There must be an influx of salt air into the front office of the Colorado Avalanche in Denver.
Last week, the NHL team signed Liam O'Brien of Halifax to a one-year contract. That means Colorado now has three players in their lineup from Nova Scotia.
O'Brien joins Cole Harbour's Nathan MacKinnon and Ryan Graves of Yarmouth. The team also has three top prospects in their system, Shane Bowers, Matt Stienburg and Justin Barron, who all hail from Canada's ocean playground.
"All six of them through the years have been involved in our provincial team and high-performance programs," said Darren Sutherland, high-performance director for Hockey Nova Scotia.
"But there are a lot of people at the community level and minor hockey associations that were obviously instrumental in their development."
O'Brien played in all three Colorado games over the Easter weekend. Known for his scrappy, high-energy play, the 6-1, 210-pound forward, who goes by the nickname Big Tuna, picked up an assist and got into a fight.
O'Brien came out of junior hockey undrafted but played 13 NHL games six seasons ago with Washington and had two other brief callups with the Capitals.
Friday was his first game back in the NHL since the 2017-18 season. Most of his pro career has been spent playing in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears.
"I think we are always proud of the guys who are from our neck of the woods who are able to grind it out the way like Liam has," said Halifax Mooseheads assistant coach Jon Greenwood, who has worked with all six players over the last dozen years with various Nova Scotia provincial teams.
"I think the blue collar-bluenose mentality has helped a lot of players from our area to be able to grind it out that way."
O'Brien, MacKinnon and Graves are all close in age. MacKinnon and Graves are both 25 while O'Brien is 26.
Greenwood gives a lot of credit to Cole Harbour's Sidney Crosby, who has been a role model for younger Nova Scotia stars.
"Nathan would be the first one to admit that Sidney was his favourite player when he was growing up," said Greenwood. "Sidney is kind of the godfather of it all, and they all look up to him and the work ethic he always brings both on and off the ice."
Many of the NHL players from Nova Scotia, including Brad Marchand (Hammonds Plains), Drake Batherson (New Minas) and Matthew Highmore (Dartmouth), skate together during off-season workouts.
"There are a lot of local guys now who are already playing in the NHL or are knocking at the door," said Sutherland. "In the summer for some of the younger guys to get on the ice with players like Crosby, MacKinnon and Marchand, three of the best players in the world who are all from here, that's pretty incredible."
O'Brien's stint with the Avalanche could be short-lived. He's getting a chance to play now because two of the team's forwards are injured.
But the Nova Scotia hockey connections should continue to run strong in Colorado for years to come.
No longer in Crosby's shadow, MacKinnon has developed into an elite NHL superstar. Now in his eighth season in Colorado, the former No. 1 pick from the 2013 NHL draft continues to put up big offensive numbers with 45 points in 34 games this season.
The big defenceman from Yarmouth burst onto the scene last year when he was the top plus/minus player in the NHL. Like O'Brien, Graves spent several seasons playing in the AHL before finally getting his chance to play in the NHL with Colorado.
Shane Bowers of Herring Cove is currently playing in his second full season with Colorado's AHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles. Bowers, 21, was a 2017 first-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators but was traded to Colorado. He spent two seasons playing NCAA hockey at Boston University.
The Halifax native had a frustrating 2020-21 season. Stienburg played one season at Cornell University but there were no games this season due to COVID-19. He opted to do his schooling online and play in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, where he suffered a broken leg.
The son of former long-time Saint Mary's University hockey coach Trevor Stienburg was a third-round draft pick of Colorado in 2019. Trevor Stienburg played in 71 NHL games with the Quebec Nordiques, before the franchise was moved to Colorado.
Barron, 19, of Halifax is the latest member of the bluenose contingent in the Rocky Mountain air. Colorado picked the Halifax Mooseheads captain in the first round of the 2020 NHL draft. Prior to the draft, MacKinnon had put in a few good words for Barron to Joe Sakic, Colorado's executive vice-president of hockey operations and general manager.
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