Johnson: Departing Mac’s chairman has seen it all in 34 years of service to tournament
Byron Stephen will step down after this year’s competition wraps up on Jan. 1
The details remain surprisingly sharp nearly three and a half decades later.
“It was actually a playoff game,” Byron Stephen is reminiscing. “Calgary Royals and Richelieu, Quebec. I was a goal judge back then. The Royals lost in double OT that day. Great game, though. At Max Bell.
“That was my very first time at the Mac’s. I must’ve enjoyed myself because, well, I’ve been coming back ever since.”
For 34 of the tournament’s 35 years, in fact. Stephen has been involved in some capacity since 1979. This year, when the tournament ends on Jan. 1 with the championship tilt at the Scotiabank Saddledome, he’ll step down as chairman.
“I’m not going away, exactly,” he protests. “I’m just stepping back to arm’s length.”
He’s naturally seen ’em all down through the holiday seasons. Wendel Clark and Sidney Crosby. Claude Lemieux and Jarome Iginla. Trevor Linden and Ryan Smyth. Rick Tocchet and Mike Modano. Mike Vernon and Dany Heatley.
“When you stop and think about it, it does sound like a long time ago,” muses. Stephen. “A lot of games, a lot of faces, a lot of years. And then, sometimes, it’ll seem like just yesterday.
“There are so many memories. People always ask me ‘What’s your favourite?’ Well, that’s hard to pinpoint. But the biggest thing that happened was definitely (Petr) Nedved’s defection. For sure. It was a big story, a worldwide story. And you just don’t get that in minor hockey.”
On that day in 1989, Nedved, then 17 and playing for Litvinov, snuck out of his hotel room in the middle of the night, walked into a Calgary police station and declared his intention to defect from Czechoslovakia.
“For those of us on the committee it was a dual feeling. You’re happy for the kid, but you were worried about the coaching staff. A fantastic coaching staff. And you wondered ‘What are they going home to?’
“Only two years later, (Nedved) could’ve literally just got on a plane and come over, no questions asked.”
At the kickoff media availability for the 35th instalment of the Mac’s on Monday at the Westin hotel, Byron Stephen finds himself somewhat the centre of attention.
“It was planned better than most people think,” he protests. “I gave notice three years ago. So no big surprise. But I guess some people just assumed ‘Ah! He’ll never do it ...’
“That operation side, that day-to-day stuff, doing it all the time, I think that’s one aspect of it. But I think it’s important getting other people involved, right, and keeping it where it needs to stay. The biggest thing for me is to make sure I support the new group.”
Stephen has watched the tournament grow from its original origins through the stages when multiple international teams flocked to be included in the program, and the right to play the Mac’s championship game at the Saddledome was something every midget AAA player dreamed of.
“It’s a half-million dollar business now. That’s what is. We have a year-round office. People just assume it just suddenly ... appears, on Boxing Day. But it’s like any other event. You don’t see the stuff that has to go on behind the scenes to make it work, the effort put in trying to make it better.
“About 15 years ago, we came up with the Mac’s Experience. We wanted the tournament to have an impact on anybody that’s in any way involved. The players. The media. The coaches. The families. On the volunteers. Referees. Everybody.”
Having resigned from his job with the city, for the sake of “flexibility”, he created Stephen Solutions, a contracting and consulting firm he’s eager to devote more time to. All his family, his mom and dad, two sisters and a brother and their families, still live here. He’s a northeast kid, a lifelong Calgarian.
“This is a great city. It’s changed a bit over the years ... I’ve always believed in giving back. I love events. I have good event-organizing skills. And I’ve always felt this particular tournament did a lot of good things for local athletes, local teams and the associations involved.
“The Mac’s, I think, is important to Calgary.”
There are initiatives, upgrades, that need attending to. Increasing funding to support more international teams, one per pool minimum, would rank high on the list. And Byron Stephen promises to be around to offer support, expertise and, if need be, troubleshoot. But sweating the details will be someone else’s responsibility.
The Mac’s has been a part of his life for more than three decades, since he sat behind that net at Max Bell and watched Richelieu beat the Royals in double OT. Come next Boxing Day, though, there’s no anticipated intense organizational withdrawal from relinquishing the chairman’s role.
“You know what’ll be nice?” he muses. “To just sit in the stands and watch a hockey game. Enjoy it.
“I love hockey. I love to watch hockey.
“And to not be worrying about anything else, about everything else?
“Boy, that’ll be fun.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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