In the parking lot outside Student Commons stood a giant, red tent adorned with pictures of NHL superstars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and John Tavares. Next to the tent was a lineup of dozens of people waiting patiently in line, braving the cold.
Many were wearing the hometown Ottawa Senators jerseys, while others were wearing more rival Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens sweaters. Some even chose to wear more obscure teams like the Mighty Ducks from the Disney films.
However, on this day, and on this weekend, Instead of fighting and arguing over whose team is the best (or worst), they laughed and chatted in anticipation of meeting the man at the end of the line.
That person was none other than legendary sports broadcaster Ron MacLean.
MacLean was inside the tent greeting fans and signing autographs as part of the Rogers Hometown Hockey tour, which made its fifth stop at Algonquin College over the Nov. 3-4 weekend.
Hometown Hockey is a two-day, outdoor festival that travels across Canada broadcasting NHL hockey games. The show is broadcast nationally and reaches millions of Canadians across the country every Sunday. Its purpose is to showcase small communities and the importance of hockey to those communities.
Since 2014, MacLean and fellow co-host Tara Slone have been traveling coast to coast, from city to city with Rogers Sportsnet, immersing themselves in the local culture and telling stories of NHL stars from the past, present and future.
MacLean believes that the show gives people the opportunity to thank those who have helped them throughout their careers and to show the country what their community means to them.
“[Guests] want to thank the people that got them where they got,” said MacLean in an interview with the Times. “They’re happy to showcase their arenas, their backyard rinks. It’s just a different vibe altogether from the rest of the games that are televised, where normally it’s an intermission of dissecting plays that went wrong or great goals.
“This is more the human touch; this is story telling,” he said.
Nepean has a rich and storied hockey history, which is why it was selected to be featured.
“The history of Nepean and the Raiders and Steve Yzerman; that’s a great starting point,” said MacLean, who is one of the most notable figures in hockey from his 30-plus-year run alongside Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner.
The Nepean connection includes former Detroit Red Wings captain and Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who was born and raised here. He learned how to play at the Nepean Sportsplex and eventually went on to be the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It goes deeper with Algonquin and dean Jim Kyte,” continued MacLean. “Anywhere in Ottawa, the roots of the game are so deep that you can’t go wrong.”
Kyte, dean of the school of hospitality and tourism, played 13 seasons in the NHL, and made history as the first and only legally deaf player to skate on NHL ice. He first started at Algonquin as a professor and program coordinator of the sports business management program and was named dean in 2014.
Slone agreed with her co-host that Yzerman and Kyte, among others, were big factors in putting Nepean on the hockey map.
“There are some pretty neat hockey players, like Steve Yzerman, to come out of Nepean,” she said in an interview with the Times. “There’s lots of history there, [a] great minor hockey system. We’re going to have Jim Kyte on the show, so there’s hockey connections at Algonquin. There’s a whole bunch of great reasons.”
Along with Kyte, the show featured two young, local athletes from the boys and girls Nepean teams. Hillary Sterling, a centre for the midget AA Nepean Wildcats, and Matthew Spinella, a goaltender for the midget AA Nepean Raiders, both watched the third period of the game between Ottawa and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday with MacLean and Slone, and got to read the three stars of the game at the end of the broadcast.
Many of the Wildcats and Raiders players and families were in attendance.
“My daughter plays hockey with the Nepean Wildcats and so they’re out here volunteering,” said Rhonda Quinn. “They wanted to get some autographs and just enjoy the festivities.”
Ryan Latimer, a graduate of Algonquin’s business administration program, stressed the importance of hockey to Nepean and his family. “It’s a huge interaction with the community,” he said. “It’s building the sport, it’s building the game, which is really important.”
For Latimer and his family, hockey is more than just a sport. “[It’s] everything, it is our family,” he said.
Latimer’s mother, Margo, echoed the sentiment, explaining how the children in their family love hockey.
“We wanted to show our grandchildren a little bit about the joy of hockey,” she said. “We’ve got six grandchildren under the age of five and they love hockey too.”
The festival was geared more towards the younger hockey fans, offering an array of hockey-related activities and attractions. There was the Ram Haul of Fame, a hockey-themed obstacle course, the Rogers Fan Hub where fans could play NHL 19 on PS4 and the Scotiabank Community Hockey Rink.
Players in the aforementioned community rink got a one-of-a-kind opportunity when former Senators forward Chris Kelly grabbed a stick and joined in on the action.
Kelly and fellow Sens alumnus Jason York were both on hand, talking to fans and signing autographs before an outdoor viewing party of the Senators game against the Lightning on Sunday. Ottawa and Tampa Bay both came into the NHL in 1992, so it was only fitting that they play what would be their 2000th game against each other.
Kelly played 545 games with the Senators over eight years and retired from the NHL earlier this year. He was hired as the team’s player development coach at the start of September, just before they opened training camp.
“We’re down in Belleville quite a bit with the prospects and they’re doing really well,” said Kelly in an interview with the Times. “The future looks extremely bright, so it’s been great working with Shean [Donovan] and working with these younger players.”
He has lived in Nepean for the last 13 years and sees the passion from community members on a daily basis.
“Even on a rainy day you’re seeing the people come out, people are really passionate about hockey,” he said. “Nepean’s a great community and Algonquin is a big part of that community.”
York was born and raised in Nepean and still lives there to this day. He joined the Senators after a trade in 1996 and spent five seasons in the nation’s capital. Although he is now a broadcaster for the rival Montreal Canadiens, he still holds Nepean and the Senators close to his heart.
“At first, coming to play here, you catch yourself looking in the stands,” he said in an interview with the Times. “You don’t want to screw up when you’re on the ice because, when you’re playing in a different city, you don’t know the fans personally. So if you play bad in one of those cities, it does suck, but it’s a lot worse when you play bad in front of friends and family.”
The festival wasn’t just a fun experience for fans. Rainwater Whiskey vocalist Thomas Watson, an Algonquin graduate, had the chance to combine three important aspects of his life into one memorable weekend.
“This is like a trifecta happening right now,” said Watson in an interview with the Times. “I’m an alumni of Algonquin College, played hockey up until Junior ‘A’, played music the whole time, this is like three things coming together. Rarely do your passions come together like this.”
Rainwater Whiskey played three 45-minute sets of cover songs from artists like Johnny Cash, Great Big Sea and Jason Aldean, among others, over the course of Sunday afternoon.
Algonquin president Cheryl Jensen was in attendance and stressed that the college’s identity as a community college made it a perfect fit for the festival.
“I do often talk about the fact that we are a community college,” said Jensen in an interview with the Times, “which means going out into the community, helping the community, which our students and staff do so well. But also, bringing the community to us.”
Algonquin has seen a number of high-profile guests walk through its halls, including then-Governor General David Johnston, but Jensen sees Hometown Hockey as the cherry on top.
“I’m a hockey mom and I hope to be a hockey grandma someday soon,” she said, “And really, to show the spirit of Canada here, this really does rank tops in my book.”