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At the Rink, with Ron MacLean

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Ron MacLean

By Adam Freill

The local rink is a revered space for many Canadians. It’s where we gather to build personal character as we play our national sport as kids, and cheer on our hometown heroes as we get older, and it’s where you’ll find Ron MacLean every Sunday during the NHL season as host of Rogers Hometown Hockey.

”We show up with a little bit of our own story to tell, and connections to the NHL and Hockey Night in Canada,” said the 57-year-old broadcaster during an exclusive interview from his home in Oakville, Ont. ”When we get there, we get bombarded with local lore and legend about the game. It’s just really rewarding.”

Still playing twice a week at his local rinks, Ron loves the way that dressing room comradery can bring out the best in a group.

”It strips the community of all rank and order. It brings us together and allows us to each be like the other, and to think about the other, and work with the other,” he says. ”Hockey requires teamwork. To me it is the ultimate expression of goodwill. You definitely see it in a rink.”

Hitting the ice

Ron fondly recalls his first steps on a rink, steps that would start his hockey odyssey.

”My father was in the Air Force, so we were stationed in Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1964. We lived a little dwelling called Steelox. It was so cold in the winter that you could see frost heaves where the bolts were on the walls in the inside of the home,” he reflected. ”Across the street, the Clemente family built a backyard rink. They invited me over.”

So, like for so many Canadians, on went a pair of bob skates and, with a chair for balance, he took his first strides.

”What I actually remember from that first skate was chewing balsam sap as a chewing gum after skating – or trying to skate,” he laughs. ”It didn’t take long to get better. We had good long winters in the Yukon, and ample opportunity to get on outdoor ice, and I just fell in love with the game.”

Trading to stripes

Although he grew up playing hockey, he traded his stick for referee’s stripes when he landed a radio job in high school.

”I had been cut by the Red Deer Rustlers Jr. A franchise, and had the option to play juvenile, but we didn’t wear masks in those years. I was really worried that I would get a stick in the mouth,” he says.

Concern that dental work could affect his ability to have clear delivery on the microphone, one of his friends suggested that he try his hand at being an on-ice official.

”I had a friend who was refereeing who said, ‘Ron, rather than play, you should try reffing. It’s a way to stay in the game, and it is a safer way for you, now that you are starting your radio career,’” he explained. ”I went out and it was like a hurricane. I couldn’t believe how confusing it was the first time I refereed, but it doesn’t take long. Before you know it, it is just fantastic.”

Experience helped with that comfort zone, but he credits an early boss and mentor, Wayne Barry, with giving him advice that helped him, both on and off the ice.

”He explained to me if you let the guest be the star, you will be the star,” says Ron. ”That was the greatest lesson, and I approached refereeing the same way. You want your interviewee, or the player, to hit the high note. By taking that quiet, background role, you can make it happen. It was really a perfect parallel for a young radio announcer.”

Finding his calm, at game speed

Although it was not a topic that was openly discussed early in his career, Ron admits that he battled a lot of anxiety when he first hit the airwaves. Working as a referee became an available escape from the nerves he would feel in front of an audience, however.

”I used to suffer from severe anxiety, from the time I was about 18 to maybe 30, I would get the butterflies,” he shared. ”I would fight my way through that – none of us knew or thought about mental illness then, and certainly would never confide that we were weak – but I never had that on the ice.

”It was always a really comfortable place for me. The safest place that I could be was on the ice. I never felt anxiety refereeing.”

And while he cannot say definitively why he was so comfortable at the rink, he does have a theory.

”Because there is so much movement happening, and you are reacting because everything is so fast, that you don’t have time to think. There’s no way to dwell about things when you are on the ice.”

Over the years, he learned other coping skills as well.

”I had to learn – slowly but surely – to get outside of yourself; stop thinking about how you are coming across and start thinking about what it is you are trying to get across, and who you are doing it for. Once you get into that place, all that anxiety slides away.”

Exploring microcosms of courage

In addition to being one of the most recognized personalities in Canadian broadcasting, Ron is also a bestselling author, penning a pair of books, including Hockey Towns: Untold Stories from the Heart of Canada, with co-author Kirstie McLellan Day.

Hockey Towns is set around hockey, but it’s not about hockey. It’s about people facing the vicissitudes of life, huge challenges,” he says. ”We put together a book that showed how people come through personal wars. We all connect to the game, but it shows a whole different side to the game.”

The Prince of Puns

Anyone who has watched Coach’s Corner knows that Ron uses humour as a defense mechanism, is self-deprecating, and is quick with a pun and a bit of wordplay sometimes to the chagrin of co-host Don Cherry.

”I can think of many times when Don has been in a lather, and a little bit more wound than he ought to be; at the end when I do a pun he’s normally right back down and laughing as well.”