It’s been a while since hockey could be described as fun, and the greatest champion of the game’s less sober side is feeling just a tad out of sorts.
This isn’t the way Roy MacGregor is supposed to go into the Hall of Fame, with a lockout sucking the life out of a disappearing season, leaving sports-network panels to chew over a dreary document known as the collective bargaining agreement.
MacGregor of The Globe – and formerly of the Post, the Star, the Citizen, Maclean’s, The Canadian, and Office Equipment & Methods magazine, to name just a few – is playing against type.
You know him as this endlessly optimistic, eternal-boyish supporter of all that is good and great about the national sport.
But with days to go before he’s welcomed into the bargain-basement media nook of the Temple de la Renommée du Hockey – it sounds so much classier in the language of Jean Béliveau – the 64-year-old fabulist who once chased a pre-teen Bobby Orr around the rinks of Ontario cottage country is resisting joy.
“It’s so discouraging,” he says from his nation-watching headquarters in Kanata, Ont., an Ottawa suburb he deigns to share with an arena known to corporate types as Scotiabank Place. “This should be a time to celebrate all the good things in hockey, with all those good people going into the Hall – and I don’t mean me. And yet there’s such a foul taste about the game. People really feel jilted.”
That’s an old-time MacGregor sentiment for you: We’ve let our game be stolen by people who think it’s theirs. The MacGregor variety of hockey isn’t just this business model that passes itself off as a sport. When he worked the Hill as a political columnist, he derided the back-room cabals that tried to thrust the Meech Lake Accord on an ungrateful nation, and now he sees the out-of-work NHL as equally out-of-touch.
All this will pass, hockey nation will come to its senses and Roy MacGregor will regain his equilibrium. In the meantime he roams the small towns where hockey’s soul hides during NHL breaks, chronicles the beer leagues he knows too well (“He’s the ultimate one-way kind of player,” chides his friend Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council), drifts off into feel-good golf columns about the local boy who made the big time, and dips into his story-teller archives so the national conversation can once again feel like bar-stool chatter.
“The most fun I ever had in my life was covering the first years of the Ottawa Senators,” he says, regaining his Hall of Fame euphoria. “I just about pissed my pants laughing every day, the stories were so funny.”
He wrote one of his 40 or so books about the Senators’ calamitous debut 20 years ago, when the team bus got lost in fog, the mascot was fired and the club managed to lose 38 straight road games. For MacGregor, who never quite got the Ottawa obsession with the corridors of power, the Sens were “a nice change of pace” from covering Brian Mulroney.
“At one point burglars broke in and stole their video equipment, all the TVs and recorders, but left behind the game tapes.” Don’t stop him if you’ve heard this one. “So E.J. McGuire, one of the assistants, comes out and says, ‘How about that – burglars with taste.’”
Rick Bowness, now working with the Vancouver Canucks – actually, now going out of his mind with boredom watching Champions Tour golf at his lockout hideaway in Phoenix – had the honour of coaching the Senators and sharing the odd pint with MacGregor. “He always supplied the humour,” Bowness says of MacGregor’s expansion-franchise instincts.
He volunteers compliments about his friend’s character (“You learn to trust Roy very quickly”), his writing (“Words come so easy for him) and even his golf stroke (“Nice swing, hits it a long way, doesn’t play enough”).
But the most MacGregorish quality he remembers is the journalist’s eagerness to listen, as the coach’s father told training-camp stories about trying to crack the Montreal Canadiens roster in the 1950s. “Roy loved that,” Bowness says. “He always wanted to tie in family with the profession. We all come from somewhere and Roy keeps that in perspective.”
Modern hockey, like large swathes of modern urban life, is rootless and lives in the moment. For a confirmed storyteller such as Roy MacGregor, who wears his old-fart demeanour with pride, news-cycle minutiae has become a worrying distraction from the real thing.
“I want to know what motivates a guy,” he says, “what his home life is like, how all the magic of the game can be messed up by coaching and strategy. The dressing room has changed and privacy has totally vanished. I wish I had more time to sit down with the players themselves, because when you’re able to talk to a Gretzky or a Crosby about the game as it’s played, they seem to come alive and the clichés vanish.”
He worked as Wayne Gretzky’s ghost writer for a while, and couldn’t have been happier. His favourite articles aren’t the big-game narratives but the elusive portraits of real life that become more affecting when channelled through the players we think we know. “I spent a week in California with Marcel Dionne, sitting around while he told stories. About how as a kid he was lying in his room, listening through the vents, his uncles were all gathered around the table drinking beer, someone called for enough money to get little Marcel a new stick. And then he heard the quarters sliding cross the table. Stuff like that I loved.”
Bob Gainey knows what it’s like to have MacGregor listening, to be stared at by what he calls “that round, smiling face” and find yourself baring your tough hockey soul about the death of a young daughter. “It’s disarming,” he says. “But it’s also easy. He’s like the dentist who says, ‘Okay, we’re done,’ and you didn’t know you’d started yet.”
For all his sensitivity, MacGregor is often depicted as a Canadian romantic, someone who glories in bygone values that a hardened urbanite might think the country’s outgrown. “Roy’s a small-town kid more than anything,” says his friend and collaborator Ken Dryden. “Why people like reading him is because he reminds them of a part of themselves that’s still small-town. The personal element is more front and centre when you live in a small place. Roy knows that people who seem mundane and ordinary and routine might not be. Look long enough and close enough and you’re going to find something interesting.”
If he still crusades for the game’s frozen-pond origins, that’s because he’s uncomfortable with the sports writer’s role in a world where money rules.
“There’s a terrible concern that people like me become the high priests of an activity in which costs are spiralling out of control. Sometimes I feel like I’m really writing about the price of gold, because we’re pricing the dream out of reach. I always say there’ll never again be a Gordie Howe, a poor kid out of Floral, Sask.”
MacGregor, who named his only son Gordie, knows how much his own small-town background shaped his attitudes to the country and its game, and not just because he puts a chip on his shoulder every time he gets a whiff of big-city sophisticates. His father laboured in lumber mills around Ontario’s Algonquin Park and made the back woods seem like Canada’s truest reality. “My dad worked Saturdays and only came to one of my games,” he remembers. “He turned up at the rink and said, ‘I want to see this Orr kid from Parry Sound.’”
Being in the background, by hockey standards at least, now suits the new Hall-of-Famer. He won’t talk up Roy MacGregor, not when he could tell you about why Jean Béliveau turned down Rideau Hall, how Tie Domi was man enough to volunteer for a literacy campaign even though he couldn’t read, or how a misguided coach tried to fire up MacGregor’s team by informing them that Bobby Orr had girlish handwriting.
“So we go out there yelling and screaming, Orr scores 2 goals in 30 seconds, and I have to tell the coach, ‘You know he’s not playing with a ballpoint pen.’” Unlike some people.