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For the love of the game

Hockey icon, historian Ron MacLean a key player in Canada's most passionate pastime

Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files</p><p>Sportscaster Ron McLean greets locals during the "Hometown Hockey" event last year in Brandon.</p>

Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files

Sportscaster Ron McLean greets locals during the "Hometown Hockey" event last year in Brandon.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/4/2016 (1416 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the eve of the final Sunday night Rogers Hometown Hockey broadcast of the season, one thing to know is Ron MacLean loves Winnipeg.

It’s a thing easier said than judged. Business and a basic grasp of Public Relations 101 can coax praises of the city from otherwise uninvested mouths. For instance, NHL players dutifully pump Winnipeg’s tires — "great hockey city," you know — even as player polls rank Winnipeg among their least favourite destinations.

"I know from first-hand experience, that’s not true," MacLean says, laughing. "I won’t list the towns that are worse. But there are way worse places to go in the NHL. But that would be the perception, right? You go to U.S. college and you marry an American girl, and it’s pretty tough to convince her to come and play in Winnipeg."

MacLean is different. He gets it. Ask the 55-year-old CBC broadcaster about his favourite Winnipeg hockey memory, and he spins off into history: not just the rise of the WHA-era Jets, but back to the Icelandic skaters and the Winnipeg Falcons. He lists the hockey folk who have influenced him — sports psychologist Cal Botterill, colleague Scott Oake — and then he turns to culture.

He starts with authors: Miriam Toews, David Bergen. Then the music. In a recent Hometown Hockey blog, MacLean toasted songwriter John K. Samson. (As for the tune by Samson’s former bandmates in Propagandhi, the anti-imperialist anthem Dear Coach’s Corner and its pleading opening lyric of "Dear Ron MacLean," the broadcaster says he’s heard the song and he’s flattered, but he’s never met them to chat about it.)

Anyway, the point is this: MacLean loves Winnipeg. "It’s always been the cultural heartbeat of the country," he says. "It’s a fascinating city."

Now he gets to wrap up the NHL season here, hosting the final instalment of the festive Hometown Hockey live from The Forks. The format is part civic pep rally, part hockey broadcast and part a skate down memory lane: Chantal Kreviazuk will perform. Botterill, former Winnipeg Jets star defenceman Dave Babych and True North CEO Mark Chipman will all make appearances. 

Two seasons into this new vehicle, MacLean has settled into it. When Rogers first bought the exclusive rights to national NHL broadcasts in a 12-year, $5.2-billion package, it installed George Stroumboulopoulos in MacLean’s former chair as Hockey Night in Canada host. In October 2014 the Globe and Mail reported MacLean was "not as sanguine about the change as it seems." 


The Sunday night broadcast was his prize in exchange. In some ways, MacLean gets to lead a format that plays better to his strengths: his genteel gravitas, his well-documented love of Canadiana, his expansive mental treasure trove of localized hockey lore.

It means shlepping all over Canada and breezing into a whirlwind of public staging — almost like hosting a mini-Calgary Stampede each weekend, he says. It puts him in the heart of things, alongside a colourful and ever-changing cast that ranges from retired NHLer and abuse-survivor advocate Sheldon Kennedy to Yukon trans rights activist Chase Blodgett.

"If you ever studied marketing, it’s kind of a perfect storm," he says. "It’s got the game. It’s got the sponsors. It’s got the customers and it’s got music... it’s exhausting, and yet you feed off the joy you experience at each stop along the way."

It also means other media, so MacLean does the rounds. He called at 8:55 a.m. on the dot, without the intercession of a public relations flack who sometimes handles these kinds of introductions. Nope, MacLean says, there’s none of that in his gig. Once, some years ago, he was at an event with comedian Red Green, otherwise known as Steve Smith. That guy had to have security because of throngs of fervent fans that flood up from the United States. For the most part, being Ron MacLean is much more normal. 

SUPPLIED</p><p>Ron MacLean is in Winnipeg this weekend for the final Hometown Hockey NHL broadcast of the season.</p>


Ron MacLean is in Winnipeg this weekend for the final Hometown Hockey NHL broadcast of the season.

So it’s just a chat then, person to person. This is, somewhat famously, the way MacLean prefers to do it. It allows him the space for more refined ruminations: there aren’t many sportscasters left who pepper their commentary with references to 19th Century French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Come to think of it, maybe there were never that many who did.

Right now, though, there is hockey news afoot. This week saw the release of a massive cache of internal NHL emails, part of an ongoing court case regarding the league’s handling of the concussion issue. Though MacLean is, famously, not exactly chummy with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman — it was widely debated their rift could have influenced MacLean’s removal from the HNIC host gig — he thought Bettman came off "very well" in the emails.

"He looks like the lawyerly ethicist he is," MacLean says. "That’s the thing I would emphasize above all. I think Gary, if you listen to everything he says, it’s with an eye to getting it ethically right. And it’s extremely complicated in the issue of fighting."

It’s a tangled issue, MacLean agrees, tied up in knots of culture and mental health. But he muses it is money, above all, that can put players in a vulnerable position. The old-school idea of "suck it up and play" — an attitude on display in the unsealed emails, from former players turned NHL executives — may be changing; the pressure to hang on to a roster that is constantly in flux is not.

"The fact of the matter is, professional sport is a livelihood," he says. "And every man or woman is in it for themselves. That’s why there’s an element of, ‘you never let your guard down, you never show weakness.’ You’re fearful of your job, pure and simple. That’s the biggest reason why it gets done."

In a way, MacLean can relate. He wrestled with panic attacks early in his career, and sometimes they were debilitating. Once, he remembers, he was doing an on-location hit at a stereo shop in Red Deer, Alta., when the wave washed over him. Twenty seconds into what was supposed to be a 60-second commercial blurb, he broke down.

"My adrenaline was so out of control that I couldn’t carry on," he says. "They’d go to songs, and fill the time, and 12 minutes later I’m due to do another 60-second hit, and I had no idea of how to go about expressing my situation to people. I thought I was the only one in the world who experienced such anxiety.

"I knew if I did not get through that next 60-second hit, my career was over... it was a fight-or-flight, make-or-break moment that I kind of got my way through. I wish there had been counselling, or ways to understand ways the triggers. That would have prevented me from going there, but I was 19 years old and (had) none of that equipment with which to battle this."

The anxiety still creeps up on him, occasionally. The best escape he’s found, he adds, is to try and get out of his own head; that gets harder to do, in a media landscape that is increasingly pressured by rapid-fire audience metrics. When everything you do is being scrutinized for numbers, it’s hard to lose yourself in the intimacy of the interview, in uncovering a story that may be more poetic than popular.

MacLean still thinks about that experience sometimes, like he did last November when he and his Coach’s Cornerpartner Don Cherry were inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

The pride of it, he muses, is that he got through that night in Red Deer. Then he got through more than 30 years on the nation’s screens, crafted himself into the hockey conscience of a nation and launched a million laughs for his pained reactions to Cherry’s most pugnacious statements.

"Satisfaction is a dangerous word too, but I’m only human," he says. "I had that gratitude that I was able to endure, and that Don and I were able to be a couple. A crazy couple, an odd couple. I felt great about that."

Then he goes back to the written word, reaching for a quote from his second-favourite essayist, Joseph Epstein. (His favourite is former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham). "What’s in it for the talent, is the pure joy of doing it," is how MacLean recalls the quote. 

"That’s the truth of the matter," he says. "Whether you get the awards or the recognition, is not nearly as important as whether you have the opportunity to actually perform the task. I had that as the weatherman in Red Deer, and I’ve had that in lots of different phases, and you’re just pure grateful for that."


Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

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Updated on Friday, April 1, 2016 at 6:33 PM CDT: Writethrough

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