RALEIGH — Buildings are inanimate objects. People give them life. Donnie MacMillian did that for the RBC Center. He was more than its caretaker; he was its heart and soul.
For anyone who spent any time behind the scenes at the arena, MacMillian was a ubiquitous, friendly, energetic presence. His title was "building superintendent" but he did the work of an entire team of people: He made the ice, fixed what broke and kept the building running.
MacMillian, who died Thursday at 52, took the team's move from Connecticut as an opportunity for a fresh start. He made a new life for himself, living in a recreational vehicle parked just outside the building's back door, riding his motorcycle, throwing himself entirely into taking care of the RBC Center.
MacMillian was riding his mountain bike in Umstead State Park when he suffered an apparent heart attack.
The man known as "Donnie Mac" was eccentric, to say the least, but he was good at his job, beloved by his coworkers and respected by his peers. He was who he was, made no excuses and loved what he did.
"He loved that people knew he lived in the motor coach in the back of the building," RBC Center general manager Dave Olsen said. "He was completely unique in how he approached life. He was easygoing, never really sweated anything, but he was darn serious about the ice business. If you in any way, shape or form took a shot at him about his ice, he took it personally."
Before the 2006 playoffs, he buried a silver dollar at center ice. Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Smyth dug it out of the ice before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals, and MacMillian was irate. ("I guess he needed it to buy dinner," MacMillian fumed.) Five days later, he was holding the Stanley Cup over his head; by the time training camp started, the coin had been returned to him.
He took the challenge of making good ice in a hot, humid environment seriously. He pushed and pushed for improvements to the building's ice-making equipment, and in the end, he was rewarded: When visiting teams filled out their ice reports, the RBC Center got the kind of ratings usually seen north of the border.
"He was always in the top five in the last three or four years," said Dan Craig, the NHL's chief icemaker.
MacMillian was an innovator as well, developing a seamless kickplate - the yellow strip where the boards meet the ice - that has become industry-standard in NHL arenas. This fall, he started using a laser-leveling system before anyone else in the NHL.
Donnie Mac was rarely seen in anything but T-shirts and baggy pants - for a time, he may have been keeping makers of the garish Zubaz pants in business - and the arena was his life. It wasn't just making the ice, although he took the most pride in that.
He trained and pushed his changeover crew to the point where they could convert the building from basketball to hockey, or vice versa, in only a few hours.
When visiting teams arrived at the airport, at all hours of the night, it was often MacMillian who drove the equipment truck to pick up their gear.
He was a top-notch carpenter as well. The complex carpentry behind the bar at Lucky B's, the Glenwood South bar owned by former Cane Bates Battaglia. That was his handiwork. Just this week, he was getting ready to build a wheelchair ramp at the home of a Hurricanes' employee whose wife was stricken with cancer. He and his crew could fix just about anything without making a phone call to someone outside the building.
That's the way MacMillian liked it: It was his building, and he'd keep it running. He'd eat lunch at the Deck inside the RBC Center nearly every day and sleep outside in his RV at night. It was still parked there Friday afternoon, empty, the way the building feels without him.
"He had made a new home in Raleigh," Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford said. "Unfortunately it was for a much shorter time than it should have been. He'll be missed greatly."
He came here with the team and he embraced the Triangle as much as any of the Hartford transplants, to the point where it's impossible to imagine the arena without him.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins struggled mightily with the ice quality at their new arena this fall, Hurricanes TV broadcaster John Forslund asked Sidney Crosby which building had the best ice in the league. "Honestly?" Crosby said. "It might be your building."
When Forslund relayed Crosby's comment to MacMillian, he beamed. Nothing could have made him happier.