TORONTO - Don Cherry has come to the defence of Ron MacLean, his longtime on-air companion who sparked controversy when he compared hockey players to 9-11 first responders.
MacLean made the comments during "Hockey Night In Canada" prior to Wednesday's playoff game between the New York Rangers and Washington.
"I couldn't believe it when the boss came in during the end of the second period and said people were upset," Cherry told The Canadian Press on Thursday while standing side-by-side with MacLean at the CBC building.
"I think what happens is people don't think as much of hockey players as we love hockey players. We think hockey players are the top people in the world. We think they're tough, that's all Ron was doing. For people to take it out of context is just unbelievable to me."
At the start of the broadcast, MacLean noted that the two cities were united by the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He says it is "crazy to compare what the emergency responders did during that time, but a spirit has to start somewhere."
He then goes on to say you "can't help but be struck by the players and the way they've played these games.
"They are like police officers, they are like firefighters. You can't fight fire with ego. The pain these men have faced, the price they keep on paying, the hearts they keep on lifting."
MacLean and the CBC issued a statement Thursday to "clarify" the comments, which were rebuked by columnists on both sides of the border and scorned on social media websites like Twitter.
MacLean says he doesn't regret the comments, but felt the images that accompanied his intro didn't properly reflect his intention.
"I think Don taught me when I first started — perception is reality," MacLean told The Canadian Press.
"I think where I got caught was making the statements about 9-11, quickly saying it would be crazy to compare the work done by the first responders during that time, then I made the point still a spirit has to start somewhere. Then as they moved inside the arena I made the point watching the players in this series, I can't help but think they are like police officers or firefighters.
"And then we cut to our first shot of a player and it was Brad Richards — a dear friend of mine — sitting there putting on his socks sort of looking laissez-faire, and I think the image of Brad looking almost disinterested coupled with the gravity of what I was talking about just cut a terrible image."
MacLean said his intentions were good — to pay homage to New York and Washington police and firefighters and compliment the players.
"The saying is: 'they may forget what you said, but they won't forget how you made them feel,' and I think I got trapped in the perception that came out," said MacLean.
"But my intentions were highly noble to really pay homage to Washington and New York and then by extension, in a much lesser way, to explain how the seeds of a spirit like we saw back on 9-11 are sown in certain aspects of life, and one of them is the courage it takes to play hockey."
- With files from Scott Edmonds of The Canadian Press.