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Ron MacLean spills the puck in Don Cherry saga

Saturday night was Coach's Corner, the Mulligan Edition. As in, hit your first shot out of bounds? Tee up another ball and pretend the first shot never happened. But instead of Don Cherry trying to find the fairway this time, the spotlight fell on his faithful manservant Ron MacLean to get the ball in play. From the opening shot of MacLean's new book to MacLean's pandering puns ("as you found out it's not easy to put your foot down"), Saturday's episode was as incoherent as Thursday's CC was offensive.

This time, however, the failure to communicate was on MacLean. Given the gratuitous book plug by his mentor, the veteran host reciprocated by trying mightily to undo the PR damage wrought by his having sat mute during Thursday's initial episode of the Hockey Night In Canada feature. Knowing Cherry would never take a backward step, MacLean felt it his sacred duty on Saturday to protect his friend and partner from himself. And, as our e-mails prove (in language that would make a sergeant-major blush) Cherry's loyal followers brook no disloyalty.

Instead of challenging Cherry's outrageous statements, MacLean fed Cherry with softballs like "Any regrets?", "What you meant was …" and "You didn't say this, I want to make this perfectly clear …" Cherry did allow that the word "pukes" in reference to his former playeirs might have been offsde ("The kids" don't need to hear that, he mumbled). But that was it. The cumulative effect was a supplicant MacLean in the face of a still-defiant Cherry.

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But Saturday was too late. CBC needed MacLean to do his job on Thursday. Cherry is going to be Cherry. But as time has shown, given enough leeway, the ex-coach will eventually go off the rails. Thursday was another of those days and, for the umpteenth time, MacLean failed his assignment.

What Cherry (and the CBC) needs, of course, is a host like Amanda Lang who must handle the voluble financial figure Kevin O'Leary on the CBC's The Lang and O'Leary Exchange. Instead of basking in the glow of O'Leary's outrageous personality Lang challenges and contradicts him. For that, she is a star in her own right. It makes for terrific TV and is ultimately more satisfying than the kabuki theatre of Coach's Corner.

It's not for lack of talent that MacLean has ended up playing publicity agent to the bombastic Cherry. Having worked with him, we can say that MacLean might have the greatest gifts of any sports broadcaster we've seen. But when it comes to integrity in his weekly sessions with Cherry, MacLean let the horse out of the barn decades ago. He has chosen to make a very attractive living as hapless wind therapist to the Cherry legend. Insiders say he has enormous influence over HNIC's editorial policy, too. Ultimately, then, the failure of Coach's Corner as a credible source of news or insight is on MacLean.

Start again

Saturday's silliness came after CBC itself took a mulligan. After a breezy, no blood/no foul exoneration of Cherry on Friday by her PR department, CBC's vice-president of English services Kirstine Stewart attempted her own do-over on Saturday. In the wake of public disgust with Cherry and the Corp's inept message management, Stewart used the free-speech gambit to draw a distinction between her company and its star attraction.

"While we support his right to voice that opinion, we do not share his position," Stewart said. "Player safety is a top priority for CBC, and we support the initiatives of the NHL and others in keeping players safe on and off the ice."

Stewart said she'd talked to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who's made it clear elsewhere that his league is slowly moving away from the head hits so beloved by Stewart's star analyst. (Whether Stewart called Bettman or vice-versa was not made clear.) "In that conversation, as in this statement, I reiterated our shared commitment to player safety at all levels of the game," Stewart wrote.

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Which is nice and squishy, except where was all the compassion and progressive thinking Friday when a spokesman was authorized to blandly say that ol' Don "has strong opinions and expresses them colourfully and sometimes even outrageously"? Better late than never then never? Whatever.

What remains clear is that Cherry's financial impact on HNIC and CBC insulates him from the standards applied to everyone at the Corp this side of Rick Mercer. Unlike Mercer, however, Cherry's heterodox schtick ceased being funny a long time ago.

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