After decades as one of Canada’s leading sports journalists, Ron MacLean is no stranger to Whistler.
But when he started his most recent gig as the co-host of Rogers Hometown Hockey in 2014, the resort wasn’t on the radar. Pucks and sticks weren’t on MacLean’s mind during one recent trip for a round at Nicklaus North Golf Course.
“That (golf), I thought, made sense and I could imagine maybe going to do ski coverage, but I never dreamt that we would do a hockey show,” MacLean said. “It couldn’t be a prettier stage for the telecast, but I thought logistically it might have been out of reach. Financially or physically, it might have been a difficult stop for us, but it’s all coming together and we’re all thrilled.”
When the show’s tour comes to the resort on Saturday, Feb. 9 and Sunday, Feb. 10, culminating in a broadcast of the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers game at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, MacLean and co-host Tara Slone will have plenty to talk about. Though Whistler may still be awaiting its first born-and-trained NHLer, with the Warm twins, Beck and Will, in the Western Hockey League and others like Garrett Milan who have managed to carve out a pro career in North America and Europe, our heritage is stronger than one might decipher at first glance.
MacLean chipped in another Whistler-connected hockey tidbit: Nancy Greene-Raine received her giant slalom gold medal from the 1968 Grenoble Olympics during an intermission of a Canada-USSR game. “It’ll be nice to get away from the basic impression that it’s a great hill, which it is, and actually a great town,” he said.
There will be more than just the game on offer, with a festival taking over Whistler Olympic Plaza for two days as well as a youth tournament planned for Meadow Park Sports Centre. However, despite lining up ex-NHLers like Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Kariya and former Vancouver Canucks goalie Kirk McLean, as well as the Rutherford Creek Trio and the Hairfarmers performing, MacLean said it’s the locals that make the festival a success.
“The real entertainment comes from the backbone of the game, the people in the communities we visit,” he said, noting that in the midst of the show’s fifth season, it has travelled 115,000 kilometres and hit 120 towns. “Everybody will be great and hospitable when we’re there. We know that. Whistler always is.”
MacLean particularly enjoys the British Columbia stops, not just because of the province’s beauty and offer of reprieve from frigid Central Canadian winters, but also because of First Nations involvement in the telecasts, which always open with a land acknowledgement.
“In Year 1, we really, truly appreciated that it was a time when Truth and Reconciliation was coming to the fore (with the) Idle No More movement. The whole Canadian awakening to our First Nations history was happening and it happened to coincide with our stops in British Columbia that I think we really learned the most,” he said. “We’re the guests. It will be their show and our honour just to have the lens through which to help them teach us, one more time, what a lucky history we have that someone took care of the land, Mother Earth.”
Co-host Tara Slone also cited greater First Nations integration in our province as a plus.
“That’s been really nice and that’s also been an education for Ron and me,” she said.
MacLean generally enjoys British Columbian stops, but considers the best stop so far to be in Great Falls-Winsdor, N.L. Slone, however, couldn’t pick just one.
“Something magical and special happens in every place, whether it’s the people that we meet, our family, a Zamboni driver, or a story that we uncover that just melts our hearts,” she said. “From a physical beauty perspective, B.C. is quite unparalleled.”
Slone has also been to town previously, hitting the slopes with her own instructor. However, she’s taking a different tack this year, exploring what one can do without strapping on a set of skis for her Hometown Musts segment with Whistler Blackcomb director of mountain operations Doug MacFarlane.
“We’re going to take the gondola and do the Peak 2 Peak. If the weather’s good, we can take a helicopter—and then do the après ski,” she said.
Bringing the show to Whistler was the brainchild of Steve Neal, who has a long history in hockey as the founder of SportsMarketingInc.ca, which has worked with the Canadian Hockey League for the past two decades.
It stemmed from a brief cameo on the show in December 2017. “Back last Christmas, when Alta Lake froze, it was just like glass. I woke up, looked at the lake, and went out to drill a hole in it to see if it was safe,” Neal recalled. “I went to my six-and-a-half-year-old son and said ‘Let’s skate the lake.’ For me, that was just quintessential Canadian dream. “You could literally hear the puck hit the tape of a stick and hear your skates cutting the ice.”
Neal’s wife happened to be recording video and pictures, which eventually made its way to the executive producer of Rogers Hometown Hockey, Alison Redmond. The video opened the broadcast of the Toronto-Vegas game on New Year’s Eve.
“That’s what then started, over a glass of wine, I asked ‘Alison, why haven’t you brought Hometown Hockey to Whistler?’” he said.
According to Neal, Redmond said they just needed someone to take the lead within the community, and he stepped into those shoes.
Neal connected with Resort Municipality of Whistler manager of strategic alliances (and one-time Chicago Blackhawks draft pick) Bob Andrea and both agreed it would be a good chance for a locals-focused celebration. With the Whistler Minor Hockey Association and its Squamish counterpart both on board, Neal hopes the event will provide a platform and fundraising opportunities for local hockey.
Continuing with the province’s reputation as highlighting Indigenous issues, Neal said the local committee is working with Brady Smith from the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre and local First Nations will open the broadcast for the first time. As well, the SLCC will be featured during the broadcast, while the REDress Project, which raises awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, will also be mentioned.
Local Leaf fan hopes to see brethren in attendance
Long-time local Doug Ryan was happier than most when he first heard about the announcement last summer—and that his beloved Maple Leafs would be featured in the game.
“I just thought it was awesome. It was about time that it came to Whistler,” he said. “I’ve been telling every Leafs fan to show up and support our team, so that got me excited.”
Though Toronto’s Stanley Cup drought dates back to 1967 and has the team has endured its share of lean years, the Leafs have rebuilt with a young core and are threatening to bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time since 1993.
Ryan, who grew up watching Leaf stars Borje Salming and Rick Vaive with his stepdad every Saturday night in London, Ont., is glad to have that level of talent in blue and white once again.
“Everyone is talking about our team because of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner the young kids. I guess fellow hockey fans are happy for us, too,” he said. “With Leaf fans, the passion just runs deep. There are Leafs fans everywhere.”
For a full list of activities, visit www.hometownhockey.com.
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