Ron MacLean shares Cobourg memories ahead of Hometown Hockey broadcast

This story was published by Today’s Northumberland at on Jan. 4, 2020.

Story by Jeff Gard
Iconic broadcaster Ron MacLean shares a vast knowledge of people and places and hockey history when he’s behind the host desk for Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights and Rogers Hometown Hockey on Sundays.

Rogers Hometown Hockey hosts Ron MacLean and Tara Slone are pictured. PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTSNET

So it’s not surprising he immediately begins talking about two three-time Stanley Cup champions when asked what comes to mind when he thinks about hockey and the Town of Cobourg, which will be the site of Hometown Hockey this Sunday evening.

“Steve Smith and Justin Williams are obviously two players who are integral in my career,” MacLean tells Today’s Northumberland of the Cobourg natives. “I’ve been around Steve, both as a coach and a player, and just think the world of him. I’m thrilled that he’s going to be on the broadcast.”

MacLean vividly remembers Smith’s three championship victories with the Edmonton Oilers.

“Receiving the Stanley Cup from Wayne Gretzky in 1987 was symbolic and lovely,” he notes, referring to Gretzky’s gesture of letting Smith have the first turn skating with the Cup, a year after Smith scored on his own net which ultimately led to the Oilers being eliminated from the playoffs, “but for me Wayne in his book talked about the role Steve played in the Cups in ‘88 and ‘90 and how he shut down Cam Neely.”

Edmonton swept the Bruins in four games in 1988 and beat them again in five games in 1990.

“Their big challenges were Ray Bourque and Cam Neely and for Bourque they kept dumping the puck into his corner much the way used to dump it in on Dennis Potvin of the New York Islanders and try to force him to make a pass and give it to somebody less talented. And then they had to figure out what to do with Neely and Steve did the job.”

Williams, meanwhile, is also a three-time Stanley Cup champion (2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and 2012 and 2014 with the Los Angeles Kings.

“Justin Williams is more vicarious,” MacLean says of his connection to the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. “I’ve been around him and I’ve been where he’s won each time. I still go back to 2006 and I really loved Carolina had…in that tunnel that led to the ice they had ‘It’s not about me, it’s about the guy in front of me’ and they were a really tight group.”

MacLean remembers “Justin leaping in the air when he scored the empty-netter” to help clinch the 3-1 Game 7 victory for the Hurricanes over the Oilers to win the Stanley Cup.

MacLean currently has a Cobourg connection each week on Hockey Night in Canada as Chris Johnston, who grew up here, is part of the panel during the second-intermission feature Saturday Headlines.

When Today’s Northumberland spoke with Johnston recently, he noted how much he still appreciates MacLean giving Cobourg a shout-out during his Hockey Night debut three seasons ago.

Johnston has certainly made an impression on MacLean.

“Chris is just a treasure in so many ways. He’s a gentleman, he’s lighthearted, he’s deep in his detail so he’s a fantastic colleague,” MacLean says. “I just enjoy working with him, watching him shape stories, research stories, care about the show. Chris really respects the opportunity he’s been given to make Hockey Night in Canada be what it should be and that’s the best. He’s definitely one of the best.”

MacLean, who will assume his Hockey Night in Canada hosting duties Saturday night, will arrive to Cobourg on Sunday to join Hometown Hockey co-host Tara Slone for the live broadcast on Sportsnet.

This won’t be MacLean’s first trip to Cobourg. In fact, he actually has a connection to the site of Hometown Hockey, which will be held at the Cobourg West Harbour near the marina.

“Many times, into the marina,” MacLean says of his past Cobourg visits. “A dear friend of mine had a sailboat so we would go sailing up to the 1000 Islands a lot and, we would stop, and Cobourg was one of our favourite marinas. We had about a 6.5 foot keel on his boat so not every harbour could handle you along the coastline heading up to Kingston. Cobourg was a great marina for us and we would stop and go to the Dutch Oven and have breakfast and do whatever we needed to do at the marina so I’ve been there a lot and it was one of the highlights of our sailing trip was to go into Cobourg.”

The mobile studio won’t be far from the marina.

“I’ll be able to spot the slip where we used to dock, so that will be neat,” MacLean said, before mentioning he’s surprised he didn’t come to Cobourg when he was a referee (he has Level 5 status with Hockey Canada which enabled to work higher levels of hockey including junior A).

“I’ve never refereed (in Cobourg), which is funny since I’ve refereed in Port Hope and Trenton. I’ve done Cobourg Cougars games, but not in Cobourg,” he says.

MacLean certainly has a vivid memory from refereeing at the Jack Burger Sports Complex in Port Hope.

“I had a funny experience in Port Hope where I was signing autographs in the foyer of the rink and the people came to me and said ‘Ron you better get out there,’” he recalls, adding that when he returned to the ice there was a player from the visiting team sitting on the Port Hope bench waiting for the third period to start and wanting to fight.

“That was his way of starting a fight was to sit on Port Hope’s bench.”

Back in Cobourg, Sunday’s broadcast will include an NHL game between the Calgary Flames and Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota. There will be an outdoor viewing party for those in attendance at the Cobourg marina site.

The pre-show begins at 6:30 followed by the main show that will include airing the NHL game and include features and interviews with local flavour to Cobourg, guided by hosts MacLean and Slone.

Slone told Today’s Northumberland in a separate interview that she believes MacLean has more faith in her than she does.

“That’s truth, I try to convince her of what she brings,” MacLean responds.

“It’s a good partnership. I can’t say enough about Tara,” he adds. “She’s very disciplined in an extremely kind way. She really creates for everyone a safe environment. I’ve always said Tara has this incredible ability to know where the boundaries should be in terms of language and approach. She was the one who introduced the First Nations Land Acknowledgment (to the show).

“Our first year doing the show, that was probably the biggest takeaway was both the relationship of the game with our First Nations, but also just that story. I think it was at an incredible time of Idle No More and Truth and Reconciliation and we were right in the heart of that going to places around the country and experiencing First Nations leadership. It taught us a ton and right away Tara had the good sense to say let’s make that a part of our broadcast. She’s a great listener and a great colleague.”

While Slone arrives to the Hometown Hockey location two or three days in advance of the show each week, MacLean has to wait to travel until after his commitment to Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday has concluded. Fortunately this week Cobourg is a short trip compared to others and doesn’t require him to catch a flight.

“I try every week to get out on Saturday night because the hardest one is to wake up to snow on Sunday morning and not know if I’ll make it to Pearson Airport,” he said.

There was one show two years ago in Lacombe, Alberta that required a tight travel schedule. MacLean didn’t arrive until 6 a.m. Mountain Time (8 a.m. Eastern). That show began at 10 a.m., though, due to an earlier broadcast because it was Super Bowl Sunday.

“You can run on adrenaline for a day, that’s the lucky part,” he says. “There’s so much energy around the venue when we get there that it’s easy to do the show, it’s just a matter of concentrating. There’s certain names you worry about, but I love the synergy of bringing the Saturday night experience over to the Sunday broadcast.”

MacLean does wish he could spend more time in the communities he visits for Hometown Hockey.

“I have serious FOMO (fear of missing out). I wish I was in Cobourg, I would love to be at that Trenton-Cobourg game (Saturday) night, I would love to referee it for heaven’s sake,” he says. “It’s kind of a cheap feeling when you fly in last minute, but we spend today talking about the town and I certainly research all week long and learn.”

MacLean said he watched the 2017 national junior A hockey championship, which was hosted and won by the Cobourg Cougars.

“I was just so excited to watch Josh Maguire and the role he played in getting them the win in overtime and he’s a Cobourg kid. That for me will always be the excitement of what I do for a living is just the research and learning. I don’t know Josh very well, but I saw what he did in that game and I heard he was going to the Ontario Tech Institute in Oshawa. George Miranda is a guy who played for the Cougars and now is playing for the Port Hope Panthers junior C and I just listen to these kids and their priorities are good priorities. They’re becoming great Canadians, great citizens of the world.”

Junior hockey is important in small communities and MacLean said it was great to watch the Cougars host both the national championship and before that the World Junior A Challenge in 2015.

“These are big events and they’re examples of possibilities,” he says.

MacLean says he like what has happened in minor hockey with the amalgamation of the former Cobourg and Port Hope minor hockey organizations to become the Northumberland Minor Hockey Association and that the creation of the West Northumberland Girls Hockey Association quite a number of years back now created more opportunities for female hockey players in this area, from the youngest players up to ladies recreational.

“I think minor hockey we’ve always understood if you want them to be an Olympian or an NHLer just teach them to be a good citizen. When we do our Parade of Champions (at the beginning of Hometown Hockey) half the storytelling is about charitable work the teams are doing and community work.”

That’s also important at the junior hockey level, MacLean said while referencing the Cougars.

“Cobourg has tried to do that with (general manager) Adam Yahn and before that Brent Tully, get out in the community.”

MacLean acknowledged that minor hockey is great for the mind and great for physical activity, but it’s also expensive.

“We have to think long and hard about how we make sure it’s accessible to all,” he said.

Playing hockey isn’t the only opportunity for kids. They have the chance to become on-ice officials, such as referees. While that can be a negative environment for a young person, MacLean prefers to focus on the positives and what you can do to keep individuals in those much-needed positions.

“I think you sell them on the idea of what it will do for your life. It really is an incredible opportunity to understand human nature and to work with people under pressure. The management skills, the ability to maintain your composure, your humour, your grace, these are gifts that will last a lifetime,” MacLean said.

“I know for me as an example going through the torment of the last two months when Don (Cherry) left and everything else, thank God I refereed and knew that half my life I was right for 50 per cent of the crowd and wrong for 50 per cent of the crowd with every call I made.

That training will never steer you wrong. It sounds like a tough place (as a referee) to be yelled at and to be questioned, but I think the wisdom that comes from wearing the stripes is for the rest of your life.”

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About the Author: Jeff Gard