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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Halifax Mooseheads captain Justin Barron got a boost from a fellow Nova Scotian ahead of the National Hockey League draft last month.

Colorado centre Nathan MacKinnon, a former Moosehead, lobbied Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic to pick the smooth-skating defenceman.

"Nate's been texting and calling Joe for the last week telling him we have to take Justin Barron," Alan Hepple, Colorado's director of amateur scouting, said after the Avalanche picked Barron 25th overall.

The comment was included in a behind-the-scenes video, which was posted by the team. 

"He's the pick Nathan was ho​ping we'd get," Sakic confirmed later in the same video.

Barron, who skated with MacKinnon during the summer, certainly appreciated the endorsement.  

"Any time you hear that a player that's as good as he is pushing for you it's definitely a good feeling," said Barron, who will turn 19 later this month. "I only know him a little bit. I was fortunate to skate with him when he was home before he went to the NHL bubble."

The folks on the East Coast tend to stick together and Barron, a Halifax native, is hoping to ride that wave of support into the World Juniors and eventually the NHL.

"The Mooseheads do a really good job of getting us out in the public and doing stuff like school visits and hospital visits and that kind of thing," Barron said. "Sometimes I'm even a little bit shocked by the kids running up to you and they all know your name and look up to you and it's funny looking back and knowing I was in the same shoes, watching guys like MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin."

During a Zoom conversation with TSN this week, Barron described what it was like to skate with MacKinnon and detailed his road to recovery following a blood-clot diagnosis last season. He also explained why Quebec Major Junior Hockey League players will likely have an advantage at the start of Hockey Canada's World Junior selection camp. 

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

What was it like being on the ice with MacKinnon during those summer skates?

"He's one heck of a hockey player, that's for sure. You definitely find yourself looking at him skating around, especially at the start of the skate. But before you know it you get​ out there and he's coming down on you, so you don’t really have too much time to think."

How do you defend that guy? What's going through your mind?

"I couldn't even tell you. Just try, I guess, not to let him make you look stupid."

And how did you do?

"You know what, I was pretty happy with how I did, given it was one of the first skates of the summer. I guess I did a good enough job for him to push for me in the draft. It was a good experience."

Who was taking part in the skates?

"[Avalanche prospect] Shane Bowers was another guy. He's a Halifax guy. And then Jon Greenwood, our defence coach with the Mooseheads. I think he usually runs the skates with Nathan and Sidney [Crosby] in the summer here in Halifax. So, it was just kind of a smaller group, because that was still when COVID was [starting] so there were restrictions. And there was a goalie from around here as well."

What was your initial reaction when you found out about the blood clot last year?

"It was definitely a surprise. I've had no family history or anything like that. It was a lot of shock. At the end of the day I'm really fortunate that I was surrounded by a of good people here in Halifax with the Mooseheads and all the doctors I was able to see. I was able to go to Toronto to get my surgery done as well, so having all those great people around me made it a lot better going through it."

You missed three months of action, what was the biggest challenge on the road to recovery?

"I was actually feeling pretty good three or four weeks after I originally had the blood clot, but I had to be on blood thinners for three months. I was able to skate every day and felt great on the ice, but I wasn't allowed to do any contact or anything like that. So just having to sit in the stands and having to watch your team for three months straight is never something you want to do ... that was probably the toughest part of what I had to go through."

In September you underwent a shoulder procedure to prevent future blood clots. How are you feeling now?

"My shoulder feels great. I'm doing really well. I've been back playing now for two weeks and I've had no problem, so I'm grateful for that."

You missed the first six games of the season. How did the pandemic impact when the surgery happened?

"It pushed it back a little bit. I was hoping to have it done earlier in the summer, but obviously there's a lot of things going on right now in the world that we can't really control, so I was happy to get it done when I did. I didn't miss too many games and was actually able to come back a bit sooner than expected."

You've now played four games this season, how do you assess things so far?

"Pretty good. It was a long off-season so there's definitely a little bit of an adjustment getting up to speed and back into that game-time mentality, but it's starting to come back to me now."

Where are you hoping to improve this season?

"I would like to add a little bit to the offensive side of my game [after producing 19 points in 34 games last season] ... I would like to bring more pucks to the net. When I'm attacking the offensive zone and coming over the blue line, I want to have a better plan and not be scared to use my body [6-foot-2, 198 pounds] and take that puck to the net and attack it more." ​

Heading into the World Junior camp, how significant is it that you've been able to play games? Only the Atlantic teams in the QMJHL are playing right now. Will that be an advantage?​

"Yeah, I think so. For all the guys from the QMJHL, it will give us a little bit of a leg up by just being a little bit more in game shape and just feeling a little more comfortable. I know the camp's extended a little bit more this year, so it will definitely give everyone enough time to get back feeling good before we hop into games, but being able to play games right now could help us."

What do you think you need to show at camp? What role can you carve out?

"It's just playing my game and that's a two-way defenceman, who defends well, defends really hard and then my skating allows me to jump up in the play and contribute a little bit offensively. So, yeah, I would say a two-way defenceman role."

How did you become such a great skater at a young age?

"I grew up skating on my backyard rink with my older brother Morgan [a New York Rangers prospect]. We were lucky, because my dad built us a rink every winter, so I kind of grew up skating there. Part of it may be a bit natural, but a lot of it was hard work and a lot of power skating and working on it over the years. It's definitely one of the parts of my game I've worked on a ton and it’s really helped me."

The World Juniors is a pressure-packed environment where mistakes are amplified. What did you take away from playing in a similar environment at the 2019 Memorial Cup? 

"You kind of learn [how to deal] with the big crowd and the media and all that goes on behind the scenes, so it was good for me to learn that at a younger age and take it with me now. It can be a little bit hectic at times for sure, but it's just being able to relax and handle everything going on around you and take it all in."

The mental side of the game is so important. Do you have any tricks for dealing with pressure?

"One of the things I like to do during 'O Canada' is usually towards the end I take three deep breaths and I find that helps relax me ... just trying to relax the nerves and remember you're going out and playing the game you love."