As we launch our Sunday night expedition, the road travelled shall be our guide.
To be sure, hopscotching a nation or the globe in support of a television show is not new or unique. From Wide World of Sports to The Amazing Race, many have used travel as a tell-tale device. But what we will have that all other shows have not are ancestral totems, mythic figures and a symbolic purpose. The Rocket. The Great One. Sid. A hockey stick, puck, rinks and the Stanley Cup.
A weekend festival culminating with a three-and-a-half-hour broadcast set against the backdrop of an NHL game, Rogers Hometown Hockey is a weekly edition of the now-well-established Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada. Having traversed the country since Hockey Day was born in 2000, I’ve discovered that an annual celebration simply could not entirely harvest the bounty of stories, nor cover the scope of this country’s map.
Hosting hockey out on the backbone of the sport has been stirring. It’s where the game’s playfulness returns time and again.
In Nelson, B.C., I heard my favourite "making it" story. Sixteen-year-old Danny Gare’s midget hockey team had just won the 1972 B.C. provincial title. Danny’s father, Ernie, a college teacher in town, called his son into his office and said, "Danny, what do you want to do with your life?"
Danny replied, "I want to play in the NHL."
Ernie told Danny to be at Selkirk College every weekday at 4 p.m. and they would train together: shooting pucks, running hills and even boxing. A huge map of Canada hung on the wall behind Ernie’s office desk. After each workout, they would pin a thumbtack over another Canadian city, town or village on the map. "That," Ernie said, "means that you, Danny, have done more to prepare to make the NHL than the best 16-year-old player living in the place we just thumbtacked."
Two years later, when Danny was selected by the Buffalo Sabres, you could scarcely recognize Canada beneath all the tacks. That’s what it takes.
I’ve been humbled. Truly. In Charlottetown, P.E.I., the local weatherman, Boomer Gallant, buried me at the banquet. I had claimed to have once been a TV weatherman and felt it kick-started my career. Fair Isles’ favourite son, Boomer thundered, "Ron MacLean wouldn’t know a warm front if he wet himself."
In Stratford, home of the famed Shakespeare festival, Don Cherry and I did the Bard. I wrote a skit to open the telecast based on King Lear, because to do Macbeth was supposed to be bad luck. But Grapes knew the latter from his boyhood and insisted we quote from it. Fittingly, he went on TV and pronounced, "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!"
Telling stories, be they inspirational, amusing or both, is about exploring ourselves. And in doing so this year, we will find a thread — one that stitches together hometowns and hockey to produce a magnificent yarn. We’re going home.