Why Ron MacLean didn't ask Gary Bettman about the Blackhawks sexual assault investigation

"There were no restrictions," MacLean told Hockey Unfiltered. Some see MacLean's actions as an abdication of journalistic responsibility, but that only holds water if MacLean is indeed a journalist

There has been a lot of speculation and comment on social media over the interview Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean did with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman during the first intermission of the Game 4 Stanley Cup final broadcast Monday night. Bettman was fairly consistent with his talking points, continuing to reiterate that NHL referees are outstanding, all the while talking during an intermission of a game that was basically being governed by prison rules.

Bettman also went on to praise chief disciplinarian George ‘The Violent Gentleman’ Parros for his work. “George Parros does a terrific job and he has tough judgment calls to make,” Bettman said. “And I think he’s been very consistent.”

Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and disagree with the first part of that statement. I stand with the New York Rangers in the opinion that Parros is not fit for the job. I’ll agree with the second part of the statement and definitely the last phrase, though not for the same reason Bettman does. Parros is consistent, all right.

MacLean took some significant heat, not for what he asked Bettman, but for the elephant in the room that was ignored. Many viewers were expecting MacLean to grill Bettman on the investigation into the sexual assault allegations involving the Chicago Blackhawks, which date back to 2010. It has been recently reported by Rick Westhead of TSN and Katie Strang of The Athletic that key figures in the organization, including team president John McDonagh and GM Stan Bowman, were made aware of the allegations from two players involving then-video coach Brad Aldrich. The Blackhawks reportedly wrote a letter of recommendation for Aldrich for his next job and in 2013, Aldrich was convicted of fourth-degree sexual assault involving a high school student.

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Bettman answered questions about the investigation during his annual pre-Stanley Cup final address to the media, saying the league learned of the allegations only shortly after two lawsuits were filed against the Blackhawks. “The reaction whenever you hear allegations like that are concerning, but my first reaction is: ‘Tell me the facts,’ ” Bettman said at the time. “Once we know what the facts are, we’re in a better position to evaluate what may or may not need to be done.”

Could Bettman have displayed a little more concern and compassion? Absolutely. But it surprised no one that Bettman immediately went into lawyer-speak when the subject came up. And chances are he would have done the same if MacLean had asked about it in his annual interview. And that, not because he was being muzzled by the league, was one of the main reasons he stayed away from the topic.

“This wasn't one of those, ‘Ron’s been told certain topics are off limits,’ ” MacLean told Hockey Unfiltered in an emailed response Tuesday. “There were no restrictions. The Chicago story is a vitally important story, but Gary Bettman had answered the key questions to which he can, at this point, speak. There’s an investigation which works as a barrier. In a noisy rink with only five minutes, it just seemed to me the wrong place to attempt an overarching conversation, knowing the investigation would prevent speculation or oversight considerations, or anything really. The for-the-record response was going to remain, ‘Can’t address those questions while there is an investigation.’ So I chose different line for the time being.”

So now that we know there were no restrictions, we’re left to discuss whether MacLean should have asked a question about Chicago. And it’s definitely a conversation worth having. Under the circumstances, MacLean didn’t feel as though it would be a productive use of time. But MacLean asking about it, even if Bettman had defaulted to lawyer-speak, would have kept the heat on an issue that absolutely needs to be addressed. There are those who claim MacLean’s actions to be an abdication of journalistic responsibility, but that only holds water if you consider MacLean to be a journalist. And that’s where the lines get really blurry.

When Rogers paid $5.2 billion to be the national NHL broadcaster in Canada in 2013, a whole lot of objectivity went by the wayside. The deal made the two parties partners, and part of that means you don’t put your partner in an unfavorable light. There’s almost certainly nothing in the deal that expressly says those words, but it’s at the very least an understood agreement. You’ll also remember that when Rogers landed the NHL deal, MacLean was replaced as the host and it was speculated it was on the insistence of Bettman. When the George Stroumboulopoulos experiment failed and ratings waned, Rogers knew it had to have MacLean back as host. That could only happen with Bettman’s approval. And as my colleague David Shoalts reported in his excellent book, Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Face Off Over the NHL, that approval was granted on the proviso that MacLean toe the line when grilling Bettman.

That set-up hardly screams objective journalism. Although it does seem strange that Rogers had to tie a $5.2 billion financial millstone around its neck and bow to the wishes of the NHL. It will be interesting to see whether or not ESPN and Turner will be required to do the same delicate dance when their American broadcast deals kick in next season.