CBC’s Ron MacLean compared NHL players to 9/11 emergency responders, really (VIDEO)

It's long been said of CBC's Hockey Night In Canada that the on-air talent has become bigger than the program.

In case anyone was dubious of that, long-time host Ron MacLean confirmed it Wednesday night during the opening of the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals Stanley Cup playoffs. MacLean likened high-paid NHLers to — wait for it — police officers and firefighters who died during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on those two cities. Or at least evoked the tragedy.

Does there really need to be an explanation of how that's way off base? Does MacLean owe the country an explanation? No to the first, yes to the latter.

(Update, 1 p.m. May 10: Here is MacLean and the CBC's clarification: "Sports has proven a worthy training ground in nurturing the qualities which beget that spirit. To say he plays like a firefighter or a policeman would instantly conjure the traits an athlete most desires, especially in New York and Washington. There could be no higher praise of a player, no greater choice of a role model."

Hockey blogger Scott Wasilewski read that on Twitter as MacLean saying, "I'm not saying hockey players are like first responders. I'm just saying hockey players are LIKE first responders.")

One has to wonder how fast MacLean would be disciplined or worse if he uttered such hogwash on an American network. (Sports media guru Howard Bloom tweeted that if MacLean worked for ESPN "he would have been suspended or fired for the obscenity he uttered on air tonight." ) Since it's an icon such as MacLean, since it's CBC and people in Canada tend not to do manufactured outrage and overreaction quite like Americans do  — that's how we roll — he might get away without serious repercussions. For anyone who thinks it's a non-story, well, U.S. media outlets are reporting on it, so it will be one.

Being forgiving is not the worst thing, of course. It's only words and no one will get sick or die from what MacLean said, except perhaps from laughing. But the bar should be set pretty high for a man who has hosted Canada's longest-running TV franchise, Hockey Night in Canada, for 25 years.

Via Puck Daddy, here is the video:

There's no handbook for hyperbole, of course. The English language is such a subjective tool.Based on recent happenings, though, if there was such a primer, it would probably include something such as, "DO NOT say your political opponents are aligned with child pornographers." A few bullet points later there might be something such as, "DO NOT compare entertainers to true heroes who are prepared to die to save the lives of others."

As Greg Wyshynski put it tonight, after Sept. 11, "The idea that someone risking their life in a burning skyscraper could be compared to someone playing a triple overtime game, for example, became preposterous."

Matt Yoder of Awful Announcing chipped in with chastisement but also perspective: "I'm sure MacLean didn't intend for his analogy to go as far as it did, but hopefully it serves as a lesson to sportscasters everywhere to tone down the rhetoric and avoid this kind of statement in the future." That's perhaps where it should end; a respected broadcaster screwed up big time. To forgive is divine.

For the record, here is a transcript of MacLean's commentary:

From the capital of the US of A it's New York and Washington: the economic and political engines of America. United in the birth of the Country, they're also linked in tragedy. They were the twin targets of the coordinated attacks of 9/11. It's crazy to compare what the emergency responders did during that time, but a spirit has to start somewhere.

And as you enjoy this series between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — Game 6 coming up, 3-2 New York — you can't help but be struck by the players and the way they play these games.

They are like police officers. They are like firefighters. You can't fight fire with ego. The pain these men have faced, the price they keep on paying, the hearts they keep on lifting. It's been through and through, five games in. (CBC Sports, transcribed)

Second update: Yahoo! contributor Justin Bourne, a former minor pro hockey player, had this to say over at The Score about MacLean and CBC's clarification:

I think I get what he's trying to say with the "worthy training ground in nurturing the qualities which beget that spirit" bit. I think. I just can't fathom that someone with as much experience as him, and with as much respect for the people who serve their country as he has, can possibly think the original analogy was fair, or that backing it up without the word "apology" or "sorry" is alright.

And honestly, as someone who played hockey for a living, I would have been embarrassed to have that comparison made about me. Those guys know they aren't on that level. Blocking shots is "gutsy." Risking your life to save others is brave. (Backhand Shelf)

Not to be any more withering in this critique, but that's just bizarre. It's offensive on behalf of the Canadians in places such as Gander, N.L., and Halifax, N.S., who opened their hearts to stranded travellers when planes were grounded in the days following Sept. 11.

It's even disappointing on behalf of Ron MacLean. Two years ago, while covering the Stanley Cup final in Philadelphia, he ran toward the Delaware River after people spotted a man in the water who was attempting suicide. The man was rescued before MacLean had to jump in the river, but it's the thought that counts, somewhat. He swung into action in a frightening situation when many of us would have been frozen to the spot. That's something that has to be mentioned before one condemns him. Yet he conflated life-and-death matters with a mere sporting event.

Everyone who works in broadcasting will occasionally say something that makes herself/himself look foolish. To go back to the original point, though, one wonders what it says about HNIC that MacLean pushed his luck so far. That's the CBC for you.

(Hat tips: Puck Daddy, Sporting News, CBS Sports, Deadspin.)

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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