Ron MacLean on Crosby, Burke, Cherry’s advice

Ron MacLean joins Hazel Mae to discuss the Rogers Hometown Hockey tour.

On Sunday nights this winter, we could see sports fans vote with their remote controls along patriotic lines (or just wear the crap out of the “Last Channel” button) as the most American of TV programs, Sunday Night Football, overlaps Rogers Hometown Hockey, Sportsnet’s new prime-time NHL showcase.

Selected to host Hometown Hockey is a man synonymous with grassroots hockey. Ron MacLean, 54, hosted Hockey Night in Canada from 1987 to 2014 and is sure to get recognized in any Canadian community the rolling studio takes him.

We picked MacLean’s brain for a few stories and opinions as he embarks on his first season as host of Hometown Hockey and yet another go-round as Don Cherry’s straight man on the iconic “Coach’s Corner.”

Sportsnet: Is there any place on the Hometown Hockey itinerary you haven’t already visited?
Ron MacLean: Yes. Prince George [B.C.]. I believe I’ve been to every other one. We did Kraft Hockeyville in Terrace, which is nearby. Stan Butler used to coach the Wexford Raiders. He was kinda the guy that started up the Cougars junior team. [Zdeno] Chara played there, so did Chris Mason from Red Deer, Alta. Oh! I’ve never been to Fort McMurray, Alta., come to think of it. I’ve been to Grand Prairie but not McMurray. So, those are the two.

To which town are you most excited to return?
We go to Moncton on Jan. 11 for the Oilers-Panthers game. Moncton just hits me right in the heart and throat because three RCMP officers were gunned down there in the Stanley Cup Final. My dad worked for the RCMP for 15 years. Charlie Bourgeois, who played for the Calgary Flames in the early ’80s, was one of the first guys to take me under his wing when I was a young broadcaster. His father had been killed in much the same fashion 40 years earlier—an RCMP officer in Moncton. So going to Moncton will be sad on one side.

But it’s also a happy refection because in ’85 I did the Flames training camp as a reporter for CFAC-TV in Calgary. I was in a little bar called Ziggy’s—no longer exists—and Brian (Chevy) Ford introduced himself to me. He was a goaltender that the Red Deer Ruslters Junior A team picked up to win the Centennial Cup. He was a St. Albert Saint, but we were allowed to pick up a goalie. I have a great memory of meeting Brian Ford. When I was doing NHL work early on, there were only two people I knew in the NHL: Duane Sutter and Brian Ford.

Your voice cracked when you mentioned Moncton. Can you recall a time you got emotional on air?
We just did a documentary for Hockey Night in Canada, and I ended up speaking about Don Cherry in that interview, and I totally broke down. I can’t say I’ve ever done that. I’ve watched Don lose it so many times—rightfully—on fallen soldiers or police officers or firefighters, but just telling the story of when [Don’s wife] Rose passed away, I broke down.

From a career point of view, the only times I felt overwhelmed, they were tears of joy. When Marianne Limpert of Fredericton won a silver medal in the 200 IM (individual medley) at the Atlanta Olympics, and on a hockey scale it was the Salt Lake City gold. I didn’t think it would mean anything to me, but I was happy for the Canadian hockey team and all the fans. Salt Lake City, I remember we went out to Provo for Game 2 against Germany, and Don Cherry and I were in a car. You know Grapes: he’s got his flashy jacket and his collar. Winnebagos are nearly crashing into us because they recognize Don. There were so many Canadians in Salt Lake City; it was very handy for Winnipeggers and Thunder Bay folks. I was happy Canada got that win that day, and I was borderline emotional about it. Which is rare.

How much do you see Don in the summer?
We had to turn it off because we get sick of each other after 60 straight days in the playoffs. We’ve had a longstanding understanding that we’re real tight but we could really easily screw it up if we get laissez-faire.

Don is a livewire. He’s a supercharged individual living life on four hours sleep and thinking hard about everything. That’s hard on friendships, I’m sure. He’s an intense guy to be around. So we take a break in the summer, but I had to phone him for the Ice Bucket Challenge: “Are you OK with this? Because I’m about to ruin one of your nice outfits.” Turned out, I was about to water his flowers.

When was the last time Don surprised you with a suit selection or an opinion?
The most recent stunner was his take on women reporters in the dressing room. He kept that from me. The underhanded, diabolical guy that he is, he told everybody—Kathy Broderick, his second in command, who helps him with Twitter and clip accumulation; he told Leanne, the makeup artist. He didn’t tell anyone in charge at the show, of course, but he told a lot of my closest friends, who—sworn to secrecy—kept it from me. Then he hit me on the air with, “No way women should be in the dressing room as reporters.” [I thought,] OK, Ron, pull it together. How are you gonna handle that?

Does the debate go on after you cut to commercial?
One that did go on was when Brian Burke accused me of bushwhacking. He says I bushwhacked him on TV when he was GM of the Leafs for asking, “Why don’t you have any Ontario players?”

Ron Wilson had just been fired [in March 2012]. I said, “You said you didn’t want Ron Wilson being exposed to the fans at Air Canada Centre and the harassment he would receive one more time at home, so you let him go. Isn’t that giving the fans too much power? Isn’t that almost an excuse the players could use, that this is a hostile crowd?”

And he said, “No. I’ll give you an example. We get a lot of players coming in here from Ontario on the opposition. Their parents and friends are here and they get jacked up to play us.”

Then I had to think. I knew Don Cherry was waiting for one day to bring up the lack of Ontario players on the Leafs. I couldn’t resist. He just said the opponents had a lot of Ontario players. To which I said, “Why don’t you have any, then?” He felt that was a surprise, but it wasn’t. He brought it up.

Who was your toughest interview?
Grant Fuhr was exceptionally humble. You sweat a little if players have short answers. Grant was the [Stanley] Cup winner, the Canada Cup winner; he was right there as the goaltender. He was like a cowboy. He refused to take any credit for his performance or explain his performance. You loved that about him, but because he was the No. 1 star, it was a challenge.

Mostly I remember the good interviews. [Wayne] Gretzky was at the forefront. Scotty Bowman has a fascinating stream of consciousness. Dino Ciccarelli was stunningly great. Tony McKegney. Steve Konroyd was a tremendous interview, a surprise.

Do hockey players get a bad rap for being too cliché or too safe in interviews?
It’s changed. I feel like Sidney Crosby is just like Gretzky—same love of the game. He has hockey card collections and an unbelievable reservoir of stories. But I think social media has scared him off. The new player is just terrified of making a misstep, and it’s in perpetuity. It’s there, and it’s distributed. It has shackled the player of today.

The way we do interviews has changed. We used to bring Wayne into the studio, drape a towel over him, and it was a controlled setting. You didn’t feel like you were being overheard. Most of the interviews are conducted in a public forum now—in a hallway, on the ice in front of other players. Guys are wary of being overheard. They don’t want to be laughed at. A sit-down interview is much the preferred forum, like what we’re having.

What’s the most important broadcast skill you picked up over the years? Was it sharpening your interviews?
My interview skills aren’t great. I’m not a good mainstream thinker; I would flatter myself by saying I’m trying to find a deeper level. Like at the Beijing Olympics I wanted to interview Mark Tewksbury on the subject of gay athletes. He’d written an incredible book on that, Straight Talk from a Gay Jock. I really wanted to go there, and I got a lot of heat for it. The Globe & Mail tore a strip off me. Bosses at CBC weren’t happy for my choosing that subject matter. Times have fast-forwarded. I love that kind of discussion. I’ve got ideas that are a bit twisted.

What helped early in my career was a bit of advice Don Cherry gave me: “Stay away from the players. Don’t go down to the dressing room. Don’t go to the bench during the morning skate. The less you’re considered a floater or a hanger-on, the more the players will be excited to see you.”

I’ve heard the opposite theory. That most players prefer reporters who are familiar, who are regularly covering their team.
Well, due to the social media, the players now are looking for a tidbit or a selfie or a photobomb opportunity. They’re of a different ilk, and that’s good. They’re more comfortable with the idea of PR and that’s ultimately what newspapers, magazines, our show is: It’s PR for the league. It’s changed, but Grapes’ advice was helpful early on. I know it’s the truth. I could feel that they came to us. Don and I sit up high during pre-game skates, and then Darryl Sutter feels okay to come sit with us, because it’s away from the surge and volume of the maddening crowd.

Can you recall a time you made a pun and regretted it—one that was too much of a stretch?
They’re all a stretch. You lock yourself into a reputation. I flatter myself to think Shakespeare was a fan of puns. Most people write them off as incredibly lame, and some are just embarrassing. But it’s an addiction. I could give you a whole list of excuses why I’m susceptible: my mom loved them, bumper stickers on half-ton trucks in Red Deer loved them, I had a buddy in high school who loved them, and I like them.

Did you do it as a kid?
Yeah, but honestly, it was a device to help me with Coach’s Corner, to infer there are two sides to the story—because there is no time for the debate there either. Don has six-and-a-half minutes, and we want to hear Don. He might make two or three points, and sometimes if he’s making a good one, he’s gone five minutes long.

There’s no time to say, “You’re wrong about female reporters in the dressing room, and here’s why.” So I’d flip it with a pun to make light of it and hope it served the purpose of saying, “There’s two sides to the story!”

Don, I remember, grabbing me by the scuff of my neck six months in: “My brother Richard says, ‘You can’t have that little guy making fun of you with those shots at the end.’ So it resonated with Don that I was achieving the two sides of the story, which was good. But mockery is not good.

There are times, after your pun, where he makes a face like he didn’t catch the joke.
There are days when you’re hearing your guest perfectly. Your mind is sharp, and you’ve got a question ready. There’s days you don’t have that. So when Don acts flummoxed or lost, it’s because he’s so absorbed in his own speech that he half paid attention. He misses a lot of them until he goes home and watches Coach’s Corner the next day. He’s really dialed into that. It’s his baby.

Bringing it back to Hometown Hockey, the sport has been criticized for not being affordable at a grassroots level. What are your thoughts on hockey as a participation sport for Canadian kids?
Every equipment manufacturer has created initiatives to make the game more affordable. It’s a problem. Patrick Kane’s dad probably spent $250,000 to $300,000 getting him to the NHL; I bet people at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, their parents spent the same amount on dance. Golf, tennis, soccer—soccer’s not cheap. Yes, the shoes and the ball are cheap, but to actually be involved in organized soccer is an expensive proposition. I’m not saying there aren’t things that should be done in cooperation between corporate and government [to boost participation].

But at its core, the beauty of Hometown Hockey is it illustrates that, above all else, the things that rise above are character and community. That’s what we’re grateful for as Canadians. We have a sport that we share that unifies us across parochial concerns, and it teaches a quality that we as Canadians have really been proud of. When you watch that Olympic team in Sochi—both of them—who wouldn’t want to be like them? It’s a lesson small-town Canada continually teaches us.

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