Inside the NHL
When we spoke over the summer, Sportsnet commentator Don Cherry discussed how he hoped to work a game in Seattle during the 2021-22 season when our city’s NHL expansion team makes its debut.
That won’t be happening now as Cherry’s near-four-decade run on Hockey Night in Canada ended Monday following some seismic weekend events even he couldn’t talk his way out of. Cherry was fired after complaining during his “Coach’s Corner’’ intermission segment Saturday night that not enough new Canadian immigrants wear artificial poppy pins on coat lapels in honor of fallen soldiers ahead of the country’s Remembrance Day.
As with Veterans Day in the U.S., Remembrance Day is held Nov. 11, though it’s more like Memorial Day and largely honors the country’s World War I soldiers — Canada having participated in the entirety of that conflict. Hence, using the poppy — part of the opening line of the WWI remembrance poem “In Flanders Fields’’ by John McRae — as a symbol of respect in Canada and most commonwealth nations.
“You people … you love our way of life,’’ Cherry told his national television audience, referring to recent immigrants. “You love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that.
“These (fallen) guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys paid the biggest price.’’
Cherry, 85, has said similar things supportive of military veterans and less-than-complimentary toward non-natives and others for decades in crafting a larger-than-life persona. For local sports fans new to the NHL, it’s important to understand Cherry’s impact on generations of players from Canada, here and abroad.
No American broadcaster shaped the mindset of athletes within a major professional sport the way Cherry did. Howard Cosell, Vin Scully, Bob Costas and John Madden never got voted a top-10 figure of all time within their home country, nor were movies made about their lives or three decades worth of their video tutorials repeated as gospel by so many pro athletes who’d studied them since childhood.
Cherry’s broadcast power and appeal came largely from having played the game; as a rugged career minor-leaguer — including a 1962 stop in Spokane — and a one-game NHLer, who later coached the Boston Bruins to consecutive Stanley Cup finals in the 1970s.
Love him or hate him, Cherry became a hockey institution. And he sometimes did it on the backs of Swedes, Russians, French Canadians, women, Native groups, climate-change advocates and others who’d complained of being targeted by controversial Cherry comments long before Saturday’s remarks.
His controversy was apparently so commonplace, his longtime studio partner, Ron MacLean, initially gave a thumbs-up to the poppy comments during Saturday’s broadcast.
But by Sunday, Cherry’s remarks had set off a firestorm. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council heard from so many viewers about Cherry it posted an online notice that its capacity to log complaints had been exceeded and it would no longer register them.
MacLean issued an on-air apology Sunday, stating: “Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong. We at Sportsnet have apologized. It certainly doesn’t stand for what Sportsnet or Rogers represents. We know diversity is the strength of the country.”
Absent from the apology list was Cherry himself. In an interview Monday with the Toronto Sun post-firing, Cherry defended his words, saying: “I know what I said and I meant it. Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honor our fallen soldiers.’’
Cherry is not without legions of fans. His unabashed support of Canadian hockey players, police and small-town communities enjoyed broad appeal and television ratings.
“I speak the truth and I walk the walk,’’ he told the Sun.
Cries of “political correctness’’ emerged from supporters Monday as news of Cherry’s firing spread.
But ultimately, timing more than anything likely ended Cherry’s broadcast career. Just a few months back, rumors surfaced that a budget-slashing Sportsnet was considering not renewing the contract of a man whose “old school” hockey views have become less fashionable.
Also, Canada just emerged last month from arguably the ugliest federal election in its history, one in which racism and tolerance became hotly debated issues. It was a spinoff, of sorts, to what the U.S. has been through the past few years.
Cherry has been likened to President Donald Trump — something he views as a compliment. But what puzzled so many north of the border was their country is supposed to be the more level-headed, tolerant and accommodating one — at least, in terms of present-day global perception.
From that viewpoint, Cherry’s on-air survival remained a mystery. As a cultural icon, he seemed to increasingly alienate so many who felt a part of Canada’s identity.
But there’s a limit, apparently, to what even Rogers and Sportsnet will tolerate when it comes to a ratings-generating hockey legend further dividing the nation.
If budget-minded Sportsnet truly had been looking for a reason to dump Cherry, he’d just provided one on a silver platter.
During the MLS Cup final Sunday at CenturyLink Field, numerous Canadian media members covering Toronto FC were buzzing about Cherry’s comments. “If this happened on a network in the (United) States, he’d already be fired,’’ one of them said.
And apparently, you can get fired in Canada for saying those things, too. For a nation that lives and breathes hockey, a definitive line just got carved in the ice that will leave many wondering why it took so long.