Hockey Night in Canada and the resurrection of Ron MacLean
for The Globe and Mail/Glenn Lowson
After a couple of years away from the host seat at Hockey Night in Canada, MacLean will once again be front and centre of the Saturday night show.
Over an egg salad sandwich and a Perrier water at his Oakville home, the 56-year-old told the Globe's David Shoalts about his sometimes-icy relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, working for his new bosses at Rogers, and how the power of social media helped him get his old job back
When Ron MacLean welcomes a reporter into his house, there are no overt signs of his status as Canada's hockey host.
Little of the memorabilia that accrues to someone who has spent more than 30 years around the NHL is displayed on the walls of his comfortable home in an upscale neighbourhood in Oakville, west of Toronto. The only signs that MacLean and his wife Cari are hockey enthusiasts are several paintings by Canadian artist Rod Charlesworth that feature winter scenes with hockey.
The reporter is there to interview MacLean about his surprising comeback as host of Hockey Night in Canada, regaining the role he held from 1987 to 2014. Regardless of what happened the past couple of seasons, MacLean never stopped being the broadcast face of the game, and his bosses at Rogers Communications Inc. recognized that by a) giving him his old job back, and b) making him the focus of commercials promoting the show's new season, which starts Saturday.
Those commercial spots, which began appearing early last month, were as much a Rogers mea culpa as they were advertisements for Hockey Night. MacLean is back, they implied, and we hope you will be, too.
The flashy, high-tech look from Rogers' first two seasons of Hockey Night promos – heralding the company's $5.2-billion, 12-year deal for the NHL's Canadian broadcast rights – was gone. As gone as the former host, George Stroumboulopoulos.
There was no sign of the gleaming studio Rogers built for its new-look hockey broadcasts, which foundered on two years of declining ratings. The new spots follow the affable MacLean, 56, as he wanders through the newsroom preshow; in a voiceover, he talks about how Saturday night in Canada means hockey, and what that means to him.
It is Rogers saying we heard you, hockey fans, so on Saturday night – the first of the 2016-17 NHL season – MacLean will be back where generations of Canadians watched him for 27 years. The unspoken plea? Please forgive us and come back to try on that comfortable old sweater.
The reaction on social media, which played more than a small role in driving away Stroumboulopoulos after two years as Hockey Night's new host, was equally warm and fuzzy.
"I LOVE this Ron MacLean commercial. This is exactly what #HNIC was missing last two seasons," was one of the typical Twitter responses.
MacLean thinks these unusual circumstances – beloved long-time host displaced by a younger, hipper broadcaster as part of an appeal to younger audiences, then wins his old job back when the ratings tanked for a number of reasons, not all to do with the new host – occurred because viewers still want to see the things and people they associate with hockey. And those viewers include the millennials who Rogers had hoped would gravitate to Stroumboulopoulos and the digital wonders of the post-modern Hockey Night set.
"My simple version of it is because hockey became so omnipresent in the new world order [after Rogers replaced CBC and TSN as national rightsholder], we were scanning the dial looking for the familiar one, the one we had known. And we were having trouble finding that," MacLean said during a long conversation over egg-salad sandwiches and Perrier at his home in Oakville, Ont., about his return, his love for the game and his refusal to leave Hometown Hockey despite his added duties.
"It's hard for me to speak to that," MacLean said when asked if Stroumboulopoulos's undoing was that he did not appeal to traditional hockey fans. The two weren't exactly friends, but they weren't butting heads, either. "It's so unfair to George. It's unfair to everybody making those kinds of decisions.
"Through no fault of his own, George was a fresh face, so he didn't represent the brand that [viewers] were used to. We are creatures of branding, there's no question about that. That's probably as simple as it is.
"Now you know when you see me, it just reminds you of what you think, the branding is there. I'm sure that's a big part of it."
MacLean had a dry run as Sportsnet's host during the World Cup of Hockey in September. That event was also used to get something out of the way that played a role in his removal two years ago: MacLean's relationship with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Their history of contentious interviews, particularly during labour negotiations, became legendary as MacLean unapologetically took up the players' side of the debate. It culminated when Bettman was said to have vowed after an angry exchange during the 2010 playoffs that he would never come back on Hockey Night as long as MacLean was the host. MacLean said the fractious relationship likely played a role in his departure.
So, as the best-of-three final of the World Cup approached, MacLean and Bettman took up their positions for a live interview.
"We wanted to get it out of the way early, just so that it didn't become a little bit of a distraction," MacLean said.
But first there was a meeting with MacLean, Sportsnet president Scott Moore and Rob Corte, vice-president of Sportsnet and NHL production. "There was just a kind of gentle talk between Scott, Rob and me. Let's, whatever we do, not throw this right over the cliff on the first interview," MacLean said of the discussion.
Philip Saunders/CBC Sports Online
Part of the problem, MacLean said, was that all of their interviews are live, and he admitted another part of the problem might have been his own aggressiveness.
"I understand why if, I was an owner or one of Gary's lieutenants, or Gary himself, it would feel like an ambush," he said. "But it's in large part due to the nature of almost every interview I've done with him – it's live. So there isn't the luxury of allowing two minutes of spin at the expense of the truth. It becomes confrontational almost immediately. There's a moment of interruption which looks like disrespect. It's really challenging."
It has been pointed out that he's more aggressive with Bettman than with most other interview subjects.
"Sherali Najak is a producer I work with and he always says, 'Ron, are you doing it with a red heart or a black heart?'" MacLean said. "A red heart is where you've got a good generous spirit about you, and a black heart is when you're up to no good. And I'm not sure I've kept it on the red-heart side. I've got to figure that out."
As it turned out, the Bettman interview went smoothly. MacLean, by choice, stuck to questions about the NHL's problems with participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Bettman, after answering the first question, looked at MacLean and said, "Welcome back."
"It wasn't an interview that would cause him stress, I think," MacLean said. "That's how I'm going to have to try and sort through as I go through this job – okay, get at the truth but maybe pull in your horns a little bit so he doesn't feel threatened, Rogers doesn't feel threatened. Because they live on pins and needles, they're trying to be a good partner.
"I'm always telling [Sportsnet president] Scott Moore 'I know, but I'm also partners with the viewer.' They seem diametrically opposed sometimes."
MacLean also thinks he may have baited Bettman in the past because he knew it went over well with a lot of viewers.
"I've got to be really careful that I start to feel that temptation to satisfy the guy sitting at home. 'Oh good, look at him give it to the boss,' because we all like to. I know better than to be seduced by that bit of feedback."
Firing Stroumboulopoulos just two years into Rogers' ownership of the show was an enormous shock, not just to Stroumboulopoulos but also the viewers, although judging by social media it was more of a happy shock for them. After the announcement was made in June, Stroumboulopoulos announced on Twitter he was driving his motorcycle to his home in Los Angeles. Aside from changing his Twitter avatar to a picture of him and U.S. broadcaster Keith Olberman, who blasted Moore on Twitter for the firing, Stroumboulopoulos still has not made a public comment on the change.
MacLean has sympathy for Stroumboulopoulos, who took a vicious beating on social media. MacLean says he was lucky the Internet was not around in March 1987 when he replaced Dave Hodge on Hockey Night. Hodge was fired by the CBC for tossing a pencil on-air to show his frustration and anger when the network refused to stick with a Montreal-Philadelphia game that went into overtime. Hodge was easily as popular then as MacLean eventually became, but the angry backlash at the time was confined to letters to the editor or radio call-in shows.
"It would never have happened – I never would have taken over from Dave Hodge," MacLean said. He realized the power of the online world 15 years later when the CBC refused his salary demands and began looking for a replacement. Twitter was still long way off, but e-mail had become ubiquitous. "I went through a contract squabble in 2002, and that was at the beginning of e-mail. There was quite a campaign across the country and that saved my job."
MacLean said he has not talked to Stroumboulopoulos since the latter was dropped as host. "For George it was, I'm sure, extremely difficult," he said.
The situation is the reverse of what happened to MacLean two years ago. When Rogers won control of Hockey Night, the company aggressively put its own stamp on a show it considered outdated.
"It was a different leadership time, a different philosophy maybe in how the show was going to be conducted," MacLean said of Rogers. "I don't blame them for trying."
The new approach in 2014 meant MacLean was only Don Cherry's sidekick on Coach's Corner on Saturday nights, and host of a new show, Hometown Hockey, on Sundays. The new show was broadcast on location from a different community in Canada every week, which started a punishing travel schedule for MacLean.
Despite the demotion, he said he never considered quitting. Part of it was that he was still broadcasting hockey, and part of it was remembering something his mother did once while he was growing up in Red Deer.
His mother quit her job at a paint store on principle when her boss rudely showed a lack of respect one day. MacLean admired her stand but came to think it was a mistake.
"She came home, she just quit on a dime," MacLean said. "She blew out of there, said that's it, after all I've done for this guy, to be treated like that. She was in a lather when she came in the house, but she was really disappointed in herself shortly thereafter.
"She just felt she squandered her livelihood. They needed the money, mom and dad, and in a moment of impetuous rage she had bitten her nose off to spite her face. She felt she hadn't played it smart, and she'd given others the satisfaction of knowing that they could have their way, that they could push her out.
"I kind of had that lesson in my head, not that I was in a mood to have a rage or a fit anyway. As I said, I was excited about Hometown Hockey. I loved the concept and I thought it was a natural thing after 27, 28 years at Hockey Night."
His experience as a host for other events such as the Olympics and Calgary Stampede proved MacLean could handle himself outside of hockey, but he decided he would never be comfortable away from the sport he loves.
"[When] you become a jack of all trades, your storytelling is a bit haphazard because you're not really expert on the field," MacLean said. "I always feel a little guilty when I'm at the Olympics and suddenly I'm interviewing the race walker Evan Dunfee, who does a fabulous job in a great event, the 50-km walk.
"I always felt interviewing was like lawyering, that idea of don't ask a question if you don't know [the answer]. I want to convey to the subject of the interview a little bit of a connection, a little bit of an understanding. That's hard when you're moving into different sports."
Viewers may not unanimously love his quirks as a broadcaster – the puns and the folksy manner – but there is no denying MacLean's affection for the sport, something Canadians demand from the host of their favourite hockey broadcast. He plays recreationally twice a week and makes appearances with NHL alumni teams. He was also a high-level amateur referee for many years, calling junior games around Ontario. Cari is also an avid recreational hockey player.
That background in small-town hockey is why Hometown Hockey held such appeal for MacLean even though he was losing a job he loved. Every week, he set up an NHL game from a different town in Canada. Aside from broadcasting, MacLean also spent time mingling with local fans as well as hockey people he knows who happened to live there.
"It's just fun to do," he said. "We know when we go to Grand Falls [Nfld.], you know we'll end up having a few beers afterwards with Terry Ryan Sr. and his son, and that'll be enjoyable. Jim Ralph's in Newmarket. It's a fun show. It's lots of people getting out, having a hockey experience. Beyond that, I don't have to tell a reporter that there's always a nice little pub in small-town Canada."
When Moore called MacLean to a meeting at a small restaurant in the west Toronto neighbourhood of Long Branch in mid-June to tell him he wanted him back as host of Hockey Night, MacLean said he would only do it if he could stay with Hometown Hockey as well. MacLean says he would like to see a few changes to raise the profile of the Sunday show, which has struggled for ratings in its two years of existence.
Part of the problem is what plagued the other Rogers broadcasts – the collective mediocrity of the seven Canadian NHL teams. But there were too many bad games, often involving U.S.-based teams with inconsistent start times, and they were frequently up against National Football League telecasts, not to mention the Toronto Blue Jays games and the baseball playoffs.
"When I see it start at 6:30 [Eastern Time] and it's the fourth quarter of the NFL, I wonder how can we possibly pull you away if you're a sports fan," he said.
The Blue Jays are back in the American League Championship Series, but there are no Sunday games scheduled in that series, which spares Hometown Hockey some strong competition. This season's NHL games are also better, as there is at least one Canadian team playing every Sunday night.
"We've got tons of Oilers games, five with Connor McDavid, and we've got the Maple Leafs three times I think," MacLean said. "I wish we had Toronto more because it's simple – big markets deliver big numbers. The schedule is good and I think the show will be good."
Once the official announcement about his return was made in June, MacLean said he started to worry about what might be expected from him. Then the answer came while he moonlighted as a host for the Summer Olympics and the World Cup.
"It's hard," he said. "You've got all these folks saying nice things about welcome back, we miss you, all that stuff. I was glad for sure to have the Olympics and the World Cup to just keep working and not sit and think about what the hell am I supposed to do that is so special?
"Nothing is the answer. Just do what you've always done."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Evan Dunfee's last name.
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