Ron MacLean (Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
In this issue of Throwback Thursday, we revisit a piece on Ron MacLean's early days at Hockey Night in Canada, from 1987. It turns out, he wasn't always beloved, having to overcome perceptions he was too young and lacked credibility. Remind you of anyone?
The George Stroumboulopoulos experiment at Sportsnet is still in its relatively early days, but that hasn’t stopped critics and fans from opining. The reviews have been mixed, with some old-school hockey viewers taking a harsh stance and millennials generally liking the work he’s doing.
A scan of some pointed comments on a website prompted one of my colleagues to state: “Nobody filling Ron MacLean’s shoes really had a chance.”
The reality is, 28 years ago, MacLean was in the exact same position as Stroumboulopoulos. He was the new kid on the block, replacing the highly respected Dave Hodge as the face of Hockey Night in Canada. MacLean had to battle aspersions that he was too young and lacked credibility.
Turns out, he filled Hodge’s chair rather nicely. A decade from now, we may be saying the same about Stroumboulopoulos.
The following story chronicles MacLean’s challenges in his early days on the job and the hurdles he had to overcome. It was written by Eric Duhatschek and appeared in The Hockey News’ now-defunct sibling publication, Inside Hockey, in November of 1987.
I’M NOT DAVE HODGE
By Eric Duhatschek
It was at the Stanley Cup luncheon last May in Edmonton and Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean, the master of ceremonies, delivered an off-color story to introduce Glen Sather.
When the Edmonton Oiler coach-GM, he of the sharp tongue, followed MacLean to the microphone, he wondered aloud where Dave Hodge was.
It wasn’t the first time the question was asked and, by MacLean’s own admission, it isn’t likely to be the last.
Now in his second full season with Ohlmeyer Communications (producers of HNIC), MacLean replaced Hodge as the No. 1 host following the latter’s highly publicized exit late last season.
Stanley Cup luncheons aside, Hodge is still a tough act to follow. Being host of HNIC is, arguably, the most prominent and illustrious sports broadcasting position in Canada. Hodge, who spent 16 years as host, was nothing if not a Canadian institution, the same as Ward Cornell before him.
“You’re exposing yourself and people are going to make judgments,” he said. “Some will like you. Some won’t. But if they know where they stand with you, at least you’ll become believable and after a while, even if you’re bad, people get comfortable with that badness.
“That may be a stupid way to say it, but once people feel they get to know you, there’s a comfort zone that develops between you and the viewer.”
Originally from Red Deer, Alta., MacLean began his broadcasting career in the 10th grade as the Saturday and Sunday all-night deejay on radio station CKRD. Eventually, he switched to television, first as the weatherman, then into sports. When Jim Van Horne left CFAC-TV in Calgary to join The Sports Network in 1984, MacLean auditioned for and won the job as host of the Flames’ mid-week telecasts.
Following two seasons in Calgary, MacLean moved to Toronto prior to the 1986-87 season, replacing Hodge as the host on CHCH-TV’s mid-week Leaf telecasts and roughly half the weekend Leaf games. Hodge, who left CKFM in Toronto to join CKNW in Vancouver, stayed on has Hockey Night in Canada’s primary host.
That is, until March 14. Frustrated by HNIC’s decision not to show the overtime period of a Montreal-Philadelphia game after the nationally broadcast Toronto-Calgary game was over, Hodge questioned the move on the air, throwing his pencil in the air in disgust. That led to a celebrated parting of the ways between Hodge and Ohlmeyer.
MacLean, meanwhile, was thrust into the breach on barley a week’s notice.
“I came in at the last second and it was a sink-or-swim proposition,” said MacLean. “It all happened so fast. Before I had a chance to get consumed by it, I was in there and was on with it. So that helped. It saved me a bit of the anxiety.”
Hodge knew exactly how MacLean felt. When Hodge first got the host’s job, he had only three weeks' notice before Cornell was to have begun his 14th season as host. Hodge said the urgency didn’t afford him time to become too nervous.
“I think you have to consider that this is his second season on the job and that whatever baptism he had to undergo, he already went through last season,” Hodge said of his successor.
“I really believe people have to accept you for who you are,” MacLean added. “My biggest mission’s to convince them I’m not Dave Hodge. Our styles differ. I have to do my thing. I know, because I heard it from a number of people that they were uncomfortable about me for the first couple of months. It didn’t matter if what I was saying was good, they just didn’t feel comfortable. Eventually, you earn that with time. The playoffs helped me that way – getting that extra exposure in the final helped create a sense of who I was.”
Physically, MacLean looks younger than his 27 years, but he handles the pressures of the job with the poise of a 20-year veteran. He isn’t Hodge and he doesn’t try to be.
Over the years, Hodge – an excellent broadcast journalist – became more and more comfortable asking the tough questions, something not ordinarily associated with between-period interviews.
MacLean’s strength is his ability to smooth over the rough of even the most difficult guests. Moreover, he can be really entertaining. Because MacLean thinks fast on his feet, he’s developed a way of turning the guest’s final comment into a cute bridge to commercial or next part of the show.
Sometimes his puns make you want to groan. Other times, you’re left wondering, “how did he do that?”
“In radio, you do a lot of segueing of thoughts,” said MacLean. “The name of the artist rarely ties in to the point you’re trying to make. So you tend to reach. I know I’m guilty of reaching sometimes. You try to reach for ways of making the thing come together.”
Discussing his influences as a broadcaster, MacLean acknowledged a debt to Hodge: “I grew up watching Dave. There were certain things he did that I tried to emulate. I liked the way he addressed the camera as well as the guest, the host and the viewer at home.
“But when radio is your first training, you learn early on the only way to be successful is to be yourself. You really try to preserve your individualism. I went with what felt right for me, even if my sense of humor didn’t appeal to everybody. There are going to be people making judgments and you’re not going to please everybody.”
Perhaps the hardest thing MacLean must overcome is that which he has the least control over – his youthful appearance. In a game that prides itself on its crusty, old guard, MacLean looks too young to be credible. Not that age necessarily implies competence.
“Part of the beauty of the job is that, as a host, if you’re on, you’re letting other people do the bulk of the analysis,” said MacLean. “You’re drawing it out of the guests or from Don Cherry. Plus, I’m surrounded by a lot of veteran broadcasters. Part of the credibility you gain comes from the package. When you throw to Dick Irvin or Brian McFarlane or Bob Cole, these are name broadcasters to Canadians. Automatically, whether I warrant it or not, that gives me credibility.
Hodge dismissed age as an issue.
“I wouldn’t think they mind at all having a younger person in there,” said Hodge. “When I began, one of the reasons I got the job is they wanted someone younger. In those days, I was wearing the longer ‘Beatles’ haircut. One of my first questions when I got the job was, ‘Do you want me to cut my hair?’ They said, ‘No, on the contrary, we want it long.’
“I think some viewers may look at the face, but the ones you’re trying to appeal to are the ones who listen to the words. So I don’t think that’s much of a problem.”
On the nights when he isn’t busy with his weekly HNIC telecast or mid-week Leaf games, MacLean keeps his finger on the game’s pulse by refereeing minor hockey.
So the much-maligned NHL zebras can count on having a friend in the studio. MacLean is one of their own and has been for years. He calls up to three Ontario Hockey Association games a week.
How long he’ll be a referee is anybody’s guess. But both history – the lengthy runs of Cornell and Hodge – and MacLean’s love of his job tell us he’s likely to get the time he needs to make the television viewing audience feel comfortable with him.
“It’s like a new job every day,” he said. “The job description stays the same but the environment is ever changing. I can’t see myself getting tired of it. I love hockey. I’m interested in people and what makes them tick. So interviewing is a perfect line of work for me.”