Q&A with former Vancouver Canuck B.J. MacDonald

Wayne Gretzky’s former linemate dishes on being an active alumni member, the Canucks’ 1982 Cup run and playing with the Great One

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      In B.J. MacDonald’s first year in the NHL, he put up 94 points in 80 games. Not coincidentally, there was another newcomer to the NHL in the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup that year. Indeed, MacDonald had the fortune of playing on Wayne Gretzky’s line for the better part of two years (the first was in the now-defunct WHA). 

      When the Oilers decided it was time to move on from MacDonald, they dealt him to Vancouver. And while the Cornwall, Ontario native wasn’t able to reach the gaudy stats he put up while on The Great One’s wing, MacDonald had a couple of productive seasons with the Canucks, including a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1982.

      He also ended up making a home in Vancouver and now plays a crucial role in the Canucks Alumni Association. In fact, MacDonald is heavily involved in the organization’s latest effort, the second annual Canuck Country Rocks Charity Fundraiser, which takes place this Saturday, April 14.

      He joined the Straight to talk about his role in the community and what it was like to take passes from Wayne Gretzky.

      How did you end up playing such an active role in the Canucks Alumni Association?

      Well, I’m involved in a couple. I played for the Oilers as well, so usually when you play for a certain team, you always end up in the area and are automatically part of the alumni. So when we’re finished playing here in Vancouver, we have a fairly big alumni and it’s a really good group. We do a lot of charity stuff, a lot in the form of golf tournaments and charity hockey games around the province to raise funds.

      And we had the idea a couple years ago to do a charity event and get music involved, because we all love music. So we came up with this idea, Canucks Country Rocks, to get some local guys, and some other Canadian artists together and do a show and raise money that way. We always kid people that rock stars want to be hockey players and hockey players want to be rock stars, so it’s the perfect marriage.

      Why country?

      It’s a little bit of rock and a little bit of country. We have Odds playing, they’re more on the rock side. But the country genre is really popular now and there are a lot of local artists—Shawn Austin, for example, is a local guy from North Van. We try to keep it as grassroots and homegrown as we can.

      How can you build off last year’s effort?

      We have five acts this year, last year I think we had four. We ended up raising almost $20,000 last year for the charities. It’s for Canuck Place, Basics for Babies and Jack.org. this year and we felt strongly about those charities, and we just thought we could keep building on it, so it’s the ticket to get in March and April.

      How involved are you in the day-to-day operations of the Canucks?

      We’re not at the arena with the present day guys, we have our own alumni association, and so we concentrate more on that. We do get down on the rink from time to time and do open skates with them. But we’ve always had a good rapport with the Canucks; we have our own alumni box there. We go to quite a few games, as many as we can get to. We keep that connection between the current Canucks and our alumni as strong as possible.

      What was it like playing for the Canucks in the early 80s, and how does it compare to what it’s like now for current players?

      I think one of the differences is that we were a bit more under the radar when we played. It was exceptional hockey, just like it is today, but they’re under the gun a little bit more, a lot of pressure. Everything is so social. There’s social media, there’s so much more TV coverage, they’re on the hot seat all the time.

      We all had pressure, and if you’re playing great that’s fine, but if you’re struggling and having a tough week it seems to be more noticeable because the press is picking it up more. I think there’s quite a bit of pressure on them, and I think right now it’s a younger league. The trend goes back and forth, but right now at the present time it’s a little bit of a younger league; guys can be finished careers at 28 and 29, because guys come and go so much quicker.

      But you must have felt a ton of pressure when you got traded to Vancouver after putting up such great numbers with Gretzky on the Oilers.

      Oh, absolutely. It was an awesome time in Edmonton and when I came over to the Canucks there was pressure to perform every night. When you get to a certain level, if it drops off for whatever reason or some nights it just doesn’t work, you feel bad. It’s hard getting up for all 82 games.

      Can you give me an idea of what it was like to play on Gretzky’s line?

      Well you know what, it was definitely the most fun I had playing. To play with one of the best players who ever played the game was pretty special. You had to know where to be, there were certain expectations of playing with him. And you really had to be a student of the game and know where to go and go to all the open spots on the ice, go to all the dead zones. With him, he was the all-time give-and-go player, so you had to be prepared to give it back and go to the holes; it was a lot of fun.

      You were a part of the 1981-82 Canucks teams that went to the Stanley Cup Final. What was that like?

      It was a fabulous time. I remember coming into the airport when we came back from beating Chicago and were going to the Finals. The white towel thing had started (in honour of then-coach Roger Neilson) and the guys that had the flashlights to bring the planes in to dock, they had white towels around their flashlights bringing us in.

      We got there and the airport was just jammed with people, we hadn’t expected it at all. I think that definitely put Vancouver on the National Hockey league map a little more, because it was the Stanley Cup Finals and it was against one of the dynasties of the team in the NHL (the New York islanders). The city just got completely enveloped in it, it was pretty special. Even after we lost, we had a parade downtown.

      Who’s your favourite player on the current Canucks to watch right now?

      Being a winger and a bit of a goal scorer, I like what I’ve seen in Boeser. I really like the way he releases the puck and can get himself into position for quality shots on goal. I like Horvat’s two-way game as well, he’s a real anchor for them.

      What else can you tell me about the fundraiser?

      Well it’s pretty outside of the box that hockey teams don’t normally do, and we hope that we’re starting something unique. We want people to get down there and check it out, because it’s a fantastic night and I think it’s one of the best live music nights in the city.