TORONTO — It’s been more than 30 years since Lanny McDonald suited up for an NHL game. His last, of course, was May 25, 1989, the night his Flames clinched a 4-2 win over the Canadiens to bring Calgary the only Stanley Cup in its history.
But three decades on, the mustachioed king of Calgary hockey hasn’t lost his love for the game. Not even close. Just a day before our conversation in mid-January, the 66-year-old was out on the Saddledome ice with nearly 30 other alumni playing some pick-up. He estimates he was the oldest in attendance. But it didn’t matter, he says, because for McDonald, the reasoning for still throwing on the gear and going out for a spin is as simple as it is evident every time he steps on the ice.
“I don’t think there was anyone that played the game that had as much fun as I did,” he says.
That unbridled affinity for the sport has spurred McDonald on to far more than alumni tilts in his old barn. It’s also set him on a path that’s consumed his post-playing days, one focused on growing the game as an ambassador both nationally and globally.
He’s travelled throughout the country for years sharing stories of his glory days, teaching kids to play and bringing the Cup to communities seldom given the opportunity to lay their eyes on it. On Feb. 8, he’ll head north to Yellowknife for Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada, a four-day celebration of the sport. Those journeys — along with a four-and-a-half-year stint as the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame — have granted McDonald the chance to use his platform as one of the game’s most recognizable figures to help widen its reach beyond the usual circles.
“If you love the game and love the history and tradition of the game, what a great opportunity to take that and then spread the good word about the game,” McDonald says.
The key is going beyond the usual neighbourhoods and towns and cities, of understanding that whether it’s a small town in Alberta like the one he grew up in or a city up north like Yellowknife, kids should be given the chance to fall in love with hockey the way he and his fellow NHLers did in their own younger days.
“I think it’s so important, regardless of how big or how small your community is, to have the opportunity to play the game,” McDonald says. “Our alumni do a great job in trying to support KidSport and organizations that try and help make a difference in kids’ lives, whether they may not be able to afford the equipment or may not be able to afford registration, to help out there and give them the feeling that anyone has the opportunity to play. And should have (the opportunity to play).
“And to try and make sure that they have the same opportunities to find the joy of playing this great game that all of us as alumni have had all along.”
The early-February trip up to Yellowknife won’t be the first time the 16-year NHL veteran has gone north to “spread the good word.” In 2017, McDonald and fellow Canadian star Natalie Spooner took the Stanley Cup with them to Nunavut on behalf of Scotiabank and a number of local charities.
“It was absolutely fabulous being able to take the Stanley Cup to a lot of different communities in the north,” McDonald says of the trip. “Bringing a community together like that, through hockey, is absolutely fabulous.”
One year later, hockey’s cheeriest ambassador went international, heading to China with the Calgary Flames as they played a pair of games against the Boston Bruins, an effort to showcase the sport for fans in Shenzhen and Beijing.
“China was special in so many different ways,” McDonald says of what was his third trip to the country. “I took my 12-year-old grandson, Hayden, and to be able to experience a different culture like that, go to the Forbidden City, go to the Great Wall with not only Hayden but also the entire (Flames) team, was really an experience I will never forget.”
It was the indelible impact of the sport on the fans in China that stood out most to him, though.
“To see the fans at the games, a sold-out arena, yelling and screaming — they didn’t have really a favourite team, they were just happy to see NHL hockey, whether it was Boston, who we were playing against, or cheering for the Calgary Flames. It didn’t matter.”
Whether it’s across the ocean or across the country, McDonald’s seen first-hand the value of bringing the game to a community’s doorstep, of taking the ice with young fans and seeing the same look in their eyes that he had as a young boy growing up in Hanna, Alta.
“Throughout every place we’ve been, whether it’s down in Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland a couple years ago, Swift Current, Lloydminster, we’ve had some of the best times you could possibly imagine. And when you do something like this, it’s an opportunity,” he says of his travels.
“Everywhere you go, they’re all ecstatic that that is in their community. We do school visits, we do clinics for the kids, we visit old-folks homes, and especially when you take the Cup in, some of those people may never have seen the Cup. Or they see it on television but never experience it being right in their backyard, and all of a sudden, it’s in their presence.”
The hours McDonald has spent touring the country to promote the sport are plenty, but for him, it’s simply what needs to be done. The onus falls on all of the game’s brightest stars, both past and present, to help introduce new fans to the game, he says, to help the game continue to flourish in new communities.
“I think we all have a responsibility to promote the game and try to encourage young people, girls and boys, to play the game,” he says. “And hopefully share that love that we’ve all had for the game in the first place.”