Celebrating forty years of involvement with minor hockey this season, Don MacLean always seems to find his way home. When it comes to working with young hockey talent, his home, his comfort zone, is clearly with the initiation programs, those making their very first entry to the sport.
Always has been, always will. It was no different when he first offered to help Dan Susteric with an independant program in the mid-1970's. No different as he ventured off to form Sports North, a hockey organization that would flourish and eventually merge with the SMHA (Sudbury Minor Hockey Association).
No different now, 74 years young, as MacLean makes his way over to the RHP Training Centre every weekend during hockey season, lending a helping hand to the five, six and seven year olds on the ice.
A lifelong resident of Sudbury, MacLean grew up in a sports environment. "I played pretty much every sport, there was nothing I didn't try," MacLean confessed. A decent goaltender in hockey, the former Sudbury fire chief acknowledged that likely his greatest prowess would come as a broomball player, an athletic pastime that prospered in Sudbury as well as northern Ontario and Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s.
"I had a pretty good knack for deflecting the ball and knowing where to be," MacLean said. "I caught on to that fairly quickly and did well in that sport." Teaming up with the likes of Ray Jolicoeur, MacLean and friends/family would enjoy the chance to test themselves against the very best the sport had to offer.
That was until, like most young men of that era, a family of his own re-set his listing of priorities. "I switched over with my son," said MacLean. "I wanted him to have the opportunities that I had enjoyed as a youth."
Finding a spot for his son in the Susteric program, MacLean would see things move quickly, as the genesis of a new organization was rapidly unfolding. "Dan did one team only, but after that, Sports North kicked in, and we were very fortunate that some of our fundraising ventures did so well."
In the beginning, MacLean could work hand in hand, to some extent, with the SMHA crew, simply filling a void in their programming. "The SMHA did not initially cater to the initiation program, so I took it upon myself," he said.
"Everything that we did just seemed like the right thing to do. Basically, I had good people around me, and I took care of the financing and management." With experience at the junior level, coaches Danny Stack and Tony Thibeault would lend a helping hand.
Later, it was the likes of Bryan Verreault and Tom Faganely who would guide Sports North teams to provincial championships. "I was able to give the kids a lot of ice time for their dollar," MacLean explained.
"My timing was right. Sudbury Minor had the "AAA" and "AA" teams, but no feeder system to it." His program had garnered the attention of the SMHA, though their offer of "partnership" did not provide a great deal of appeal to MacLean.
"They basically said, "we want your ice, we want all of your kids, and we want to run it," MacLean recalled. "There was nothing in it for me. I thought if that's the way it is, we're going to part ways." Thus, Sports North was born.
For 10-12 years, the two hockey organizations competed for the same pool of talent. Thankfully, eventually, common ground was discovered. "I had talked to SMHA president Mike Brunette, at the time, and I was not asking for anything, other than being on their board for three years," said MacLean.
"Everybody said that the amalgamation would not work. But I really wasn't going there for any reason other than the kids. That, for me, is where the gratification for coaching hockey always was, with the little guys," suggested MacLean.
"You really can't have any strength at the top of your programs if you don't have a solid base." Content to let others deal with the top of that pyramid, MacLean has, and always will, return to his home, the "initiation" of young hockey talent.