by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / email
Editorial Note: this is an opinion column. Disagreement is welcome.
When Rogers took over Hockey Night in Canada from CBC in 2014, Ron MacLean was one of the first things on their agenda that needed to change. Then Sportsnet boss Scott Moore had this to say about why he wanted to remove MacLean from the lead host role, and replace him with music and pop culture personality George Stroumboulopoulos:
“We want to get a little bit younger, we want to catch that demo that is not necessarily coming to the television at all — that are either playing video games or not going out and participating in the games — we want to get a new breed of Canadian fans that get passionate about the games. I think George does that, I think George brings a different sensibility but one of the great things is having him with the rest of the team. He’ll sort of be like that ‘Sesame Street’ thing — one of these things is not like the others — but he’ll bring something different and his own unique take on hockey broadcasting.”
Moore promised advertisers significant ratings increases as a result of this fresh direction, and charged them accordingly. After two years of declining ratings, the decision to remove MacLean was reversed, with advertisers being compensated with givebacks during Jays playoff games. At that time, Moore said this:
“Hockey Night in Canada is a tradition unlike anything else in this country. It’s part of our national DNA, and so is Ron. It’s a balance of giving our fans what they want and evolving the broadcasts to keep them fresh. George is an extremely versatile and creative broadcaster and we value the contributions he made to Hockey Night in Canada. We look forward to seeing what his next great project will be.”
Moore’s admission that he misread the appeal of Strombo to younger fans and the reinstatement of MacLean to his traditional role signified that many of the innovations Sportsnet had envisioned for their tenure as national rights holder would need to be re-thought. The premise of the $5.2 billion dollar agreement was that there were untapped revenue streams in selling hockey to Canadians. Paying a big premium to be be the exclusive home of national and playoff hockey only made sense if there was a corresponding profit to be made.
As we finish off Year 7 of Rogers’ “experience hockey like never before” mantra, the Dream Team picture above has changed significantly. The biggest change in recent years was the firing of Don Cherry after he refused to apologize for disparaging new Canadians. Somewhat ironically, in the press conference pictured above Moore joked about the need for a seven minute rather than a seven second delay for Coach’s Corner, with Cherry commenting that he wasn’t sure how long he would last this year but that Moore couldn’t “touch” him now. Ron MacLean also tells Strombo “don’t screw this up”, then makes several bad puns. Jeff Marek refers to his suit as the Sportsnet mandated “young Republican” look. The 10-minute event is an interesting historical document, and can be seen here.
Since returning as intermission host in 2016 Ron MacLean has largely stuck to the folksy congenial persona that kept him in the host role until 2014. This tendency to go with the flow was on display during the final Cherry segment, as MacLean chose not to challenge the xenophobic statements being made, but instead gave a thumbs up as the show went to commercial. This passivity is precisely what he apologized for in the ensuing days. Among his many statements were the following:
- “So I owe you an apology, too. That’s the big thing that I want to emphasize. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond.”
- “I want to sincerely apologize to our viewers and Canadians. During last night’s broadcast, Don made comments that were hurtful and prejudiced and I wish I had handled myself differently. It was a divisive moment and I am truly upset with myself for allowing it.”
- “We are all hurting. I have collapsed a 100 times this week, if not more. We are all disappointed. … I’ve sat all week long reflecting, listening to you (the viewer) — and I have heard you. I’ve reflected by listening to my own heart, and I’ve struggled mightily to find the words.”
- “I thought a lot about falling on my sword too. But then I thought if I do that I infer what happened was right somehow, or that I am going along to get along, or that I am going to just sit silently by or be a bystander again in a situation.”
This all brings us to MacLean’s most recent incident, where he made remarks which came across as homophobic. During a panel segment that involved some humorous banter, MacLean interjected with “you have a photo of a guy with his tarp [shirt] off, you’re definitely positive for something.” For analysis of why this might be interpreted as a pejorative statement, here’s hockey activist Brock McGillis on CTV.
Ron MacLean clarified the next day that he intended something else entirely. He issued the following apology:
— Ron MacLean (@RonMacLeanHTH) May 26, 2021
Sportsnet added this:
— Sportsnet PR (@SportsnetPR) May 26, 2021
As with Doug Smith’s recent apology, the actual contrition is bubble-wrapped in talk of teachable moments, and opportunities for everyone to learn. And as with the Coach’s Corner apology, MacLean cites a “contract” with the viewer that he has broken.
For the record, I don’t think MacLean was intending to disparage gay men. I do think he was going for a risqué joke that relied on questioning why a straight man would have a picture of a shirtless man in his home. I also think that MacLean has a penchant for trying to get the last word in on discussions, and that bad puns are part of his brand. So it’s a bit of a perfect storm leading to cringeworthy television.
In my conversations with people in and out of the media there is a divide on how much we should hold people responsible for verbal flubs. Being a broadcaster is hard, and we viewers need to leave room for normal human error. (I once heard a weather person try to say “cold front coming through” but ended up saying “cold c*nt coming frew” by mistake.)
But this isn’t a slip of the tongue. This is a swing and a miss by someone who is paid a lot of money to mediate discussions. When an umpire becomes the story about a baseball game, it’s the umpire who has failed to do his job. I think something similar is true here. Ron MacLean is once again the story about HNIC’s intermission show. That’s not good. And while it is good that he using this incident as an opportunity to educate himself about the unintended implication of the words he chooses and the jokes he attempts, there are plenty of people who don’t need to learn those lessons because they already know them.
Whether you like MacLean’s folksy charm and wordplay or not is a matter of personal preference. In this case, it steered him into a bad place. With five years left on the Rogers rights deal, and with the Strombo experiment in the past, it is highly likely that MacLean will retain his hosting duties. Personally, as a viewer, I’d like to see him spend that time elevating the work of those around him rather than centring his own whimsical remarks.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)