SUN Hockey Pool

Ron Maclean muses on hockey

Coach's Corner co-hosts Ron MacLean, left, and Don Cherry ham it up in one another's suit jackets...

Coach's Corner co-hosts Ron MacLean, left, and Don Cherry ham it up in one another's suit jackets before their first Hockey Night In Canada appearance of the season. (SUN/Fred Thornhill)

MICHELE MANDEL -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:05 AM ET

It's the melody of a nation.

Sure the game's the thing, but its return just wouldn't have been the same without Hockey Night in Canada.

A Saturday night hockey match without the bombastic tirades and eye-numbing outfits of Don Cherry? An intermission without the calm, incisive tones of host Ron MacLean? It would have been like the hotdog without the bun, the greasy pizza without the cheese. Hey, it would have been as sacrilegious as Tim Hortons without the coffee.

"The great thing about HNIC is it unifies all the various generations, ethnicities, genders, cultures, even the 'two solitudes,'" MacLean says. "It just seems to be a great night where a father and son, no matter whether he's goth and he's a power suit off Bay Street, everybody can enjoy that show because it's such a part of us, it's such a Canadian institution."

Thankfully the seven-week CBC labour dispute ended just in time. While a contract settlement means members of the Canadian Media Guild are back to work next week, the HNIC gang got special union dispensation to head back to the studio early for the season's first Saturday night face-off.

It's just hours before game time and in the CBC studio tucked beside the Leafs dressing room, MacLean is about to tape the Hotstove Lounge segment of the show. He throws his notes on the floor -- "17 months worth," he quips -- moves his coffee out of camera range and says, "Okay, here we go."

'IT JUST FLEW BY'

It's as if he never left.

"I found it just flew by," says the genial 45-year-old, as genuine in person as he seems on TV. "When I walked into the Air Canada Centre for the first pre-season game and I heard it had been over 500 days without a game there, I was in shock."

It's because for MacLean, hockey never went away, only the NHL did. He played three nights a week himself in beer leagues, covered the Memorial Cup and the World Juniors and visited various rinks around the country as host of Movie Night in Canada.

Still, it wasn't the NHL, of course. "I hated going to the bar after the beer league hockey games and there was basketball on the TV, not hockey. Nothing against basketball," he laughs.

But while it would have been "crummy" to still be locked out with the NHL season finally underway, MacLean was not about to lose sleep over it. After 20 years in the job, going through his own protracted contract "craziness" in 2002 that almost saw him not return and then the labour disputes both at the NHL and then at the CBC, "you almost get immune to fretting about it."

Yet as unflappable as he seems, he admits he's excited at being back. It's a feeling he sees mirrored by fans who have embraced the NHL's return with no hard feelings at all.

PASSION OR A HABIT?

"Ken Dryden posed the question at the get go when the NHL lockout began: Is this a passion or is it a habit? If it's just a habit, people will find other things to attract their attention.

"But obviously it's a passion. It's just electric around the building."

Despite so many months away, MacLean slipped easily back into his high alert game day routine -- watching the team's morning skate on Leafs TV and reading hockey coverage online before leaving his Oakville home at around 1:30 p.m.

"But I'll probably be so eager," he said the night before, "that I'll probably be there at 7 in the morning."

After pretaping Hotstove, he'll dine on chicken -- "I'm sort of superstitious about chicken being a better brain food than my beloved beef" -- and reunite with Grapes to go over what they will discuss on their first Coach's Corner.

'I MISSED HIM'

"Of course I missed him," he smiles. "It's our 20th season and I like to say it's like a long, long marriage. I think each of us knows what the other is thinking without words.

"We're not supposed to be friends," he chuckles. "Don always says, 'Don't tell anyone. It'll embarrass me in front of my construction buddies.'

"You know," he confides, "we couldn't be more opposite but he comes closest to the kind of person that I think I am: A rebel and principled."

A bank of six TVs to his left are ready to broadcast that evening's various NHL games. His makeup is done, his notes have been read, Cherry is on his way and game time is near.

After such a long forced hiatus, MacLean has been mulling about how to open HNIC for the 1.2 million Canadians who usually tune in. He keeps coming back to something Neil Young's father Scott said when he was host of the show in the 1960s.

"Music is the language of the world -- but hockey is the language of Canada."


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