Before they became one of the greatest duos in junior hockey history, as well as top-five NHL draft picks, Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon were just car-pooling teenagers. • MacKinnon was the chauffeur, picking up Drouin in his Ford Escape every day, driving Drouin to school and practices with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec league. MacKinnon was in control of the wheel and the stereo, typically blaring rap songs. • "He didn't touch the music," MacKinnon quipped. • "It was his car," Drouin said. • Not that there would be a lot of arguing. The two were so in synch on the ice — and inseparable off it — that their chemistry fueled the dynamic linemates' domination in juniors. They were even close in the 2013 NHL draft, MacKinnon going No. 1 overall to Colorado, Drouin No. 3 to Tampa Bay. • And tonight, after taking slightly different paths, the best friends, both 19, face each other for the first time in the NHL as the Lightning hosts the Avalanche at Amalie Arena. • "It'll be a little weird," MacKinnon said. "We always talked about making it to the NHL. It's been really quick, getting to play against each other in the NHL as teenagers." • "I'm excited," Drouin said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
MacKinnon and Drouin met when they were 10 years old, playing together in a spring hockey tournament in Montreal.
"I remember he never passed the puck," MacKinnon said, smiling.
Boy, that would change, as MacKinnon found out when the two were reunited in Halifax in the 2011-12 season. It took some wheeling and dealing by Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell, who traded up from No. 4 to the No. 2 pick in the 2011 Quebec league draft to select Drouin. Later that summer, Russell said, he packaged three first-round picks and two players to acquire MacKinnon, a hometown star.
"These guys were superstars," Russell said. "The timing just worked out for us."
Drouin didn't leave his midget team, Lac St. Louis Lions, until midseason, joining Halifax in January. MacKinnon said their chemistry was "instant."
"I remember the first day he came to Halifax, we were on the ice 3½ hours together, just messing around," MacKinnon said. "Maybe that's how it all started."
They were a perfect match. Both were blessed with world-class speed. Drouin, a 5-foot-11, 186-pound wing, was a creative playmaker, a magician with the puck who could see plays unfold. MacKinnon, a 6-foot, 195-pound center, was a power forward, an elite finisher.
"We'd just complete each other," Drouin said.
In their first full season together, 2012-13, Drouin led Halifax with 41 goals, 64 assists and 105 points in 49 games. MacKinnon had 32 goals and 43 assists in 45 games.
They were household names in town. Russell said the Mooseheads set attendance records that season, including seven or eight sellouts of the 10,500-capacity arena.
"Whether you won or lost the game, fans were going to leave the rink going, 'Wow, did you see the play Jo made? Did you see the play Nathan made?' " Russell said. "We're very fortunate to have watched them."
Every game was a highlight reel. Most fans will never forget the flip pass Drouin sent from his zone past the opponent's blue line to streaking MacKinnon for a goal.
"Just instinct," Drouin said.
But the duo's most treasured moments came in the Memorial Cup playoffs, which involve all three Canadian-based junior leagues. In 2012, Halifax came from behind after trailing 3-0 in a best-of-seven second-round series against the Quebec Remparts, then coached by current Avs coach Patrick Roy. In overtime of Game 7, Drouin scored the winner, set up by — you guessed it — MacKinnon.
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"(Drouin is) a skilled player," Roy said. "When you're drafted third overall, there's a reason for that."
Then, in 2013 the Mooseheads won the Memorial Cup, beating top-ranked prospect Seth Jones' Portland Winterhawks 6-4 in the championship game. MacKinnon had a hat trick, Drouin five assists.
"The Memorial Cup was obviously the one we'll remember for a long time," Drouin said. "Good memories."
Russell made the trip to Tampa from Halifax to watch tonight's game between two of the Mooseheads' most famous sons.
"We miss them," he said. "We miss them a lot."
"Everybody will be watching," said John Moore, the Mooseheads' longtime play-by-play man. "That combination … you're probably never going to see again."
Many thought Drouin and MacKinnon would have played in the NHL last season. But while MacKinnon made an instant impact, winning the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie (24 goals, 39 assists), Drouin was sent back for another year in Halifax.
"I was really happy for him," Drouin said. "He's one of my best friends. To win the Calder, have the year he had, it was fun to see."
Drouin, with two goals and 16 assists in 35 games this season, is coming into his own after experiencing the natural growing pains of a rookie season, riding a four-game points streak into this game.
"He's an amazing player," said MacKinnon, who has eight goals and 17 assists in 45 games. "He's going to have a great career."
The two haven't trash-talked much about tonight's game — both insist most of their conversations don't involve hockey — but MacKinnon hopes they can get a photo together on the ice.
"Obviously it's about the two teams," MacKinnon said. "But for us, it's going to be pretty special."
Lightning vs. Avalanche
When/where: 7, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Sun Sports; 970-AM
Key stats: The Avalanche, one of the league's surprises last season, has taken a step back, falling to 10th in the Western Conference. … Jarome Iginla, an offseason Lightning target, and ex-Tampa Bay forward Alex Tanguay are tied for Colorado's team lead with 13 goals. … Colorado's power play ranked 27th (14 percent) entering Friday; its penalty kill was seventh (84.8). … Lightning C Steven Stamkos has six goals in his past six games and has a season-long four-game goal streak. … The teams split the two-game series last season. … The Lightning has won six straight at home.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer