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Ron MacLean (left) sits beside Don Cherry. (File Photo)

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

On the first edition of Hockey Night in Canada in almost four decades without Don Cherry, this country’s flagship hockey TV program bid a respectful farewell to the 85-year-old combative coach. And then it immediately struck a bold new tone, painting a portrait of hockey’s future as multicultural and gender-balanced as the country – and also explicitly excluding Cherry, like an enemy of a Soviet state airbrushed from the history books.

When the first-period intermission of Saturday night’s broadcast came back from commercial for the first time, Cherry’s long-time collaborator, Ron MacLean, was seated alone in the main Sportsnet studio from which he anchors Hockey Night, rather than on the special Coach’s Corner set. “Welcome to our first intermission,” he said. “You know the story. Coach’s Corner is no more, and it’s 34 years.”

(In fact, Coach’s Corner began in the early 1980s. MacLean joined Cherry 34 years ago.)

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Talking straight to camera, but frequently looking off to the side as if he couldn’t bear to look viewers in the eye, MacLean delivered a heartfelt and sometimes rambling monologue, speaking of “sleepless nights all week” over what had happened, and his struggle over whether to quit alongside Cherry or stay with the broadcast.

“This one plunged deep into our hearts, right? And you know why? Because it’s about relationships,” he said. “Don’s and mine, Coach’s Corner and yours, yours and Don’s. It’s certainly about hockey – the teammates, the bridge-building, that hockey represents. It’s about life in Canada. So all I can do is unpack my heart a little bit here and then see how you feel.”

MacLean expressed disappointment in himself, offered a hint of why he failed to save his co-host when he went offside last weekend and told Cherry that “we honour what you’ve meant to the game.”

His address, which lasted almost five minutes, brought an end to a week of high drama after Cherry called out people who “come here [and] love our way of life,” but, he alleged, refuse to buy Canadian Legion poppies in the run up to Remembrance Day. The day after Cherry made the comments, he was publicly chastised by his employer, Sportsnet, and the NHL. MacLean apologized that evening for not catching Cherry’s comments.

On this weekend’s broadcast, which MacLean noted at the top of Hockey Night marked “the end of the era,” he offered a tantalizing hint that he might have been able to help avert disaster last Saturday.

During his address, he offered viewers a bit of a play-by-play of his experience in the moment, recalling that, in the final minute of the Coach’s Corner segment, Cherry had pivoted from speaking about two teenaged minor-league hockey players who had recently died, to his regular pre-Remembrance Day tribute to veterans.

Then, when Cherry began making the comments that doomed him, “I was kind of processing what he was saying, and ... I might have been in a friendship bubble, because I was kind of praying that I don’t think I’m hearing trouble, but I might be hearing trouble.”

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“Anyway, it was done,” he continued, “and then you called us on it, which I thank you for, because that's the new world.”

In referring to “the new world,” MacLean nodded at the firestorm that erupted on social media overnight and grew into an unholy conflagration through Sunday. But, unlike some people who work in traditional media, he didn’t express any resentment toward the online mob. “You don’t have a pulpit like Coach’s Corner or the CBC News or The New York Times or The Guardian that just pronounces, and that’s it. Now you have, in real time, social media, and a kind of a democracy happening. And so you caught it.”

And then, trying to strike a positive note and frame the incident as something of a teachable moment, MacLean suggested that “the first intermission on Hockey Night in Canada – we have, like the country, to reimagine ourselves. And there will be a possibility out of this really bad, unexpected thing, to do some good things, I hope.”

Viewers didn’t need to wait long to get a glimpse of what that might look like – or, for the eagle-eyed among them, to note that Cherry himself gets erased.

As MacLean wrapped up his address, an ad for Budweiser – the sponsor of Coach’s Corner since 2013 – appeared. But this was not the usual upbeat Pavlovian thirst spot, featuring gleaming fields of hops and barley, and the golden (if barely drinkable) libation that results from the crops’ fermentation.

No: This spot, a 1:45-minute epic, featured celebrities such as comedian Gerry Dee, the long-time hockey broadcaster Bob Cole, former Olympian Cassie Campbell, a clutch of Sportsnet personalities and a number of current women hockey players singing the Stompin’ Tom Connors classic The Hockey Song. Halfway through, the pace of their singing slows and the mood turns grim, as headlines about last year’s collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) appear on a black screen.

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As a voiceover by the former CWHL player Brianne Jenner explains that Budweiser “has committed to sponsor the women’s game,” other players continue singing the song, offering a hopeful conclusion.

But the version of the ad that viewers saw on Saturday night was not the one that debuted online on Nov. 7, when Labatt announced the campaign. That original version included three clips of Cherry and MacLean, who were described in a press release announcing the campaign as “hockey’s infamous duo.”

That description proved more prescient than the PR agency that drew it up could have possibly imagined. By Saturday night, Ron and Don had been excised from the spot, replaced by Gerry Dee and others, like Leon Trotsky airbrushed out of photos by Stalin’s regime after his exile and assassination.

On the one hand, it must hurt Cherry to see himself excised like that. On the other, for a man who never hid his disgust for the Soviet regime, it might be comforting to see himself as a Trotsky-type figure. At least they both went down fighting.

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