Ron MacLean was sharing a drink with Wayne Gretzky after the Canadians fell 2-0 to the Russians in the quarterfinals of the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy.
The Great One, who served as the executive director of Canada’s men’s hockey team, bemoaned the loss with the longtime Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster.
‘If we just had [Scott] Niedermayer, we’d have been fine,’ Gretzky had lamented.
Unfortunately for the Canadians, Niedermayer wasn’t available for the Olympic tournament as he was recovering from a knee injury.
However, the following NHL season, he won the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks alongside his brother, Rob.
Not a bad consolation prize.
MacLean is chock-full of stories over a 30-year broadcasting career heading up Hockey Night in Canada, as he stopped in Cranbrook this past weekend with the Rogers Hometown Hockey Tour with co-host Tara Slone and local NHL alumni.
In an interview with the Cranbrook Townsman, MacLean spoke about the common themes as the tour criss-crosses Canada with stops in large cities and NHL markets to small towns in rural regions.
“There is a difference, because in the smaller communities, the NHL is not a first-hand experience, so I think there’s a great excitement when you bring Rob and Scott Niedermayer, Theoren Fleury, or Kirk McLean into town,” MacLean said.
“People in Vancouver or the Lower Mainland, it’s exciting and you still have devout fans, but it’s not quite as exciting as it is when you take the show to Thompson, Manitoba, or Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
“But having said that, that’s honestly one of the things you really recognize really quickly on the tour is that we’re all rink rats and it doesn’t matter how big the population base is, the general admiration for anyone who is able to find their way to The Show [NHL] is there.”
Cranbrook has a rich heritage of representation in the NHL through the Niedermayer brothers, Steve Yzerman, Brad Lukowich, Jon Klemm, the Spring family, Bob and Don Murdoch, Ryan Huska, Tom Renney.
The list goes on.
MacLean noted how the pathway to the NHL has changed over the years, pointing to the Yzerman family when they moved from Vancouver to Cranbrook.
“Mike and Steve, the Yzerman boys, got to skate and that’s kind of the experience you find more…it was kind of the background to the NHL in the 60s, was kids from smaller towns who had exposure to the outdoor ice. Now, the socio-economics of the game have changed so dramatically and the hockey academies are the ticket or the path to the NHL,” MacLean said.
Without a doubt, the Niedermayer brothers are the most famous NHL alumni to hail from the Key City. Scott has won everything there is to win: Olympic gold medals, to Stanley Cups, a Wold Cup, World Championship, World Junior Championship and a Memorial Cup. He also piled up individual awards as the NHL’s top defenceman, playoff MVP and scholastic awards from his WHL days with the Kamloops Blazers.
MacLean recalled watching Scott in action with the New Jersey Devils during the 1995 Stanley Cup finals — his first NHL championship — in Game 2 against the Detroit Red Wings.
“Scott went end-to-end and scored the goal that really sealed the deal in that series to take control to win the second game for New Jersey and to stun the Detroit Red Wings, which won 62 games in the regular season that year,” MacLean said.
“That typified Scott’s great way.”
Both Niedermayer brothers enjoyed long careers in the NHL but they never played together.
Scott had left the Devils as an unrestricted free agent in the 2006 offseason to join the Ducks, where Rob had been playing since 2003.
After a lengthly run through the playoffs, the Ducks overcame the Ottawa Senators in a five game series as Rob captured his first NHL championship alongside his older brother.
“Of course, I remember Carol and the touching moment of when Scott passed the cup to Rob,” MacLean said. “I have great respect for Rob and what he did during the ’07 Cup, the best line on the Ducks was Travis Moen, Sammy Påhlsson and Rob. He was just a force making sure he was going to get that ring.”
A western boy, MacLean grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, before getting into the local broadcasting scene. He joined Hockey Night in Canada in 1986 and has been covering the NHL ever since.
When MacLean took over HNIC hosting duties, he also inherited a new parter for what’s become an institution on the broadcast.
Enter Don Cherry and Coach’s Corner.
Cherry, a former NHL player and coach, has become an icon of the show with his brash, outspoken demeanor and disregard for political correctness.
Also the flamboyant suits.
During the Coach’s Corner segment, Cherry usually provides some game analysis and breaks down a team or individual player’s habits with praise or ridicule, while MacLean tries to keep the conversation moving.
“Don knows if the show is becoming pap,” said MacLean. “If we’ve been on the air and nothing’s going on, he will generate a little emotion. I think that’s a very engrained part of how he coached, how he played so he knows if the show needs a little sizzle and I often pay the price.”
It’s a price MacLean pays willingly, even if the banter is at his expense.
“I was raised with TV shows like Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart and Hogan’s Heroes, Archie Bunker…all the shows that I grew up with, the hero was really the fall guy and you kind of sacrificed yourself for the greater good and it was fun,” he said. “There was a real wink about the whole thing. That’s how I always felt.
“I was supposed to be the host. I remember when I started, CBC was really on me…‘Ron, you are kind of the voice of the CBC, you are the one who has to reign Don in, we can’t have you being run roughshod.
“And I was thinking to myself, ‘Why not?’”
MacLean and HNIC made the move from CBC over to Rogers when the company acquired the NHL broadcasting rights in 2013.
He was briefly replaced by George Strombolopolous as the host of HNIC but remained with the Coach’s Corner segment. However, he returned to hosting duties for the full program for the 2016/17 NHL season.
Though MacLean’s name is synonymous with Canadian hockey broadcasting, he’s also been involved in other sports coverage, notably the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, China.
But when it comes to the highlights of his career, it always circles back to Canada’s game.
His greatest thrill was broadcasting his first-ever Stanley Cup playoff game in 1987 between the St. Louis Blues and the Calgary Flames.
“The puck was faced off right after I did my little opening monologue,” he said. “They dropped the puck and two Leaf defenders are smashed up against the glass under a ferocious forecheck by St. Louis and the crowd is going crazy and there’s blood on the glass and I thought, ‘Wow, this is the first minute of 60 days of commitment.’
He likened the playoffs, and the buildup to the Olympics for that matter, as creating conditions similar to that of symptoms for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the players and the athletes.
“I just can’t even imagine what your brain is like after having to go through it,” MacLean said. “I know with the Olympians, I just sit and watch and observe former players and former Olympians, and I think…Alex Despatie [a former Olympic diver] talked about how he would lock himself up in a room after the Olympics for anywhere from two to three weeks; he just couldn’t face society and that was the night I recognized that and I was grateful for that. It gave me a different perspective on how I would do my job, I would be a lot more forgiving, I would be a lot more compassionate or empathetic.”
The game itself has changed dramatically since he first started from the clutch-and-grab era to the salary cap to three-on-three overtime. The style of play has changed as well, as teams emphasize speed and skill while enforcers are going the way of the dinosaur.
But the greatest change has been the salary cap, which was introduced a decade ago after a dispute between NHL franchise owners and the NHL Players’ Association caused a lockout that cancelled the entire 2005 season.
MacLean says the cap has forced franchises to dole out large salaries to four or five star players while the rest of the roster jockeys for the leftover cap space.
“I don’t think it’s killed the sport by any means but I feel a little bit badly that I wish the baseball model was in play where the rich teams could pay a tax and then players would actually cheer for each other when they got a raise,” MacLean said. “So that’s a little different dynamic in the room, but at core, it’s like everything else. All wisdom is knowing what to overlook and all these little changes keep everything fresh.
“…What makes hockey great will always make hockey great despite the changes that we bring into the game.”