Ron MacLean was waiting to catch an early plane to Vancouver on Friday morning and after many years of putting into context the most important hockey games of our lives was still struggling on how to most meaningfully open next week’s big telecast from Yellowknife.

Ron MacLean, host of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on Sportsnet
photo courtesy of Sportsnet

“I like to open the telecast with a feel of where we are,” the host of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on Sportsnet explained. “This time I find it really fascinating. I have friends in Yellowknife and I’ve visited before, so it isn’t like I don’t have a sense of the community. I’ve been around Frame Lake for summertime visits.

“But I have just been struggling mightily for weeks on end to find the right metaphor.

“I want to open with honouring the mix of the Indigenous story and the colonials coming and exploring in search of the Northwest Passage or in search of riches and rock.”

Hockey Day in Canada will roll into Yellowknife from Feb. 5 to 8 as part of a week-long celebration of hometown hockey. 

Wednesday will see a multi-act music concert at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre with the Bidiniband, Tara Slone, Digawolf, Wesley Hardisty, the Yellowknives Dene Drummers and Karen Novak. It will be closed out by NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier.

There will also be a Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada banquet at St. Patrick/Weledeh gym on Thursday, a celebrity/alumni hockey game at the Multiplex on Friday evening and the main event Hockey Day in Canada show itself which will attempt to tell stories in “an inspirational way of how we come to the game,”  MacLean said.

Details about planned travel to Norman Wells and Deline on Feb. 3 and 4 as part of the festivities were not available Friday.

Yellowknife is the third of three northern territorial capitals – and the 20th community overall- to host the event since its inception in 2000. Iqaluit had host the role in 2003 and Whitehorse had it in 2011.

MacLean said the one symbol of the community about Yellowknife that keeps coming back to him is Georges Erasmus. This became apparent especially after reading John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback, which honours the longtime Yellowknives Dene leader’s involvement as co-chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and leading Canada toward the Truth and Reconciliation era.

“The one symbol for me for me so far is Georges Erasmus because he kind of represents the idea that you go to discover something and you find what was there all along was this treasure chest which is Georges Erasmus and what he was able to accomplish with the Report on Aboriginal Affairs that led to Truth and Reconciliation,” he said.

Don Cherry

MacLean has been well-known for decades working opposite Don Cherry during Coach’s Corner and commentating during intermission on Hockey Night in Canada. In November, Cherry was fired by Sportsnet over his now infamous “You People” rant.

MacLean apologized for not calling out Cherry’s comments. Cherry did not, but later admitted he should have used different words.

Asked what he thought the chances would be that he would ever get back together with Cherry, MacLean said it was out of his hands.

“It would be a miracle but it is certainly out of my hands,” he said. “As I have kept articulating, Don made a choice and it is a question you have to ask him of him why he didn’t go along with what was asked.

“My big thing in this is that I need to try to maintain everyone’s dignity and it is a challenge. But that is the conundrum of life when you have to choose between two good things.”  

Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a Scotiabank teammate, left, and Ron MacLean, host of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on Sportsnet in Swift Current, Sask., in 2019.
photo courtesy of Sportsnet

MacLean admits that the Hockey Day in Canada program has unexpectedly become very popular during the latter portion of his career.

“I think the biggest thing about (Hockey Day) is that when we started in 2000 in Toronto, I had thought at the time that it was a lovely idea and that we would do some grassroots storytelling and after maybe two or three years it would run its course,” he said. “It ended up being just the opposite. We’re now at 20 years and we’ve even extended it by doing Rogers Hometown Hockey on Sundays.”

He said the event has attempted to bring grassroots community hockey stories to the national limelight in a way that wasn’t possible – or at least wasn’t done – earlier in his career.

“When I started at Hockey Night in Canada in 1986, I remember back then that things were simpler,” he said. “There was no Internet and no social media. National Hockey League players were just so excited and would come to us commentators asking which game is being seen where. They wanted to know if the national broadcast was being seen in their hometown and they would get a kick out of whether their town was being put on the map by (their) presence in the game.”

Ron MacLean, right, host of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on Sportsnet, mingles with some hockey players at the Swift Current event in 2019.
photo courtesy of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on Sportsnet

Today, Hockey Day in Canada has extended the national broadcast’s reach to get to deeper, more local stories and shine those communities’ realities back to the national stage. The end effect is that the program is able to show how the communities shape the players just as much as professional hockey players have put some places on the map.

“It is just hard to imagine, as an example, how it happens that two kids come from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia – Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon,” he said. “How do two kids come from the same little nook and end up commanding the national hockey stage?

“The dream is alive in all of those types of places, whether it is for the men to reach the NHL or the women to make it to the Olympic program or national team. A few find a way.”

In Yellowknife’s case, MacLean was enthusiastic about telling the stories of Riley Oldford, founder of Yellowknife Sledge Hockey and emphasizing figures who have their namesakes on two Yellowknife Minor Hockey tournaments – the Carl Bulger Memorial Hockey Tournament and Chris Bergman Invitational Tournament.

“The Riley Oldford story, as an example, his dad said ‘when sledge hockey found Riley, he had a pack to follow or a lead to follow,'” he said. “That to me was a great line that will come up early in the show (next Saturday). That for me right there was the idea of inclusivity in what the sport brings. Because it is so high profile in our country, it is a sport where you can say- that is Canadian.”

Riley Oldford has been a sledge hockey trailblazer in Yellowknife and will be among the local heroes to be recognized at Hockey Day in Canada this week.
photo courtesy of Yellowknife Sledge Hockey

Bringing hockey heroes 

MacLean said there is also the exciting aspect of being able to connect in a real way with some hockey heroes who have traditionally been mediated through radio or television to Canadian communities. He said he hopes that he can replicate the exhilaration he felt as a young person when NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Hull visited Whitehorse where he lived for five years.

“When Bobby Hull visited, I remember the excitement level and it was not unlike when Pierre Elliot Trudeau came,” he said. “You make it a first-hand experience. Everything you have been listening to on the radio or watching on television suddenly becomes a nice, comfortable first-hand experience. That has been the great idea and the discovery of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada.”

Past Hockey Day in Canada events 

Swift Current, SK (2019)
Corner Brook, NL (2018)
Kenora, ON (2017)
Kamloops, B.C. (2016)
Halifax (2015)
Lloydminster, AB/SK (2014)
Peterborough, ON (2013)
Summerside, PEI (2012)
Whitehorse (2011)
Stratford, ON (2010)
Campbellton, NB (2009)
Winkler, MB (2008)
Nelson, BC (2007)
Stephenville, NL, (2006)
Shaunavon, SK (2004)
Iqaluit, NU (2003)
Windsor, NS. (2002)
Red Deer, AB (2001)
Toronto (2000)

Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. Simon can be reached at...

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