Ron MacLean talks Hometown Hockey, Babcock, and Jets

Ron MacLean joins Breakfast Television's Alex Despatie to discuss the upcoming season of Rogers Hometown Hockey on Sportsnet.

Rogers Hometown Hockey is back for its second year. The tour will roll through 24 communities, starting in Kitchener, Ontario on Thanksgiving weekend, and finishing in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Ron MacLean returns as the host of Canada’s ultimate hockey festival, where he will deliver unique hockey stories inside the Sportsnet Mobile Studio every Sunday.

MacLean sat down with Sportsnet for a Q&A on Thursday to talk about the return of Hometown Hockey, expectations for the 2015-16 season, and why he thinks big things are in store for the Winnipeg Jets.

Sportsnet: Hometown Hockey logged over 31,000 kilometres through 10 provinces and six time zones in Season 1. Was there a moment where you thought this country and its peoples’ connection and passion for this game can still surprise you?

Ron MacLean: The story that kind of strikes me above all else is meeting the coaches of AAA teams in certain towns. John Batchelor was with the Burnaby Winter Club, a guy named Doug Korman coached the midget AAAs in Thompson, Manitoba, and Jon Goyens coached the midget AAA Lac St. Louis Lions in the West Island of Montreal.

Those three guys, for whatever reason, of everything that we did I just felt so grateful to get them on TV. There were lots of superstars, you know, Darryl Sittler, Guy Lafleur, Lanny McDonald. There were lots of heart-warming and inspiring stories told, but for me, the greatest joy was to get those coaches on the show. So we end the first period of a game between the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, then whack! — here’s Doug Korman from Thompson, Manitoba. I loved that.

It didn’t surprise me. They all acquitted themselves with humility and ease. They knew the game through and through, and they were the Glen Sather or Scotty Bowman of their particular towns. I can’t say it surprised me because I’ve refereed hockey all across Canada for 20 years, but every time I walked into one of these arenas I would just get a kick out of these coaches. That was my highlight of the year.

SN: The Edmonton Oilers won the Connor McDavid sweepstakes and engaged in flash remodelling over the summer and the Calgary Flames appear ready to take a step forward after a surprising season. Is it safe to say the Battle of Alberta is back?

MacLean: For sure. The only caveat I’d say is that the Winnipeg Jets are a sneaky something special as well. Nik Ehlers was on Hometown Hockey last year in Halifax. I love Nic Petan. I don’t hear a lot of talk about Petan but I am a huge fan of his. They have Josh Morrissey coming… so I think they are also rounding out, like Calgary, a really solid defence. They have a high-end defence. They have a good coach. Mark Scheifele, too, is a really good talent coming along. They remind me a little of Calgary.

It’s funny, when we’re on in those two cities (Winnipeg and Calgary) they’re like ‘why not us, why does it have to be Edmonton who’s going to win the Cup in 2-4 years?’

The answer is always back to McDavid. Connor is just in that Crosby-Gretzky league and it will just pump Edmonton a notch above. So the Battle of Alberta is really back on.

SN: Can the Montreal Canadiens take the next step?

MacLean: With the Habs and the Max Pacioretty injury… you know, lots of guys come back from that. Al MacInnis comes to mind. He’ll (MacInnis) probably join us in Kitchener as he was a former Kitchener Ranger. Al injured his knee pretty badly and he came back from it, so I shouldn’t be too worried about that.

I feel like Montreal had a year where Carey Price was all-world. They need to add some parts. They’ve tried a few things, but I don’t know that the depth is there. I think they’re in tough this year.

SN: You’ve said Mike Babcock is a big believer in “ghost rosters,” he doesn’t want too many of the same type of players. What’s been your impression of the Maple Leafs’ off-season and are you seeing a fit for Babcock’s style?

MacLean: They’re in a really difficult situation. We all believe the perfect next step would be to sign Steven Stamkos in a year and draft Auston Matthews. You can’t play for that, but that’s sort of where they’re at right now.

What Babcock will do is look at a team and say ‘OK, I’ve got Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews, and Mike Richards, and I’m going to make them the checking line.’ That’s what he did at the Olympics in 2010 and that takes a unique eye.

Ken Holland said it of Babcock in Detroit. He wasn’t involved in the draft, but on July 1st when they went after free agents it was all Babcock. He was extremely involved in that. To give you an example, he was the guy that really pushed for Brian Rafalski. He knew that Rafalski would round out a defence that already featured Nick Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall. He knew that he was the guy he needed, the puck-moving player. When they signed Rafalski on July 1, 2007 he said to his family ‘we just won the Stanley Cup,’ and he was right. They won it in 2008 and almost in 2009 but they ran out of gas.

SN: We’ve watched many teams spend money on analytics over the last couple of years. As someone that’s been around the game a long time, have you seen a tangible impact analytics have had on the way teams play and/or operate?

MacLean: Well I think the trade of [Phil] Kessel is probably analytics based. My knowledge of Babcock, and Mike might refute this, is that his plus/minus system starts with when you move the puck. What happens next? If it’s good you get a plus, if it’s bad you get a minus. It’s not whether there’s a goal scored, for or against. He looks very much at what you do on the ice and your accountability and responsibility. Evidently, he must have felt that Kessel was not statistically, or analytically speaking, a player that could win them games.

Babcock’s meat is one-goal wins. Maybe Toronto will eke out a ton of them this year, who knows? His examination of analytics, probably Corsi and others, helps him to find the players that fit into tight-game scenarios.

In the new NHL where they are all in the playoff race for 82 games and where fatigue is an unbelievable enemy, analytics helps you know which guys can be counted upon in a tight-game. That’s what Babcock and others are trying to do.

SN: Will Phil Kessel click with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh?

MacLean: Ken Hitchcock told me in Vancouver their biggest challenge at the 2010 Games was to figure out who to play with Sid because he’s so unique. Bobby Orr was apparently difficult to play with. Larry Robinson said in his book he was tricky to play with. It’s because they’re so creative and so unique.

Will Kessel click? Bill Guerin clicked with Sidney Crosby. He had speed and a great shot, so that would be a good parallel.

I know that Babcock went to Sid in Vancouver and said ‘who do you want?’ and he said give me Jarome Iginla. Jarome wasn’t the fastest guy, but he was a trigger guy. I think Kessel is Guerin-like and for that reason Crosby probably thinks it will work. If Sid thinks it will work… [Laughs] I’m not arguing with him.

SN: Can the Vancouver Canucks be a competitive team in the Western Conference in 2015-16?

I fear this will be a real challenging year for Vancouver. We’re all sitting here like vultures saying ‘you’re too old, you’re too old,’ but it just feels like the strength of Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg added to what I consider the strength of the conference, the Blackhawks, Ducks, and Kings, will be too much for them.

SN: Who’s a team that will surprise people in 2015-16?

MacLean: For me it’s the Jets. They’re expected to have a fall back, and this is a risky prediction, but I feel like Ehlers, Morrissey, and Petan, if they’re given a shot will take that team to a whole new level. Their defence is extremely good.

I think Dallas…last year was a bit of a learning curve for them, those guys Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are too good for them not to do better. But I have to go with the Jets.

SN: The rookie to watch for next year not named McDavid or Eichel is…

MacLean: I have to say Nic Petan in Winnipeg. He has to make the team, but he would be my guy.

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