When you have been covering the game of hockey for four decades, there is very little you have yet to experience. But for Ron MacLean, and the rest of the hockey world, what is happening now across the globe is uncharted territory. The veteran Sportsnet broadcaster is like the rest of us; trying to keep busy and in good spirits, while we navigate through these trying times.
When I answered my phone on Tuesday afternoon, a very familiar voice said hello on the other end and introduced himself. However, there was no need for an introduction as it was a voice that I have been hearing for years on Hockey Night in Canada. MacLean was gracious enough to take some time out of his schedule to chat about the greatest player the game has ever seen, how the NHL can return this year and where the world of broadcasting is heading.
The Great Storyteller
MacLean has recently spent some time with Wayne Gretzky in recording a special two-part series of NHL Classics for Sportsnet. The first part debuted on April 25 with the second part to be aired initially on May 2. In the series, Gretzky opens up and shares his insight on some of the most remarkable moments of his career.
“I’ve often said over the years, that if not Don (Cherry), I would love Wayne to do Saturday nights because he’s a great storyteller,” admitted McLean. “He really respects that behind every big play there is a story and someone who inspired that story.
“He seems to elevate that kind of a chat. He knows so much. Anytime you interview Wayne Gretzky, it’s like being with the Dali Llama of the game. His two biggest idols were Ty Cobb and Gordie Howe, who were both well before his time, but that gives you an idea of his respect for history.”
Sportsnet is running this special at the same time ESPN is showing “The Last Dance,” a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and his final championship with the Chicago Bulls. Both specials are serving a great purpose during this time with no live sports being played.
They are allowing fans to relive some great moments from two of the greatest professional athletes to ever play their respective sports. It also allows for a whole new generation of fans, who never got to see them play in person, to enjoy their greatness from something more than just a YouTube clip or some statistics off of a website.
“You are going to get to know the soul of hockey and a hockey player,” said MacLean about what these episodes will provide. “As a young person trying to figure out who you want to be, times have changed dramatically, but Wayne did a celly. He had a little personality with how he reacted to goals. So, I think, he’s not disconnected from the newer version of the sport.
“His ethics, his respect, shines through and it’s just a great lesson for anybody who wants to try and understand hockey. If you love the game, it’s really worth your while to learn about Jordan and to learn about Gretzky.”
The numbers Gretzky put up in his career are mind-blowing. His career was as if he was playing a video game on “rookie mode” when the rest of the league was stuck at an expert level. If you have been keeping up with our “Today in Hockey History” series, you have gotten a taste of these numbers.
When Gretzky retired from the NHL in 1999, he held 62 league records. He still holds 61 of those, 21 years later. I asked MacLean about which stat is his favorite and he doesn’t marvel at one particular stat or record, but rather just how consistently great he was.
“He always says it’s the 50 (goals) in 39 (games) and it is hard to argue that,” he said of Gretzky. “He also once scored 100 points in 34 games. Those are two blockbuster numbers, but, for me, the most impressive thing about Wayne is that he got to 1,000 points for the first time in 424 games. Then he got to another 1,000 points, to his 2,000th point, in 434 games. To me, that consistency is spellbinding. It’s a compliment to his extended period of brilliance.”
The Desire to Play is Great
After enjoying some time talking about the Great One, we switched gears to address what will need to happen in order for us to see some NHL hockey again in the near future. There have been numerous scenarios presented including one that involves the league picking four arenas to be host sites for the possible end of the regular season and start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I think everybody agrees to honor the Center of Disease Control and World Health Organization, but also respecting that there is a very serious need to reopen America for some people who are in dire straits,” MacLean said. “It’s a critical situation and I think the NBA and NHL know they have a role of inspiration they could play.
“I think they can, hopefully, quarantine – even if it is just two arenas – they have all the way until the end of August, I do believe, to finish out this season. Then, they can take a six-week break, or maybe even a two-month break, and then delay the start of the 2020-21 season. Time is on their side.
“They will have to be very careful not to repeat the mistake that was made with the Spanish Influenza a hundred years earlier, where they had a tough spring, but a disastrous autumn. It’s in the hands of the doctors, but I think there is real energy by everyone involved [to play again].”
While the fans of the game have a great desire to see their favorite players back on the ice, the players themselves are itching to get back to work. The importance of keeping to a routine is important to professional athletes.
“I know coming out of the 2004-05 lockout year, it killed careers,” MacLean recalled. “A lot of veteran players, that was the end of them. They may have come back, but they were never the same. Brett Hull, Dave Andreychuk really struggled to return to play. Even some of the young studs, it really hurt them to take a year off.
“There will be an appetite to do whatever it takes on the players’ side. I think they also see the chance to be a real welcoming respite for a world that’s looking for those kinds of signs. So, I think it will happen.”
The Ever Evolving World of Broadcasting
In addition to hosting the NHL Classic special with Gretzky, MacLean has been doing the “In Conversation” series of web interviews for Sportsnet. He has had the chance to speak to not only hockey players like Tyson Barrie and P.K. Subban, but also other professionals like golfer Mike Weir, skier Lindsey Vonn and even musician Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers.
He has marveled at how technology has allowed for the coverage of the game to evolve, even during a major global pandemic. Some of the practices we have seen over the past few weeks could become a staple of how sports are covered going forward.
“Your access to folks now is unprecedented,” he said. “I see Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner way more now than I ever saw them previously. You see Subban hosting NHL trivia and all these different quorums that are taking place.
“People are able to just click on their email, spend 10 minutes with you and it’s not a big bother to them. Whereas, we used to have to book flights, hotel rooms and all different gear. I think it is highly likely that there’s going to be more, for the lack of a better phrase, ‘work from home’ projects that enhance major league coverage.”
Whenever we are able to get back to whatever our new normal will be, MacLean is hopeful to return to hosting Rogers Hometown Hockey. You could feel the veteran broadcaster’s smile through the phone when I asked him if those trips were as fun as they seem on television.
“Nothing beats sharing a beer and talking hockey with someone at the core of the story,” he beamed. “Everywhere we go, we meet the midget Triple-A hockey coach that produced all these players. It is staggering to hear the stories of the Scotty Bowmans and Al Arbours who are in charge of minor hockey programs.
“That is one of my biggest concerns; if we aren’t able to have big crowds and gatherings, what we do with Hometown Hockey? Next year, it may be a different look, for sure. I really feel the show is a nice message.”
Until the game returns, all of us here at the Hockey Writers will continue to join MacLean in trying to tell the stories that keep us informed and hopeful of the better days that will come. MacLean and I both agreed that we hope the next time our paths cross, it is inside of a crowded NHL arena.