Why Ron MacLean matters

Dustin Parkes
Mark Blinch / Reuters

Despite its overwhelming success, it’s easy to understand why the new purveyor of Hockey Night In Canada would seek to change the broadcast’s brand. A difficult balance has to be achieved: After paying $5.2 billion for broadcast rights over the next 12 seasons, Rogers wants to adjust the flagship hockey broadcast in Canada enough to ensure the acknowledgment of Sportsnet’s ownership, but not so much as to alienate a long devoted audience.

Enter George Stroumboulopoulos, an “alternative” voice on which all Canadians can agree.

Stroumboulopoulos is the perfect choice to replace Ron MacLean as host of Hockey Night In Canada. Boasting a style that gives the illusion of rebel, the talk show host consistently reinforces the values that most Canadians hold dear. He appeals to a younger demographic while simultaneously possessing the ability to placate the old.

Having their cake, and eating it, too, Rogers also announced on Monday that MacLean would stay on not only as Don Cherry’s handler for Coach’s Corner, but also to fulfil hosting duties for Sunday night’s coverage. Once a year, he’ll continue his fine work anchoring the Hockey Day In Canada broadcast.

It says more about MacLean’s history than Stroumboulopoulos’s capability that expectations of the new host have been mostly tempered. Roll your eyes all you want at the cliches about big shoes to fill and a tough act to follow, the sentiment remains true: MacLean offered something to a Canadian institution that no one else could.

Hockey broadcasts in Canada are a confidence game, played by heavy-handed commercials desperately attempting to link the sport with our cultural identity, as though it was a religion. Watch Hockey Night In Canada through five commercial breaks, and you’re left with the feeling that a communion cup of a particular beer brand is being force fed down your throat.

Exploitation and hockey are not new bedfellows. From the beginning of the sport’s existence, hockey was championed by authorities as an athletic endeavor - unlike gentlemanly cricket - suitable for the working class. Hockey was a brutish outlet for repressed violent urges in a people often associated with politeness, all while further strengthening stoicism as an attribute. It kept the majority in line and in good health, capable of completing physically demanding duties without complaint. Its uniqueness to the region was only promoted as a means of increasing a nationalist agenda against the rising threat of British and American cultural invasion.

A century later, after reshaping the narrative of the 1972 Summit Series to be a story of good overcoming evil – rather than victory through bullying (after being thoroughly outskilled by their opponents) – advertisers began to realize the benefits of exploiting the identity that nationalists had artificially created. This grew to the point of constant reinforcement, with every major Canadian company wanting to associate itself in some way with hockey for the sake of luring consumers.

Synergies between broadcast content and sponsors had even more of an impact in this culminating snowball, resulting in a people deceived into believing in the natural association between identity and sports. The illusion is maintained by media eager to please sponsors who collect money through consumers equally eager to belong to the artificially crafted brand that Canadians adopted as their own.

Through this unfortunate relationship into which so many hockey fans have been thrust, Ron MacLean’s work as a broadcaster kept us from becoming completely corrupted by the hockey industrial complex. His love of the game was genuine. He never sought to appease the NHL in his interviews with Commissioner Gary Bettman. He knew where players played their junior hockey. He revered the game in the least commercial way imaginable, while never seeming overwrought or schmaltzy with his expressed devotion.

In 2013, MacLean visited Peterborough, Ontario, as part of the CBC’s Hockey Day In Canada coverage. Skating around the frozen canal, he interviewed a cadre of older men all related to the game in varying capacities. The entire time he exhibited an obvious respect, not only for the individuals with whom he spoke, but also the anecdotes he elicited that gave genuine and honest context to the institution of hockey in Canada.

It was jarring when the broadcast broke to commercial, and we were reminded of how we’re supposed to feel about hockey - brews, beers and buds - rather than enjoying it as a pastime, a distraction full of whimsy that more than likely just grew a little less quaint and genuine with MacLean’s departure from the flagship broadcast.

It feels strange writing about MacLean in the past tense. He’s only 53-years-old, and his career is transitioning, not ending. However, with a diminished platform, he won’t be able to act in the same fashion, as a buffer between the grotesque and authentic sides of a sport.

When billions of dollars are involved, it’s unsurprising to see veritableness become the first casualty. By definition, it’s not something that can be controlled or manicured, and large investments tend to make such things worrisome to investors. More so than familiarity or anything approaching nostalgia, MacLean’s departure threatens to remove something real that hockey offered, even if the construction of its broadcast sought to take advantage of our own openness to something false.

No matter how strong Stroumboulopoulos becomes as a host, this is why we’ll miss MacLean.