Danny McCann was running a marathon on Île Notre-Dame, past the Montreal Olympic site, when he got the idea it would be a great triathlon venue. The year was 1983. Today Danny McCann is the latest Triathlon Canada Hall of Fame inductee, and his Esprit Triathlon is one of the oldest races in the country, attracting some of the world’s finest triathletes.
Growing up in Montreal, McCann participated in many sports, but hockey was always number one. He reached two national championship finals with Loyola College (now Concordia University) and a third, which his team won, when he played with the University of Toronto while studying for his MBA. He then played in Switzerland and when he returned to Canada in 1973, he founded International Sports Management (ISM), a company that sends hockey players to Europe. In 1975, his father started McCann Equipment, and McCann took on another challenge helping establish the family business.
No longer benefitting from a rigorous hockey career, McCann looked for ways to stay fit. He played racquetball and took up running. One day, after seeing the Ironman World Championship on television, he decided this looked like a great way to stay in shape, so he started triathlon training. He founded the Montreal Esprit Triathlon in 1984.
“The first few years we had people biking 40k through the city streets to the Olympic stadium,” McCann recalls. “I am still stunned nobody got hit by a car. We had a police helicopter overhead, 60 police officers on the ground stopping traffic, 1,200 barricades and 150 volunteers just on the bike course. These were the years my hair turned gray.”
McCann decided to run the bike course on the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, the Formula One racetrack beside the Olympic Rowing Basin swim venue. He’d hesitated to try this because he felt the athletes wouldn’t enjoy the criterium course, but it was a resounding success. He also changed the two-day event to a single race day which now includes sprint, Olympic, half-Iron (Demi-Esprit) and Ironman (Esprit) triathlons as well as an Olympic duathlon, all taking place at the spectator friendly Parc Jean-Drapeau.
“Many of the changes I have made to the race over the years have been in response to suggestions from participants. We take constructive suggestions seriously. One year an athlete suggested we build a bridge so the runners could continue around the basin. Thus we have our swimmers’ yellow bridge.” When the bridge is not in use, Danny disassembles and loads it into one of two 48-ft. trailers he owns to store his race equipment.
Udo Buechner, who has entered the Esprit 15 of the past 22 years, says participants, many of whom are also repeat entrants, affectionately refer to this bridge as either The Danny Special or The McCann McCann Bridge. “People keep coming back because they love Danny. He’s the greatest.”
Pro triathlete Charles Perreault, head coach of the Quebec triathlon team and executive director of Triathlon Quebec, says the Esprit Triathlon is a key part of Quebec’s triathlon history. “For us, this is a really big race. It has helped many of our triathletes develop. And even though it’s impeccably organized, Danny is always out there on race day looking for ways to improve the event.”
McCann admits the race is always on his mind. “I do two solid weeks of work at race time, but I think about it all year. For example, last week at Zellers I saw the same blankets I’d bought last year for the medical tent and since they’d worked well, I bought 10 more.”
The timing of the September tri fits nicely with his business activities. “Organizing the triathlon has complemented my work with the hockey agency because the Esprit occurs at a very slow time for hockey.”
Neil Nicholson, from Saint John, New Brunswick, who played for the New York Islanders, helped McCann in the early years of putting on the Esprit, and says McCann has also been an innovator in his hockey business. “Danny was one of the pioneers in sending Canadian players to Europe. His positive attitude has been one of the reasons for his success. Whatever he tries to do, he always says ‘This is going to work.'” In 1978, Neil was recruited by McCann to play hockey in Switzerland. When he returned more than a decade later, he was offered a job at ISM, where he worked until 2001. Then he moved into a job at McCann Equipment. “Danny as a boss is the same as Danny as a person,” he says. “He treats you as an equal and gives you a free hand to do what you think is best, because he has great faith in people. And on the personal level, he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
McCann is also co-owner of Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds, a four-rink complex in Montreal. “This took four years full-time for us to build,” McCann explains. “It is open all year and has a bar and restaurant with seating for 400. I like to think it is one of the nicest rinks in Quebec.”
Jim McCann, 87, still works with McCann Equipment, and similarly, 61-year-old son McCann has no plans to retire. In fact, he has another project in mind that he is keeping under wraps for now. “I’m not done yet,” Danny McCann promises.