Ron MacLean is the ultimate hockey storyteller because he’s heard them all. Tales of stars-to-be, villains and unsung heroes; tales of tragedy and triumph, loyalty and sacrifice.
Through Hockey Night in Canada, and now as host of Rogers’ Hometown Hockey tour, probably no one has spoken to more players, families, and coaches involved in Canada’s game.
MacLean assembled his favourite tales, from coast-to-coast, in his new book, Hockey Towns: Untold Stories from the Heart of Canada, written with Kirstie McLellan Day, published this fall by HarperCollins.
OTTAWA magazine‘s Chris Lackner sat down with MacLean in Ottawa this week to discuss his hockey lore. His Q&A is followed by an exclusive excerpt from Hockey Towns.
Despite Canada’s regional and linguistic differences, what traits are common to our hockey culture?
I’d say the humility you find in a dressing room.
And how does it bind us together?
Back when Canada was diverging a little bit into two solitudes (French and English Canada) … (along came) the Summit Series (1972), and Yvan Cornoyer and Paul Henderson teamed up, along with Phil Esposito and Serge Savard, and there was a great coming together of the two solitudes to form one Team Canada… and that has played itself out over and over again.
We created the game of hockey, we all connect to it, and how it spread is obviously connected to the growth of the railroad. As the workers went out and put their tracks down, they played hockey in their spare time, and the game spread. Simple as that. That’s why we are all connected to it physically. The beginning of radio broadcasts in 1931 of Hockey Night in Canada and then the TV in ’52 gave us that common experience….
The ultimate thing about hockey in our country is that it’s the one thing you can say we truly invented. I know there’s an argument to be made that it comes from the U.K. … But the game as we know it as a Canadian creation … It’s right there with the First Nations — they gave newcomers canoes and they gave them hockey sticks. Everything about it is uniquely Canadian and that makes it a touchstone, a talisman.
What’s the secret to uncovering great stories?
I would just say it’s always a quest for wisdom. Where will it be found? It’s usually found in conversation — that’s what interviewing is all about. Most education is based on sharing the teachings of others and then there’s the conversation between the student and teacher, and the old saying that “there’s always two teachers in the room.” I’ve been lucky enough to go coast-to-coast and hear from people … often dealing with pressurized situations. That for me is [a key theme]. … How does your moral compass hold up against such temptations as fame and fortune? It’s a really good chance to examine a life we think we know. All these players are elevated because it’s hockey and we tend to make a big fuss about hockey, but ultimately they are living with the same torments and temptations. How do they cope? Often it’s just fortune, luck and divine intervention … and there are a lot of stories in here like that.
Hockey fans may be surprised at your chapter on Wayne Gretzky. Before he became the Great One, you describe a rookie hazing prank played on Gretzky when he was with the Soo Greyhounds in the OHL, in which he ends up buck naked and pulled over by a cop car. You also reveal that his teammates nicknamed him “Pretzel” due to his lanky, tall frame. What do those stories say about the game?
The humility of the dressing room is a thread through the book… I don’t think anything strips class away like a dressing room. That has always been the case. In sport, there are no blue bloods. It’s always been a beautiful thing, from beer league hockey to the NHL, to walk in … and the shedding of rank. That’s what’s neat about the Gretzky story.
The players will keep you humble. … [They] don’t want anyone too high on their horse and they weren’t going to let Wayne get there — though Wayne has always been an incredibly gracious… kind and supportive guy. He’s very careful about inclusion.
Wayne found when he coached he couldn’t [do that]… he was always great at bringing the fourth liner into the mix when he played. But when he coached, and he had to tell the fourth liner he wasn’t going to play tonight, he didn’t know how to do it. It was a whole different skill set. He struggled with that.
There are some tragic stories in your book, tales of family loss or talented players that somehow fell short. Are there any overall lessons hockey can teach?
[One is] be true to yourself. Because you are forced to be a team guy, you spend your whole life swept up in other people’s expectations and it’s extremely tough for an athlete to find themselves. Their identity is blurred with the agenda of a program or a team. They lose themselves in this obsession with victory … it’s very tricky. You are really dealing with a treadmill you can never imagine before you get on to it.
The following is an excerpt from Ron MacLean’s new book, Hockey Towns:
The first man to ever successfully put into words exactly what a big hockey game really means was Phil Esposito at the September 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the USSR. Fresh off the ice in Vancouver after losing 5–3 in Game Four, taking the series to 2–1 for the Soviets, Esposito, his curly black hair stuck to his head thanks to the gallons of sweat he poured into the game, sent an important message home to all of us.
To the people across Canada, we tried, we gave it our best, and to the people that boo us, all of us guys are really disheartened and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed at … some of the Canadian fans—I’m not saying all of them … We’re trying, but hell, I mean … they got a good team, and let’s face facts. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not giving it our 150 per cent, because we certainly are … Every one of us guys, thirty-five guys that came out and played for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason … They can throw anything they want out the window. We came because we love Canada. And even though we play in the United States, and we earn money in the United States, Canada is still our home, and that’s the only reason we come. And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.
After that little pep talk, and thanks to Paul Henderson, Canada came out and won the series. They held their flank on the Russian front. And then, thirty years later in Salt Lake City, Utah, Canada was off to another slow start — hammered by Sweden, they barely beat Germany and then tied the Czechs, their rec- ord 1–1–1. When Theo Fleury was levelled in front of the net by Czech player Roman Hamrlík, it was the last straw for the Great One, and he did something he rarely does. He went public.
“You talk about we’re not a skating team, we can’t move the puck, we have no finesse. That’s crazy. We outskated them into the ground, third period. There should have been four or five penalties, blatant penalties. And [there] should have been two or three suspensions. Am I hot? Yes, I’m hot, ’cause I’m tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey. When we do it, we’re hooligans. When Europeans do it, it’s okay because they’re not tough or they’re not dirty. That’s a crock of crap.”
The team would end up with a gold medal for the first time in fifty years. And at those same Olympics, the Canadian women’s team won gold for the first time ever. As she came off the ice after the win, Hayley Wickenheiser, the undisputed face of Canadian hockey, was more than a little fired up. “You know what? The Americans had our flag on the floor of their dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it! I am so happy!”
It’s usually hard to put these feelings into words, but Esposito, Gretzky, and Wickenheiser are the best of the best. They embody the Canadian spirit — play fair, play to win and don’t mess with our hockey.
Excerpt from: Hockey Towns: Untold Stories from the Heart of Canada by Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day © 2015. Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.