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The Big Picture: Hockey producer grew up with Penguins

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Check out the ESPN credits Sunday night. The name of the Penguins-Stars producer will ring familiar. It will harken to a time a Century Line ago.

Lowell MacDonald.

This is the son of the old bucket-wearing winger who skated alongside Syl Apps and Jean Pronovost. He is the lead producer for all things NHL on ABC and its four-letter sister network. Lowell MacDonald Jr. is a man of 38 yet so much still a baby-blue Penguins kid: Saturday morning skates at the Igloo, constant teasing by then-defenseman Colin Campbell, playing street hockey in Scott with fellow Flightless Waterfowl sons known as Rodney and Ronald Hextall.

"It's different going back to Pittsburgh and the Civic ... Mellon Arena now," MacDonald said yesterday. For one thing, one of the first times he was back in the building as a cable guy, he headed for the old Penguins locker room, which is now the visitors' room. "Hasn't changed much. It's still in the '70s." Hey, aren't we all. But I interrupted this trip down Centre Avenue.

"It's different from going to any other city. Just from the memories of growing up there."

From age 3 through seventh grade, Lowell and his brother Lane were raised around waddling Penguins. They attended St. Edmund's and played hockey there. Their family was close with the Bryan Hextall clan, and little Ronnie Hextall was quite a forward and a gifted skater before he headed for the net, for good.

Saturdays were their special days at work with dad, taking the Igloo ice before and after the teams finished their morning skates. Then, in the end, they repaired to the Penguins' locker room, whereupon Campbell would give them endless grief.

Funny how things work out. Campbell became the NHL's lord of discipline. Lowell MacDonald Jr. grew into the lead producer for the league's broadcast partner. He added of the Brothers MacDonald, "We got a lot of good Colin Campbell stories."

Little Lowell went to Colgate University, played center for four years in the mid-'80s, played professionally in London. After a stint on Wall Street, he moved in with his parents in Milwaukee, where dad was coaching hockey. "Why not do something you could really love and enjoy?" he wondered to himself. So he got an internship with the local CBS affiliate, which led in 1992 to a job as an assistant producer for ESPN baseball, which led the same summer to a gig on the NHL contract that the cable network wrested from SportsChannel. He worked his way into the production truck before settling in 1996 in Buffalo, N.Y., where he produced Sabres' telecasts and made his way to the Arena a few times each year.

This year, he returned to ESPN, but this time as the telecast boss for its and ABC's hockey broadcasts, such as the prime regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the Stanley Cup finals. This job has yet to bring him to Pittsburgh this season, though he'll be in Philadelphia to produce Penguins-Flyers on the four-letter network March 20.

This son fondly remembers Penguins followers. "It's weird. When I was growing up, that was all I knew. After hockey games, people asked me for an autograph. It was sort of strange, but also sort of cool. There was that core group of Penguins hockey fans who were huge hockey fans."

This son fondly remembers his dad's imprint on a expansion team that turned into a decent '70s show, thanks to his father. "A lot of times I look in the media guide or in the notes to see how far my father slipped in the all-time scoring, see how far past Mario went by. He's still in there in a couple of places."

By the way, Apps' son of the same name was in the hockey neighborhood Friday. He plays center for the ECHL Trenton Titans, who gathered a 6-1 victory at Johnstown.

Remote notes

*With the Pirates going over budget to replenish their roster, moves that have restored the club to water-cooler status for quite possibly the first February in a decade, shouldn't local TV stations spend a little more money themselves and finally commit to a little spring-training coverage? Alas, Fox Sports Net is the only one in Bradenton, Fla.

*Having said that, it's certainly an inopportune time for Rupert Murdoch's minions to yank the purse strings even tighter and remove 15 Pirates broadcasts from the local Fox Sports Net's cable/commercial-TV mix.

*WURP-AM 1550 of Braddock will be the Pittsburgh affiliate and one of 11 radio-network outlets this season for 58 Altoona Curve baseball games that won't conflict with parent Pirates broadcasts.

*Fox Sports Net's WPIAL championships basketball coverage begins at 9 p.m. tomorrow and continues with four more finals starting at 11 a.m. Saturday. Stan Savran, Dan Potash, Brent Stover, Pat Parris and Rob King will work each of the games, in order. The Post-Gazette's Mike White will help out on three games.

*CBS SportsLine announced that it will sell its two gambling sites so it can join forces with the NCAA and produce and manage its championship site, ncaasports.com.

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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