TORONTO — Ron MacLean criss-crosses the country each week in search of “Hometown Hockey” stories, so a book full of them would seem be a natural extension.
But Hockey Towns is more than a compilation of a veteran story-teller’s hockey yarns, some gathered on the road with others courtesy of beer hockey buddies. While all are rooted in Canada’s game, the tales are often more life lessons.
MacLean tells the story of Ian Jenkins, a promising young goalie whose life was tragically cut short, and details the arduous journey of tough guy Zenon Konopka’s family from Poland to Canada. There’s Trent McCleary’s miraculous brush with death after taking a puck to the throat.
Chapters on Bill Hicke and Doug Wickenheiser hit you straight in the heart,
And his opening chapter on Mike Babcock’s stint as the coach of the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns in the early ’90s stands as a character study of the current Maple Leafs coach.
The idea for Hockey Towns actually preceded “Hometown Hockey” but the two projects have worked hand-in-hand.
Former Quebec sniper Michel Goulet, for example, connected with MacLean over a few cold ones after an episode of Hometown Hockey in Boishchatel, Que. Goulet tells his own story, in his own English, in the book.
Subtitled “Untold stories from the heart of Canada,” the book covers a gamut of emotions. Some of the stories are sad. Others are inspirational. All are interesting looks at multi-dimensional characters.
“We’re not this or that, but this and that,” said MacLean.
MacLean fell into doing a story-telling blog during the Sochi Olympics and the book travels down a similar path with a personal introduction to each story.
But the book project was also born out of gratitude.
While talking to MacLean is as easy as slipping into a pair of comfy slippers, the longtime TV host credits the other half of the interview equation.
“I’m always extremely grateful everywhere I go for people opening up and telling their story,.” he told The Canadian Press. “We’re lucky as interviewers to get the wisdom that comes with a good interview, with somebody having the trust to tell us what was on their mind … It’s additionally beneficial to have it come from people we think we know.”
It’s the second collaboration for MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day — his 2011 autobiography “Cornered” was the first — and it’s clear the two have a connection.
“It’s really been a pleasure to work with her,” he said.
MacLean says the rapport between them is similar to the bond he has with Don Cherry.
MacLean’s Hometown Hockey schedule has eased somewhat, with a less punishing itinerary than last season. “It’s a really civilized routing,” he said.
But he still has to get up early Sundays to travel after doing his Coach’s Corner duties with Cherry in Toronto. His biggest challenge is getting to sleep after downing cups of coffee with Cherry.
“The day of the show (Sunday) is a blur,” he said.
The 55-year-old MacLean spends his weeks during research on the next stop of his tour but says he enjoys the challenge.
“I feel that the greatest gift of journalism is that you’re constantly learning, you’re being educated along the way. It keeps it fresh.”
Cherry and MacLean both lament they don’t get spend as much time together these days, either on TV or sharing a beer afterwards.
MacLean reckons they did just three playoff games last season. “It was like going to summer camp,” he said fondly.
“We do miss that and there’s nothing we can do about it … so it’s not ideal,” he added. “But thankfully we have 31 years of history … It’s such a foundation that we can get through it. But we miss it for sure. it would be more fun, if nothing else.”
Hockey Towns by Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day, HarperCollins, 316 pages, $32.99