On the morning of July 1, having just retired from his night shift at the fire hall in Surrey, B.C., Billy MacGillivray hitches on a nervous smile as he—and his taunt-happy fellow firefighters—anxiously awaits a phone call from hockey legend Scotty Bowman to let him know if he's one step closer to his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL.
"I'd better make it 'cause if this call tells me I got cut, I'll never hear the end of these guys' needling," chortles Billy.
Two weeks earlier, 33-year-old Billy tried out for Bell’s Making the Cut on CBC (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. until December 14), a docudrama chronicling a nationwide search for the best hockey players. More than 4,000 hopefuls hit the ice for big-league drills and scrimmages, but only 68 will be chosen to attend a two-week training camp in Vernon, B.C., with coaches Bowman and Mike Keenan, at the end of which six will be invited to a Canadian NHL team's training camp.
As Billy waits to hear if he's made the top 68, he excitedly trots out a tale about Bowman that sounds suspiciously well worn. "Once, in college," he begins, "the phone in my coach's office rang. He wasn't around, so I answered it. The man asked, 'Is Rick there?' and I said, 'No, can I take a message?' He said, 'It's Scotty Bowman.' I thought somebody was goofing around, so I said, 'Yeah, sure, Scotty, this is Toe Blake,' and hung up. Then, as I was telling the guys that 'some jerk called, pretending to be Scotty,' my coach walked in and yelled, 'That was Scotty Bowman!'"
That's Billy's father's favourite story. "My dad is a huge Montreal Canadiens fan and loves Scotty Bowman," says Billy. "Playing for him will be such an honour for me—and a treat for my dad."
Billy owes a lot to his parents. "We were the ultimate hockey family," he says. "We played, talked and lived hockey. My favourite memories are of Dad waking me up for 5 a.m. practices and stopping by Tim Hortons. Then, after practice, he'd make me take a nap to be fresh for my game at night—he'd lie down in bed, his arm around me to make sure I slept, but I'd wait until he started snoring and sneak out to watch cartoons. Dad worked 14-hour days, took us to practice in the mornings and came to our games at night...and he never complained."
Billy's voice trails away as he chokes back tears. "And I'm sure Mom would rather have had two weeks a year in Hawaii, but she sacrificed that for us," continues his brother, Brian. "We hope to be those kinds of parents to our children."
But for parents Rosemary and Gerry, they never considered these sacrifices. "That was just our life," says Rosemary. "You didn't question it; you just did it. Hockey cost a lot of money, but we never looked at it that way. The boys loved it and never gave us any hassle...except one time, when eight-year-old Billy wanted to stay up to watch The Dukes of Hazard, but we said no because he had early-morning practice. So he said, 'Then, I'm quitting hockey.' But next morning he went to practice anyway, and that was that."
That wasn't the only time Billy considered hanging up his skates. After high school, he landed a hockey scholarship to Northern Michigan University. "I was thinking, Wow, I'm going to play with the best team in college hockey; the future looks great!" recalls Billy. "But then the season started—and I got plunked on the fourth line, where I toiled for three years. I asked the coach to give me more ice time, but he wouldn't. I hated hockey then. I was ready to quit."
But then his senior year was ushered in with the news that girlfriend Barbie was pregnant, and hockey, rather than a source of frustration, became an outlet. "Suddenly, I had a wife [they had married], a child on the way, and I had to provide for them somehow," says Billy. "But when I went to the rink, I could be a little kid again, hang out with my buddies and act goofy. On the ice, I wasn't a dad-to-be, a husband or a provider—I was just a guy."
Although his passion for hockey was reignited, Billy knew it would have to take a backseat to his family. He left college and hockey behind, moved his family, now complete with daughter Kayla, back to Surrey and landed a job as a firefighter. "His main concern was to provide for his family," says Barbie. "He sacrificed his dream for us, just like his parents had sacrificed for him."
That's why when Making the Cut came along, this second chance at the elusive dream of playing in the NHL, Barbie was the first to urge Billy to try out. "When he told me about it, there was fire in his eyes—fire I hadn't seen since he left hockey," she recalls. "When you see that someone loves something that much, you can't help but admire and encourage it."
"Billy's in the shape of a 23-year-old, but his being 33 turns people off because there's not much time in pro hockey," adds Brian. "But he can play like anybody in the NHL. He just never got the opportunity. A million players out there think they're one break away, but I really believe Billy could've made it under different circumstances. But he chose his family and did the responsible thing, and we're all proud of him. But now is his time."
These words resonate in Billy's ears as the phone rings at the fire hall. It's Scotty Bowman—and this time, it's for him. "Billy," Bowman skimps on the small talk, "congratulations, you've made the cut!"