, only to decide not to report for training camp. It was a decision he later regretted.
Though his competitive days were over, he never let go of his hopes to somehow get involved in the hockey world. So he challenged himself to advance to the highest level he could.
He was clever enough not to allow his education to go by the wayside. He transferred to Saint Mary’s University and earned a degree before moving to Ottawa.
When the chance came, he joined a company that was marketing a product called Sport Systems and Designs, bringing him in touch with NHL and American Hockey League franchises.
The product was a video editing system so coaches could review game situations between periods or post-game. Coaches would be able to go in after games, add statistics to video clips and analyze the game from all perspectives. It would let them manipulate video in so many more ways than the old Roger Neilson “Captain Video” days where it was running a tape from end to end to find things.
I interviewed Derek in Halifax back in 2003 when the world junior hockey championships were held at the Halifax Metro Centre. At that time, he was doing video work for the German team that was competing in the tournament.
He told me he never thought he could follow someone like MacDonald or MacLean into the NHL, citing the fact he was a defenceman and only 5-foot-10 in height. He knew his size had been against him, ever since he entered his teens.
I recall that on that day he said he was excited that a sports columnist was interested in interviewing him.
I was excited, too — for a different reason.
Derek, you see, is a son of Gordie MacKinnon, the guy who, in the mid-1960s, doubled as a pitching and batting star for softball’s Thorburn Junior Mohawks, that talented team of teenagers who won three consecutive Maritime championships and, in 2001, were enshrined in the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.
During the Junior Mohawks era, I served many evenings on the team’s bench, doing the official scoring and statistics. It was always a pleasant contribution because those players were a wonderful group of young men.
There was no finer or appreciative person on the club than Gordie.
So it was a real pleasure for me, almost four decades later, to meet and interview his son at the world hockey event.
Like his dad before him, Derek has proven to be another fine representative of that little fishing village on the shores of the Northumberland Strait.
Good for him.