Any time you say something so dumb that P.J. Stock gets uncomfortable, you really stepped in it.
Usually it's Don Cherry making the provocative comments which could be — and rightfully so — construed as anti-Quebec or anti-Francophone, but last night between the second and third periods of what ended up being a Montreal sweep of the shambling, banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning, it was his typically level-headed handler Ron MacLean. This after 40 minutes in which the refs had largely been pretty good.
"It's a good thing that they look good, because Francois St. Laurent would not have been a popular choice for the Tampa Lighting in that game," MacLean said, in reference to the Greenfield Park, Que., native reffing the game along with Saint John, N.B.'s Chris Lee. "It was almost like they were responding to Jon Cooper's cavalier way he said they would like a do-over."
"Are you saying the French referee thing?" queried Elliotte Friedman, the sane one on CBC's panels.
P.J. Stock tried more than once to interject, finally suggesting that the conversation "move on."
Too late. The firestorm you can always expect when Francophones or Quebec itself are in any way besmirched by anyone else in Canada had already begun.
Two days earlier, another Francophone referee, Francis Charron, had disallowed a goal on the basis that a Lightning player had interfered with Carey Price's ability to make a save. Not a very good call, really, but former ref Kerry Fraser said it wasn't the referee who made the mistake, but the NHL's current rulebook. As Rule 69.3 is written, Charron was right to wave off the goal, even if it cost the Lightning a chance at winning at least one game in this series. But because his name is pronounced a little funny, the whiff of impropriety was already in the air by the time the game ended. (Not, by the way, raised by Jon Cooper.)
French referees, you see, have a reputation for calling things in favor of the Canadiens, especially when the game is being played in Montreal. On an old episode of 24/7, Peter Laviolette famously complained about the officiating in Bell Centre as being "Montreal typical," after a player on the Flyers bench shouted, "I know we're in Montreal but wake up."
This is a real issue in the NHL. Not an actual conspiracy, but just the feeling that there's an inherent bias among Quebec-born referees, commentators, etc., to do all in their power to manipulate things so that their beloved Canadiens — or perhaps the Francophone way of life — win out over the evils of creeping Anglo influence. MacLean spoke to it, rightly or wrongly. But can you imagine the hell that gets raised if a commentator says this about a black referee (not that such things exist in the NHL) calling a game in favor of black players? He would be fired on-air.
This isn't, obviously, a new thing. Books have been written about the not-great way hockey in general treats Quebec-born players, and the stereotypes abound. They're lazy, they don't play defense, they dive, and so on. When a player from la belle province arrives on the scene who does play defense and doesn't dive, like say, Patrice Bergeron, he is often praised as being someone who plays the game "the right way." And yes, he sure does. But that leaves open the implication that he is different from those who share a vague general birthplace, who still do not. You hear these kinds of broad generalizations about Europeans (and Russians specifically), too. And many black players, but only in specific individual cases. All are of a piece.
Between the third period and overtime of the late game between San Jose and Los Angeles, MacLean apologized to those who took offense to his comments — this after the Globe and Mail had already cobbled together a story, since updated, about the issue — acknowledging just how hot-button this particular issue is, and stating that he only meant things in terms of hometown bias.
"I wouldn't have sent an Alberta ref into an Alberta game had an Alberta official been involved in a tough Game 3," he said. "I should have said any referee from the area."
The problem was that Friedman brought up "the French referee thing," and Ron MacLean almost dropped an F-bomb in the middle of "absolutely" in his race to agree that this was the issue. Moreover, MacLean and the NHL at large has not taken the time to raise any such concerns when, say, an official from the Greater Toronto Area makes a controversial call in a Leafs game at Air Canada Centre. Certainly, there were no eyebrows raised when three of the officials in the last two Olympic gold medal games, one of which was played on home ice, were Canadian.
MacLean also noted that he really only objected to the use of Quebecer officials in this particular game, rather than their never being used in Montreal at all. Of course, this ignores that all refs are assigned to the first four games of a series before it even starts. Charron could have hit Ryan Callahan with a steel chair and draped a Quebec flag over him at center ice, and St. Laurent would have been on the assignment sheet for Game 4. "It's pro hockey, and you gotta say they're above that, and they are," he said. "But the league shouldn't have done that."
But suppose the league did acquiesce to this kind of pressure from a coach, commentators, or whoever. That's a remarkably bad precedent to set: Coach complains about officiating, officials' assignments are changed to mollify him. That would be the NHL tacitly acknowledging that, yes, Quebecois officials might have a bias toward the Habs. If that happens, the illusion of impartiality for any official goes out the window, and then the league finds itself answering questions from all over the map about who would call what, and when, and where, and why. It'd be a state of affairs that just can't be allowed to exist in this business.
Friedman, to his credit, told MacLean he thought that criticisms of that type of bias being levied against a referee were unfair. Refs are always going to have biases, of course; they think some guys dive and let others get away with murder, and no one really cares about that kind of thing unless it causes the team they like to lose a game. But to imply that this is a Quebec thing is to touch on the schism between French and English Canada, is further lazy and reductive, and in this case is also flat-out wrong. No matter how aggrieved a coach might be that a goal for his team was disallowed, when it's the correct call, that has to be acknowledged. Again, it's a bad rule, but to imply there was bias behind a referee following it to the letter, though obviously not the spirit, isn't particularly reasonable.
And MacLean can even say he thought the call should have stood, and maybe he does think that. After all, he's very famously a level-5 referee for Hockey Canada in his life away from the CBC cameras, and has defended one Quebec-born referee (Stephane Auger) against accusations of extreme bias against Alex Burrows so vociferously he pissed off the Canucks organization and later had to apologize for dragging Burrows's name through the mud.
You have to sincerely doubt that MacLean is in any way opposed to Quebec and its French-speaking citizens. He seems, as they say, like a nice guy. Again, he's often tried to temper the more overt biases Cherry displays on every other Coach's Corner. But when you make such an implication of impropriety like this, and make clear that you're talking about "The French Referee Thing," any other defenses you might have fall away. He may not have intended to "go down that path," but he sure did it anyway, and it's made all the easier by having been so well-forged by commentators left, right, and center over the years.
Maybe, as he suggests, it's a poorly-worded argument against letting hometown guys call games. Maybe it's Cherry finally rubbing off on him. Or maybe it's just another inescapable aspect of hockey culture, which ever leans toward Good Canadian Boys who happen to speak English and play the game the white way. I mean, the right way.