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TORONTO — "Hockey Night in Canada" host Ron MacLean apologized Wednesday for a comment he made during a playoff game a night earlier.
In a statement posted on Twitter, MacLean said he is "deeply sorry" and that he regrets what happened on the broadcast. The comment was made in an intermission segment during Sportsnet's coverage of a Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens game.
MacLean said that earlier in the show, they had a fun moment with a photograph of Sportsnet analyst Anthony Stewart enjoying a rum party. That photo was on a shelf in the background of analyst Kevin Bieksa's set for the rest of the night.
During the segment, Bieksa said he was the most positive member of the four-person panel that also featured MacLean, Jennifer Botterill and Kelly Hrudey. Appearing to make a joke in response to Bieksa, MacLean said: "You have a photo of a guy with his tarp off, you're definitely positive for something."
In his statement, MacLean said the 'tarp off' comment was a reference to being shirtless, to specify the picture of the rum bottle.
As for the quip about being 'positive,' MacLean said he meant testing positive for rum.
"I understand that when others are within 'earshot' of a two-way conversation, the potential for a misunderstanding exists," he said in the statement. "If you only heard that last line in isolation, I completely understand how that misunderstanding occurred. I am deeply sorry."
A member of the executive board of an organization that pushes for inclusion in sports said he had a "good discussion" with MacLean about the comment.
David Pulombo, the vice-chair of the executive board of the You Can Play Project, said they "discussed language going beyond two-way communication and (how) others hearing language without context may think differently than intended."
Pulombo said MacLean's comment "is something we should move on from."
In the aftermath of the comment, MacLean became a trending topic on Twitter with some posters calling his words homophobic and others saying he was referring to drugs and partying.
Pulombo said MacLean "has always been a great ally to the LGBTQ community and I don’t expect that to change."
MacLean did not immediately respond to an interview request from The Canadian Press.
A Sportsnet spokeswoman said MacLean would be back on the air for Wednesday night's studio show. The network also released a statement in the afternoon.
"Ron MacLean has a strong history of being an outspoken ally and continues to advocate for all equity-seeking communities. Sportsnet supports Ron in his acknowledgment and apology for the comment made during last night's broadcast."
Brock McGillis, who played in the Ontario Hockey League and the semi-pro level before becoming a voice in sports for the LGBTQ community after he came out in 2016, said the incident shows how language can affect people.
"Regardless of intent, the way it was worded is going to upset some people, because it feels like a comment directed towards gay men," he said. "And even if intent was not that, which I kind of find it hard to believe that Ron MacLean would go on national television and overtly intend to make a homophobic joke, but regardless, it's still homo-negative language, and there has to be ownership and accountability for that, and recognizing the importance of language and how it impacts people.
"I wasn't bullied in hockey, but the use of homo-negative language, homophobic language, etc., led me to severe depression, constant injuries, suicide attempts, and I struggled a lot and it jeopardized my career. And if we want to grow the game and make it inclusive for all, we need to become aware of what we say and the importance of it."
In his statement, MacLean said he has seen the concepts of language of intention and personal responsibility used as broad exoneration, adding "it's not enough."
"We have a contract with you the viewer, that in us you see yourself," he said in the statement. "I've reached out to several guiding lights in the equity seeking arena, my allies in the LGBTQ2S+ Community and to my co-workers to receive their wisdom, and continue our joint effort to tend to the hearts of us all.
"I appreciate the power of the voices who spoke to me last night and this morning. It provides a sense of possibility. It's how change works."
McGillis said he hopes the sport can learn from the comment.
"I really hope that Ron, that hockey people in general use this as a teaching moment and recognize that it's not people being reactionary for the sake of wanting to be upset about something ... Men's hockey (is) an unsafe space for queer people," he said.
"And while I don't think the intent was malice or homophobia, it's time that the culture has an overhaul, and we fix the culture so that when somebody does have a comment that is misinterpreted or poorly worded, that our first reaction isn't that it's malicious.
"This is how we are treated within this culture, so why wouldn't we assume?"
The 61-year-old MacLean, who grew up in Alberta, first joined "Hockey Night in Canada" in 1986 when it was produced by CBC.
MacLean was the longtime sidekick for Don Cherry on the Coach's Corner segment before the latter was fired in 2019 following on-air comments which many felt were critical of immigrants for not wearing Remembrance Day poppies.
After the segment, MacLean issued an apology for not challenging Cherry's remarks.
MacLean moved to Rogers Media when it acquired "Hockey Night in Canada" rights in 2014. He was out of the host's chair for two years, but returned in 2016 after the departure of George Stroumboulopoulos.
-- With files from Lori Ewing and Gregory Strong.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2021.
The Canadian Press