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CBC Hockey Night in Canada co-host Ron Maclean speaks during the unveiling of CBC Television`s 2009 fall schedule in Toronto on Wednesday, September 16, 2009. (The Canadian Press)

CBC Hockey Night in Canada co-host Ron Maclean speaks during the unveiling of CBC Television`s 2009 fall schedule in Toronto on Wednesday, September 16, 2009.

(The Canadian Press)

MacLean’s cringe-worthy apology about French-Canadian refs makes matters worse Add to ...

Every year during the NHL playoffs, there is at least one face-palm moment.

At first, it appeared the Minnesota Wild’s Matt Cooke, supposedly a former predator, supplied this year’s on Monday when he showed he must have attended the Rob Ford Clinic For Behavioural Change by felling Tyson Barrie of the Colorado Avalanche with a vicious knee-on-knee hit. But one night later CBC television host Ron MacLean rendered that a tempest-in-a-teapot in some circles when he questioned the integrity of first French-Canadian referees and then referees of just about every other stripe (sorry, couldn’t resist) during a Hockey Night In Canada broadcast.

In the wake of the predictable outrage on social media, which began shortly after MacLean entered the dangerous ethnic waters during the second intermission of the Montreal Canadiens-Tampa Bay Lightning game, plus Tuesday’s explosion in every other form of media in Quebec, MacLean was lying low. He did not respond to requests for comment, while the CBC let it be known the broadcaster would not be disciplined.

MacLean did apologize later in Tuesday’s broadcast for his suggestion a French-Canadian referee should not have been assigned to the Habs-Lightning playoff game because another French-Canadian referee made a controversial call in the previous game and for its implications. The CBC wanted the media storm to end there. MacLean was expected back on the air Wednesday night and no reference to the controversy was planned.

“Ron apologized and clarified his remarks later in the broadcast, saying it would be no different if you assigned a ref from Alberta for a game involving Calgary or Edmonton playing another NHL team,” Chuck Thompson, head of media relations for CBC, said in an e-mail to CBC.ca.

MacLean also has the support of at least some of his colleagues, who said he never meant to impugn the character of French Canadians.

But as often happens on live television, they said, once you start on a dangerous track, things you don’t mean start to slip out in the effort to mitigate the damage.

Well, yes, but what also often happens with this sort of thing is the apology is as cringe-worthy as the original remarks and results in the digging of an even deeper hole. And this entire train-wreck is as cringe-inducing as they come.

The affair has its roots in Sunday’s game between the Canadiens and the Lightning. Referee Francis Charron enraged Tampa head coach Jon Cooper and his players when he waved off a Lightning goal during their 3-2 loss. But Cooper never suggested Charron was biased toward the Canadiens because he is a French-Canadian. That was brought up by MacLean after the second period of the fourth and final game in the series (the Lightning lost) when he was the host of a panel session with the increasingly uncomfortable pair of P.J. Stock and Elliotte Friedman.

MacLean decided the NHL was trying to send a message to Cooper and the Lightning about their criticism by assigning another Francophone referee, François St. Laurent, to the fourth game in Montreal. “I thought it was a risky assignment,” MacLean said, with the implication that a French-Canadian referee just might be tempted to lean Montreal’s way, even though he made a point in the previous game of supporting Charron’s call.

This is a long-held prejudice in some hockey quarters and as someone who’s in his fourth decade around the NHL, MacLean should be well aware of this and equally aware it is baseless. Besides, any Canadian knows what happens when you throw gasoline on the language and ethnic fires in this country.

MacLean’s fellow panelists certainly appeared to be tensing at the thought of the Twitter onslaught, the ensuing headlines and talk-radio outrage. Stock, an anglophone Quebecker, tried unsuccessfully to change the topic. Friedman said, “So you’re saying there should never be a French referee in Quebec?” to which MacLean said, “Just this time. Just after what happened in Game 3.” Oh dear.

A couple of hours later, the uncomfortable trio was back in front of the cameras for MacLean’s apology. He never intended to question the integrity of French Canadians, he said, and then started digging deeper.

“I wouldn’t have sent an Alberta ref into an Alberta game had an Alberta official been involved in a tough Game 3,” MacLean said. “I should have said any referee from the area,” tossing anglophone Montrealer Dave Jackson and every other official with a hometown under the bus as well. By the way, Charron hails from Gatineau, Que., a city across the river from Ottawa.

MacLean attempted to buttress his argument by saying World Cup soccer referees are not assigned to their region’s games and mentioning perceived biases in figure-skating judges. Oh dear, again. He failed to note a few Canadians managed to call the Olympic gold-medal men’s hockey game between Sweden and Canada.

Another oddity is that MacLean usually fancies himself as the champion of referees. Regular viewers know he never tires of mentioning his hobby as a referee of junior games.

While MacLean will probably survive this, something that would have been far less certain in more delicate periods of English-French relations, the reaction in Quebec was unsparing in both languages. “Nonsense,” said former NHL referee Ron Fournier, now a Montreal radio talker.

The headline over La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé’s column read, “Are you always a racist, Ron MacLean?” Lagacé, who occasionally writes for The Globe and Mail, noted it is usually MacLean’s associate Don Cherry who stirs up such trouble and wrote, “according to MacLean we should accept an imbecile who thinks tribalism is so strong it supplants in the mind of a francophone referee his primary duty, which is to apply the rules.”

Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts

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