Ron MacLean on how 'Hometown Hockey' was a 'godsend' and his return to 'HNIC'

Ron MacLean, shown in this Monday March 10, 2014 file photo, returns to the Hockey Night in Canada host's chair this season following a two-year absence. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Ron MacLean never thought he'd be back as host of "Hockey Night in Canada."

"Of course not," he told The Canadian Press this week. "If anything, I had almost put in my head the idea that it's going to be time to look for something outside of the hockey arena."

Thirty years after he first won the job replacing Dave Hodge, MacLean returns Saturday on CBC as host of a new season of "Hockey Night in Canada."

For the past two seasons, the 56-year-old was bumped off the main desk in favour of a younger man: former CBC personality George Stroumboulopoulos. The 44-year-old former VJ was brought in with great fanfare as the hockey host for the digital age. The move was made following Rogers' 12-year, $5.2 billion blockbuster deal to acquire NHL broadcast rights in Canada.

MacLean was re-assigned and spent two years as the ultimate company man. He'd pop into the studio Saturday nights to shoot "Coach's Corner" opposite Don Cherry, then dash to the airport to the next hockey hinterland as the puck-dropping pied piper of "Hometown Hockey."

Some would have chaffed at the demotion. MacLean soldiered on.

"The one thing I was grateful for was there was never a moment of, 'How could they do this to me?' I never felt that emotion once," says MacLean. "I just felt like at my age it made sense that you were going to be part of changes."

Besides, rationalized MacLean, Rogers faced a wave of innovation and technical change when they made their big announcement two years ago. Even MacLean wondered how important intermission segments would be in an era where another period in another rink was only an app away.

So he dutifully hit the road and did "Hometown Hockey" — and found himself.

"It was a godsend," says MacLean. "I feel like that show was the guardian angel that rescued me."

The job put him in hockey communities from coast to coast, allowing MacLean to feel the impact of all those years as the guy at the centre of the national pastime.

"You understand the fuss because you've been on 'Hockey Night in Canada' for 30 years," he says, "but I just fell into a show where everyone was so nice."

MacLean likens it to the live audience feedback he got for three seasons on "Battle of the Blades."

"That was a real joyous surprise in my life and so was this show."

MacLean felt other highs and lows this year. There was the loss of his father; anchoring portions of CBC's Summer Olympic broadcasts; the almost spiritual salute setting up the final concert by the Tragically Hip.

Taking note of all this connectivity was MacLean's boss, Sportsnet president Scott Moore. He witnessed MacLean "walk into any community … and hold everyone captivated telling story after story."

The one person MacLean says he never really connected with, however, was Stroumboulopoulos.

"It was always a bit quiet on that front," he says. "I don't think there was ever a relationship built." MacLean says he sent his colleague a text upon hearing of his exit. "Never heard back."

Moore was the Rogers executive who championed Stroumboulopoulos but ultimately concluded that "the connection just wasn't there — certainly not for lack of trying."

He now faces the task of turning around a sharp decline in "Hockey Night in Canada" ratings over the past two seasons, especially on the once-mighty Saturday night broadcasts.

Rogers' "hockey anyplace, anytime" strategy was not the irresistible content catnip the media company envisioned. Not helping was the simultaneous tanking of the Toronto Maple Leafs in Canada's biggest TV market. Worse, with no Canadian teams in the playoffs, Stanley Cup ratings hit historic lows last spring.

Moore promises traditional "HNIC" fans will find "a more comfortable show" this season with MacLean back in charge, adding: "I think he'll also make our panellists more comfortable."

The panel will remain consistent all season on Saturday nights, with Elliotte Friedman, Kelly Hrudey and Nick Kypreos chatting with MacLean. David Amber will host Saturday's late game, giving MacLean time to do "Hometown Hockey."

MacLean, of course, will also be back with Cherry on "Coach's Corner." And why not? As Moore acknowledges, despite all the tinkering, the 82-year-old Cherry is still "the most popular commentator we have among millennials."

— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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