A hockey commentator on Canada's national broadcaster has apologized for saying a French-speaking referee should not have been assigned Tuesday night's playoff game involving the Montreal Canadiens.
In a comment sure to bruise sensibilities in Quebec, Ron MacLean of CBC's Hockey Night In Canada said during the second intermission of the game between the Habs and the Tampa Bay Lightning that a French-Canadian referee should not have been assigned the game after a controversial call Sunday involving another francophone Quebec referee.
Several hours later during a second CBC game broadcast, Mr. MacLean said he didn't mean to venture into language and meant to say a "local referee" shouldn't be assigned to an important game when another referee from the home team's area was involved in a controversy.
"First of all, I want to say I'm sorry. It's divisive any time you (make it) about French and English in our country. But I didn't intend to go down that path," Mr. MacLean said.
After Sunday's game which the Canadiens won, Lightning coach Jon Cooper complained his team lost because of a bad call by referee Francis Charron.
Mr. Cooper never suggested Mr. Charron's ethnicity or mother tongue was a problem, but at least one Florida newspaper revived an old NHL libel that the Canadiens get favourable calls in Montreal, particularly from referees of French origin.
It's a refrain Quebeckers have heard repeatedly over decades, and part of a longstanding impression that prejudice against francophones endures in the NHL.
In his clarification, Mr. MacLean pointed out international competitions often use "neutrals" from third countries to officiate.
"I wouldn't have sent an Alberta ref into an Alberta game had an Alberta official been involved in a tough Game 3," he said. "I should have said any referee from the area," he added, pointing to Dave Jackson, an anglophone Montrealer who is an NHL referee, as another he would have excluded.
It's not clear how Mr. MacLean believed Mr. Charron is a "local referee" for Habs games. He's from Gatineau, Que., a city across the river from Ottawa, where the Senators play.
In the controversial Tuesday night segment, Mr. MacLean said referee "François St. Laurent would not have been a popular choice for the Tampa Bay Lightning" for Game 4, which the Canadiens won, eliminating Tampa Bay. He then suggests the NHL assigned the French-Canadian referee from Greenfield Park to send a message to the Florida team for complaining about officiating.
"Why would you put yourself in that position?" Mr. MacLean said. "I thought it was a risky assignment."
CBC hockey reporter Elliotte Friedman, blushing visibly, defended the professionalism of Quebecois referees. "You know what? I just think it's a tough thing to say. I've heard it, I've heard these things before. I just think to label all of the referees that way is really unfair," he said.
Mr. MacLean pointed to a hockey riot some 20 years ago in Prince Edward Island involving French-speaking players from Moncton, N.B. to suggest how passions can get out of control.
After a few moments of debate where Quebecker P.J. Stock attempted to interrupt and change the subject, Mr. Friedman asked Mr. MacLean point-blank: "So you're saying there should never be a French referee in Quebec?"
Mr. MacLean replied: "Just this time. Just after what happened in Game 3."
Mr. Stock waved his hands dismissively and returned the discussion to hockey.