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From player to coach at age 20, London Knight Ethan Mackinnon embracing role

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It is not how London Knight Ethan MacKinnon envisioned his first appearance in the Memorial Cup tournament.

The London, Ont. native is watching from the stands instead of patrolling the blue line for his hometown team after retiring from hockey in January at the age of 20, due to concussion-related symptoms.

He has remained with the team as a player development coach.

“It's different,” says MacKinnon. “It's obviously not what I hoped for, but, staying in hockey, the sport I love, I'm going to keep on doing it.”

After playing his last game on Oct. 12, 2023, MacKinnon came to the realization that brain function for the rest of his life was more important than hockey.

He and Knights brass came to a “mutual agreement” that he would stay for the remainder of the year in a different role.

“He got hurt and, that's unfortunate,” says Knights Head Coach Dale Hunter. “He's always been a team leader, and always been team first kind of guy. He's, you know, he's one of those guys that, just helps out the young guys right now and talks to the older guys. He is a big part of our team.”

The respect among his peers was evident when the Knights won the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL Champions.

MacKinnon put on his full uniform, and his teammates, who consider him their captain, sent him to receive the trophy and be the first to hoist it over his head.

“It means the world,” says MacKinnon. “Growing up in London, I never thought I’d be doing this, so it was great.”

When asking his teammates to describe what he means to them, it is clear there was never a question that MacKinnon was going to be the first to get the trophy.

“He’s still one of the boys,” says Denver Barkey, a third-year Knights forward who describes MacKinnon as one of his best friends. “To have that unfortunate news this year, it was tough on all of us but it brought us tighter as a group.”

Teammate Kasper Halttunen calls him “a huge part of the team” who helps both the players and coaches.

“He's a great guy,” says Halttunen. “He’s probably the most positive guy I've ever met and a great dude. I don't have anything else except positive things to say about him.”

In his new role, MacKinnon is not completely shut out from on-ice activity. He practices wearing full equipment, and with seven defencemen, he jumps in on drills to even the numbers.

“He's in the drills now, but the guys know that you got to be careful because he's been hurt,” says Hunter. “You got to just watch it, but he enjoys practicing getting a sweat and hanging out with the guys.”

Barkey says his friend has “a lot of good advice” and is willing to do the little things like passing pucks, or getting him more shots after practice, which “goes a long way.”

He also can be an intermediary between the players and coaches. As a 20-year old, he can be a confidant and they can bring tough concerns or questions to him.

“I’ve known him since I was 16,” says Barkey. “Off the ice or on the ice it’s someone to talk to. He’s relatable too as he’s only a couple years older than me.”

He has only been in his new role for five months, but Hunter sees a potential future in the game for MacKinnon.

“He helped all the young guys that were playing Jr. B and the young guys that are playing for us,” says Hunter. “He was really into it. He really enjoyed watching video and showing them the clips, so he could continue in this game in a different way.”

He has lifted one trophy, and London is just two wins away from getting another.

“I still feel part of the team, and I can't wait to see my buddies go to work,” says MacKinnon.

As for his future in hockey? “I love the game and I think I understand it pretty well, so I'll see how it goes.” 

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