There are two things Canadians are usually very good at – hockey, and saying sorry.
Ron MacLean tried to combine the two Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada following the dismissal this past Monday of his long-time pulpit mate Don Cherry. There were mixed results.
MacLean, smarting from a week of sleepless nights, stickhandled with ease through the hockey part. He took full control of the pregame show as well as the start of the prime time tilt between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins. He set the table on the night’s out-of-town games, directed traffic between commentators and spun precise intros with ease. He was his usual Mr. Unflappable.
Then came the first intermission segment. Not since Richard Nixon made his “Checkers” speech in the ‘50s had a nation so held its breath.
It is a bit rich that, as Americans sit glued to day-long presidential impeachment hearings, a Canadian televised crisis plays out during a hockey broadcast. Still, we all wanted to know: what would MacLean say about the sudden departure of Canada’s biggest TV star?
Well, teams of scientists are still trying to figure parts of it out.
MacLean was under an intense microscope and was clearly conflicted. He looked bad the week before by not reacting as Cherry blurted his way into a real coach’s corner. He drew intense heat on social media for not standing up for a friend who’d had his back in the past.
“How can you choose principle over friendship?” MacLean asked on behalf of many viewers. “I had to.”
Yet it was killing him. “I have collapsed 100 times this week,” he said, adding that he had “disappointed Bobby Orr.”
Geez, what could be worse than that? That would be like letting down Terry Fox, Alex Trebek and The Friendly Giant all at once.
MacLean’s deep sense of shame was no act. I’ve interviewed him many times over the years, sometimes when he probably didn’t want to talk to me or any other journalist. He was always straightforward and sincere, a total pro, just a very decent guy.
His on-air struggle with trying to find the words to mend or find “some good things” in what had happened was apparent and real. It’s a struggle now for me to take issue with MacLean in that moment, a man who was simply trying his best to clean up a big mess and hold on to a decades-long friendship.
Just as Cherry taught him, however, to stand and deliver, I have to adhere to the same expectation. Here’s what I thought was wrong about Saturday night’s MacLean moment:
- It was all over the ice. MacLean did not deliver a clear message because he was trying to pack too much into 4 minutes and 44 seconds. (Put another way: three Bobby Orrs.) Too many ideas were mixed in with a sketchy recap of the week before. He did everything but quote a Tragically Hip lyric. The segment should have been shorter and more to the point.
- It was almost entirely addressed to Cherry, not to Hockey Night in Canada viewers. MacLean was, to use his phrase, unpacking his heart, but to one person. He told Cherry twice during the address that he loved him. He said he had tried to phone him earlier in the day. He sounded like a husband in the doghouse. He ended by saying he was intent on honouring Cherry in “this last talk about Coach’s Corner.” Someday, perhaps, but Saturday night was too soon and awkward.
- What about the issue? MacLean said everything that happened this week was “not about Don and me, it was clearly about something bigger.” Talk about that! Talk about how inclusive and diverse the fans are who came out to Brampton last year during Hometown Hockey week. Show why you took this stand on principle.
- Edit. Nobody wants to get notes on how to be sincere or effective in a crisis (especially from me). I understand why Sportsnet and MacLean wanted it live and dangerous but they don’t call it that for nothing. The right producer would have pushed MacLean towards the meat of his message; that he was in a “friendship bubble” when he sat through Cherry’s poor choice of words — the “you people” remark that brought him down the week before — and that he later chose “principles over friendship.” That’s easy to grasp.
Let’s leave it at four, in honour of you know who. Might this have worked better if MacLean had been interviewed by a CBC News anchor or a HNiC colleague during the segment? Perhaps – Ian Hanomansing would have been an interesting choice, or even Dave Hodge.
Nevertheless, I admire MacLean for stepping into that unforgiving spotlight and struggling through a tough message. No words can erase overnight a “go along to get along” impression. MacLean will eventually be judged by a stellar career, not just for four minutes and forty-four seconds.
Now back to the real crisis in Canadian sports — four straight Leafs losses.