Editor’s note: The following interview will appear in the upcoming Hockey & Hoops issue, available on stands Friday, October 15.
Canadian-born Peter McNab has been the Avalanche’s popular and respected television analyst since 1995, or since the franchise arrived in Denver. He was familiar in Denver even then, since he played both baseball and hockey at the University of Denver before embarking on a 15-season NHL career with Buffalo, Boston, Vancouver and New Jersey. He’s 19th in NHL scoring among Americans, with 813 points, on 363 goals and 450 assists. In September, USA Hockey announced McNab will be one of three members of the United States Hockey Hall of Fame’s 2021 induction class. The honor comes as McNab – “Maxy” to his friends – is fighting cancer, undergoing periodic chemotherapy. He recently spoke with Mile High Sports Magazine contributing writer Terry Frei, who covered McNab in the NHL and has known him since his return to Denver, for this omnibus interview.
Terry Frei: How’d you find out about your United States Hockey Hall of Fame selection and what was – or is – your reaction?
Peter McNab: It was really interesting for me because I was on the selection committee for 12 years. I don’t think I would have appreciated what a true honor it was to be selected if I hadn’t been on the committee. I hadn’t been on the committee the last couple of years. I truly did not expect to be selected. It was just this really cool feeling. The one thing I did learn from being on the selection committee was that they take it very seriously. They’re not lining up the five best statistical players for that particular year. They really looked at people who contributed in hockey. That part, more than anything, made me feel really good. I know how hard I worked to pick out the people I picked out every year. To know that the other selectors had done that through the years, and then to be selected, it was just a tremendous honor.
TF: When did you become a U.S. citizen?
PM: I’m not 100 percent sure when, but it was back in my Boston days. I think I just wanted to. I’d been here long enough, and I’d lived in San Diego from the time I was 14. I grew up in a military town. Going from home to my school, we would walk right through military housing. The Navy and the Marines were there. During my time in San Diego, it was the Vietnam War. I had a lot of friends from school who ended up going over and not one of them came back the same. They didn’t want to talk about it, they would never talk about it, and they’d get angry if you pushed them about it. The military part was very real for me.
TF: Your dad, Max, played in the NHL and was on a Stanley Cup winner at Detroit. He then was a well-known coach and executive in the old Western Hockey League, when it was a popular West Coast staple of pro minor-league hockey. He went from the Vancouver Canucks to the San Diego Gulls, which is why you moved to the U.S. when you were 14. Before that, did you have a typical Canadian experience in starting young and loving hockey?
PM: There is no question there’s this huge line right down the middle of my life when I moved to San Diego. My daughters later would say, “Dad you really have this unusual outlook on life. You’ve got no discipline.” I’d say, “Yeah,” because you took a family from a little pulp and paper town outside Vancouver – New Westminster – and dropped us into Southern California during the ‘60s. The girls didn’t understand it until there was a documentary on Southern California in the ‘60s, on what was going on and how it was the center of this huge social revolution of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. So, then my dad, who couldn’t be more hockey through and through, comes to me then when I’m 14 and says, “Listen, if we stay here in San Diego, your hockey career is over. I’ve talked to Grandma and Grandpa and you could go live with them in Chilliwack [B.C.]. Think about that for a couple of weeks.” He fully – fully! – expects me to say I’ll go back and live with my grandparents and play hockey. Well, I had started to meet some buddies. They had every sport under the sun. I loved baseball. You could do whatever you wanted. It’s sunny all the time! I’m 14 and I’m going down to the beach. I’m looking around and asking myself, “Do I really want to go back and freeze my ass off?” Then two weeks later, my dad takes me in his office and asks if I’d made up my mind. I said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, I made up my mind 13 days ago.” So he asked me when I wanted to leave for Chilliwack. I said, “This is Nirvana, I’m not leaving here. Are you crazy? This is phenomenal.” I can never forget my dad’s face as I’m saying this.
TF: Was there any youth hockey at all?
PM: Just enough so I could play. We had 25 or 30 games a year. Our practice arena was at a mall and the rink was 120 feet by 60 feet. But you know what? I never regretted the decision once.
TF: So hockey, baseball and … ?
PM: I moved pianos and I would work all the concerts at the San Diego Sports Arena. I’d be backstage and it was like nothing a little Canadian boy had ever seen before. Janis Joplin was over here, and Jimi Hendrix was over there. Anything, everything, was fair game. That time, more than any, kind of shaped who I am and turned out to be. (Laughs.) Unfortunately, as my children would say.
TF: You went from there to DU on a combination hockey-baseball scholarship, and you did play rightfield for the Pioneers for two seasons. Why’d you decide to concentrate on hockey?
PM: I truly did love playing baseball, but the hockey part I just liked better. There were some good things that happened my freshman year. I was more in tune with the hockey players. Plus, I realized in San Diego that my limitation always was going to be laying off the high heat. When I was in high school, I faced John d’Acquisto in a regional game – he went on to the big leagues – and I was up five times. I swung 15 times. I missed the ball 15 times. I was a good player, all-league and stuff like that, but I very much knew my limits. There was no way I was going to go past college in baseball.
TF: In hockey, you were starring for curmudgeonly coach Murray Armstrong and the Pioneers, as part of a legendary eight-man freshman class.
PM: We stuck together. There was some hockey talent and we won games. It was a really fun, easy time of our life. It would have been impossible to enjoy the three years more than we did. We could not have had a better time. We didn’t win it, but we went to the NCAA final four three times. I was getting an opportunity. (Laughs.) We were really good, but the discipline level … well, we were a little lacking there. We came there in 1970 and we looked around – the fraternity parties, the sorority parties? I mean, we were right in there. We had track shoes on.
TF: The Sabres drafted you after your sophomore year and you signed after your junior year. And you were with Buffalo for three seasons. By your third year, your dad was in the NHL, too, as GM of the Capitals.
PM: Under no circumstances did I think I was going to be a player in this league. It was a three-line league. I was the 10th or 11th forward. But I was seeing the NHL. My dad said he thought I could play, but in case I couldn’t, make a list of things I wanted to do. I wanted to see the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room and some other things, but my favorite one was I was going to chase Bobby Orr around the net. So, we’re in Boston, we’re getting swamped, and I’m on the ice and he’s behind the net. I went in behind the net and by the time I turned to come up the ice Bobby was at the top of the circle. All I see is this big ass, bowlegs, and he’s off. I told myself, “Maxy, remember that.” He was just magic.
TF: After three seasons in Buffalo, you were traded to Boston. I think it’s fair to say that worked out. In your first six seasons with the Bruins, the fewest goals you scored was 35.
PM: It was the biggest break of my career. [Sabres GM] Punch Imlach called me in and said, “Listen, you’re not going to play here. We have a No. 1 center, we have a No. 2, and we have young guys coming in at 3 and 4. I’m going to move you.” I said, “Okay, that’s nice of you.” [Bruins GM] Harry Sinden calls and asks if I would like to join the Bruins. Would I? They had everything except a second-line center who could maybe score some goals. I plunked into this wonderful spot. With great players, great teammates, Hall of Famers, and I had a niche. I could have gone to a lot of other clubs where I wouldn’t have anything close to the same opportunity. They were just so tough, rough and tumble, and the fans loved them. Playing in Boston was just the coolest thing. It was fun to be part of a team that the city really loved. These guys were men. They played like men. And we partied like boys.
TF: You played for Don Cherry part of that time. Yet you, mild-mannered Peter McNab, probably are best known for being among the Bruins who climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden in 1979 to confront fans. It didn’t really get out of control, and the worst was Mike Milbury taking off a fan’s shoe and hitting him with it. But it got a ton of attention.
PM: Everything you saw on the ice was exactly the way that team was. The funniest thing about the deal at Madison Square Garden was Terry O’Reilly went up first. He was getting kicked at by this guy. I mean, Terry O’Reilly saved my ass so many times. He said, “Maxy, you can’t fight at all, can you? I’m getting tired of having to worry about you.” He showed me some of the things to do to protect myself. I was big enough and strong enough, but I couldn’t fight to save my life. Now in this thing, the guy is kicking at [O’Reilly]. I grabbed this guy and he’s running away and I’m going, “God, stand up for yourself.” I think it was the 23rd of December of ‘79. We’re in the locker room talking, we had a late Delta flight back, we’ll go to this bar and we’ll have the Christmas party the next day. We didn’t even think twice about what had happened! Then all of a sudden after Christmas, it blows up. They say we have to go to Chicago, and we’re going, “For what?” But that typified that team. One guy was in trouble and that wasn’t going to be okay. And years later, I was glad that those fans decided they were going to get out of there in a hurry. We had a couple of guys you didn’t want to turn around to say, “Oh, yeah?” It would have been a very long night.
TF: What about playing for Don Cherry?
PM: I really enjoyed it. The most underrated ability Grapes had was five minutes into the game, he knew exactly who was playing well, who we should go to with the extra minutes in that game. He had great bench management. He coached veteran players really well and it was a veteran club. He had the ability to know how to stretch a 3- or 4-game winning streak to 7, 8 or 9, but he could instinctively pick the game we were going to go south. Then he would have a field day with it. For that group at that time, I don’t think they could have had a better coach.
TF: You moved to finish up at Vancouver and New Jersey. And by then, your dad was the Devils’ GM.
PM: There’s two sides to it. I wouldn’t suggest it to anybody. If I’d been more in the wheelhouse of my career, it might have been different. But I was getting older. Being the general manager’s son, there were some trying times. The guys weren’t thrilled with it. On the other side of it, I met these young players coming into the league – Kirk Muller, Ken Daneyko, John MacLean –who became my life-long friends. And I was able to get into the broadcasting end of it when Dr. [John] McMullen [Devils owner] asked me if I’d like to do it.
TF: How’d that come about?
PM: He and my dad were really good friends. He asked me what I’d like to do next. I had watched my dad be in management. It’s a tough life and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I couldn’t coach because I could never tell a player what to do. That’s just not my nature. Dr. McMullen said, “Listen, we’re going from 12 games to 60 on SportsChannel, would you like to do that?” I said, “That sounds more like what I’d like to do.” My first partner is Gary Thorne. My second partner is Mike Emrick. Talk about getting carried by Hall of Fame broadcasters.
TF: You had some ties to Denver and came back to do the Avalanche broadcasts from Day 1, beginning in 1995. We’re fast-forwarding through 26 years, but what were the highlights for you?
PM: Obviously, the two Cups were so cool. The first year, there was no way on God’s green earth that you thought they were going to win. They thought they were good, but Detroit had 132 points. That first year, they were so much fun to watch. There were nights when the other team simply didn’t touch the puck. Once Patrick came in, the goaltending was A-1. Then Pierre Lacroix traded Owen Nolan, a superstar, for this defenseman, Sandis Ozolinsh, nobody’s ever heard of. He was the catalyst to their offensive game. And the city was just on fire. That first parade, I’ll never forget.
TF: And from there?
PM: That first team was great for quite a while. There were phenomenal hockey games. The rivalry with Detroit. I played in some rivalries that were intense, but nothing like that. The thing that separated Detroit-Colorado from the rest was the skill level of both teams. The way the games were played, the intensity. Guys would come in saying they get it, but you talk to them after the game and they say, “—-, you have to watch yourself in warmup!” But you win a Cup, and then you have a 5- or 6-year run with that rivalry and hockey’s here, it’s cemented into the fabric of the community. We’re a hockey city now. It’s been great to be a small part of it. We’ve got great youth hockey. Everybody knows who the Avalanche are. Plus, over time, for me personally, I’ve always enjoyed watching players develop.
TF: Now we come to your current fight, which began with your diagnosis in August. Out of respect for you and your privacy, we won’t go into all the specifics. But how did you find out you had cancer and what was your reaction?
PM: I told the doctor he had the wrong diagnosis, to go back and get another sheet. (Laughs) No, I assume it’s like this for everyone else. It’s the most shocking, frightening, terrifying word that you’ve ever heard. At that moment, you just feel so completely alone with this feeling you never thought you were going to feel. It’s impossible to describe but I’m finding out in talking to others who have gone through it, it’s the same feeling everyone has initially. You think cancer and right up glued to it comes death. When I was a kid, that was it. Then you start looking at the different situations and treatments and whatever. But the worst was telling Diane [long-time partner Diane Wenner] and my daughters [Shanon and Robyn]. Nobody had any idea. It wasn’t like I was sick. Pete’s got, and dad’s got, cancer. They’ve been great, but there were a tough first couple of hours of trying to digest the whole thing.
TF: You’re going to continue to work, though?
PM: Yes. My hair’s gone, so it’s going to be pretty obvious. I’m lucky enough that I have some really good friends I’ve had for a long time. There’s no bull. Each of these guys who have been through this say, “Maxy, if you can keep going, keep going because your mind stays.” If you’re kind of alone, you can start to move towards the bad mentally. My daughter’s heading back to Thailand and will be there for two years. Am I going to see her again? Stuff like that. They said if you can keep your mind going and be positive, give it a shot. But we’ll see. If at some point it’s obvious it’s become, “Oh, my God, it’s embarrassing to watch,” then of course you change. I’m going to give it my full effort. Altitude’s been fantastic. We’ll just see how it goes.
TF: This is a statement, not a question. We’re all with you and you’re going to kick cancer’s ass.
PM: Thank you very much. If it comes down to having good wishes and best wishes from a lot of people, I have a good start.
Check out this interview and more hockey coverage in the October issue of Mile High Sports.