Getting up close to their idols

In places like Campbellton New Brunswick Ron MacLean and Don Cherry can't walk around without people asking for an autograph

In places like Campbellton New Brunswick Ron MacLean and Don Cherry can't go anywhere without people coming up to talk about hockey.

A bone-chilling wind was whipping up the snow as Marjorie Nicolle stood on an old railway bridge spanning the Upsalquitch River.

Only minutes earlier, Nicolle was in her kitchen in the settlement of Upsalquitch when word spread that Ron MacLean was just down the road.

Nicolle tapped her husband Albert on the shoulder and off they went to watch MacLean film parts of his opening segment for Tim Horton's Hockey Day in Canada broadcast on Saturday.

Nicolle and a handful of friends that live along the road that hugs the Upsalquitch River didn't flinch when the wind turned a pleasant day into a reminder that winter is far from over in northern New Brunswick.

"Someone came to our house this morning and told us he was here and we had to come up," said Nicolle as she watched MacLean slip on a pair of bear claw snowshoes and then make his way up river as a crew filmed the popular host of Hockey Night in Canada from the end of the bridge.

And when the crew needed a chair for MacLean to use in a scene, someone was sent to Nicolle's house to get one.

"He is famous and he is in our area and this means a lot," said Nicolle.

For people like Nicolle, Hockey Day in Canada is much more than a day-long celebration of Canada's coolest game on ice. 

Hockey Day is something special

Hockey Day allows people who drink the workingman's champagne to get up close to people they feel they've known for decades, without actually having ever met them.  Ron is one of those guys and Don - as in Don Cherry - is another.   

Hockey Day is also other things.

It is a chance for the students at the Campbellton Middle School to have a blast - as one teacher put it - designing a new jacket and tie set for Cherry as a school project.

It's a chance for them to hear from local-boy-does-good Jim Munson, a church minister's son who is in the federal Senate. He will speak to the students about never giving up on their dreams.

It's a chance for students to meet Olympic gold medalist Cassie Campbell.   It's a chance for kids playing minor hockey to have former NHLers Wendel Clark and Mark Napier run a clinic for them.

MacLean knows that Hockey Day is much more than a day-long television marathon of three NHL games and reports from all corners of Canada's hockey map about this year's theme of hockey rivalries.

Why people love the sport

For MacLean, it is a chance for Canadians to celebrate who they are and the sport they love.

"That is the whole thing that makes it shine, the rink rat element. It is totally about the people," said MacLean.  "All Canadians are core rink rats. They all know what it was like to fire that last puck into the snow bank. They have a great humble disposition that makes them great. The people are enthusiastic because of their love for the game."

Campbellton is much like the vast majority of smalltown hockey towns in Canada, with a hockey rink at one end of the town and the curling rink in another, with a Tim Horton's somewhere in between.

Hockey has played an important part of the local history and it reached a height in the 1970s when the men's senior team won three Canadian titles.

Campbellton had 13,500 people living here then. The main employer was the CNR, along with pulp mills in nearby towns of Atholville and Dalhousie.

Times have definitely changed, and now the remaining mill in Atholville is the main employer in the region.

This, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the connection between Hockey Day and ordinary Canadians like the people here in northern New Brunswick.

The importance of personal contact

MacLean is from Nova Scotia and recalled how the only way he had personal contact with NHLers when he was growing up was at local summer hockey camps.

"I was a kid in Cape Breton when Pat Stapleton did a lot of work in the Maritimes with hockey schools," he recalled.

Now MacLean is in the spotlight and he hasn't forgotten what it was like as a kid to see a childhood hero.

MacLean arrived here earlier this week and he hasn't been able to turn around without someone wanting to talk hockey or sign an autograph, or have their picture taken with him. 

"We had so much fun after we played shinny last night, hearing John LeBlanc (a local resident who played 80-plus games in the NHL) telling hockey stories and before you know it, Tippy - and I do not know Tippy's last name - was telling stories about refereeing, how if you get hit by the puck you had to put 25 cents (into a booty) and if you got hurt you had to put in 50 cents," said MacLean. "And if the trainer comes out you have to put in two bucks.

"I thought what a story. It is such a nice thing for a referee to own up for getting in the way. It was perfect.  . . . Hey does anyone know Tippy's name?""

MacLean loved hearing Tippy's story and Tippy will always remember who he told it to.

That's one way how Hockey Day in Canada connects with people.