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MacLean thrilled to see Prince Edward Island host Hockeyville

Former Panthers, Blue Jackets coach proud of people in O'Leary

by Shawn P. Roarke sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

O'LEARY, Prince Edward Island -- It was impossible to wipe the smile off Doug MacLean's face on Sunday.

MacLean, the former NHL coach and general manager and current analyst on Sportsnet, was among his people, his Islanders, on a picture-perfect fall day in The Maritimes. 

 

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That alone is enough to put him in a good mood. But they were all celebrating hockey, feting the arrival of 2017 Kraft Hockeyville in this small potato-farming town, and that put him over the top.

He had his personal journey, against so many odds to the NHL. Now he, and hundreds of others, were joined to welcome the League to their province.

The Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils will play a preseason game at Credit Union Place on Monday (6 p.m. ET; SN1, NHLN) in Summerside - MacLean's hometown - to bring to a close three days of celebration of the sport that unites the province throughout the winter.

"When you see what O'Leary did to win this event, it sort of tells you what it means to PEI," MacLean said shortly after dropping the puck before a women's college game between the University of Prince Edward Island and St. Thomas University at O'Leary Sports Community Centre. "It's a passion here; it's a big part of people's lives, you know.

"All these communities in PEI, things are centered around the rink; it's pretty cool."

PEI has the most rinks per capita, according to Kraft Hockeyville organizers. MacLean has likely been in each one, but O'Leary Community Sports Centre holds a special place in his heart for many reasons.

Most importantly, he was sitting in the stands there in 1995, watching his son, Clarke, play, when his life changed in a moment.

MacLean was handed a message that he needed to call Bryan Murray, who was general manager of the Florida Panthers and MacLean's boss and long-time mentor. At the time, MacLean was the director of player development and pro scout for the Panthers.

He raced to the Mill River Resort, right down the road, and used their pay phone to return the call.

"I was offered the Florida Panthers coaching job during that call," MacLean said, shaking his head at the enormity of it all. "So, one of the most important times in my life, in my career getting my first NHL head coaching job, was in the O'Leary rink right here. It brought back some great memories."

MacLean says he can still remember how great he felt driving down the Western Road, which connects O'Leary to Summerside, knowing that years of hockey experiences had coalesced into his dream job.

He had followed Murray from the Washington Capitals, to the Detroit Red Wings and, finally, to the Panthers, serving in a variety of front-office capacities. Before reaching the professional ranks as an assistant with the St. Louis Blues in 1985, MacLean coached a junior team in Summerside, the Western Capitals, and at the University of New Brunswick.

But he also had memories of the O'Leary rink as a player.

Shortly after graduating from the UPEI, he joined the senior team in his hometown. That spring, his team, the Combines, played O'Leary's legendary Maroons in the playoffs.

The Combines lost the first three games of the best-of-7 series and hope seemed lost. But MacLean was one of the key players who brought the Combines all the way back to a Game 7.

"It was wild," MacLean said, chuckling. "It was packed every game; it was hostile. It was scary out there. It was scary how vicious it was."

The Combines won Game 7, at O'Leary's barn.

"It was unbelievable, unbelievable," MacLean said. "I might have gotten a hat trick, but I am not bragging. You'll have to check the stats."

Again, the ride home along the Western Road was full of smiles, and a stop or two along the road to celebrate.

There is no need to check the stats to see the impact MacLean has had on this community. People constantly stopped him Sunday. Some wanted to talk about the unforgettable series between the Combines and the Maroons. Others wanted to talk about the hockey school he ran during the summers in Summerside. Still, others wanted to talk about when he brought the Panthers to the Island in 1996 for training camp and the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2001. Some just wanted to shake the hand of one of the province's favored sons.

MacLean accepted each accolade and story with the omnipresent smile, sometimes with a grasp of the shoulder or a pat on the back.

He was with his people, celebrating the game he loved. Where else could he want to be?

"When I watched how this community sort of grabbed onto this [Hockeyville] thing and what they did to win it, a community of a 1000 or whatever, it really is a great testament to what these people can do," he said. "I'm glad I could be a part of the celebration."

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