With his trademark thumbs up, his high-collared shirts and loud suits, Don Cherry spoke to Canadians every Saturday, for almost four decades.
He loved the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. Doug Gilmour and Bobby Orr. Hard-hitting hockey and fights. He offered tips to kids. He embraced the police. He loved dogs. He honoured the armed services.
But he had an edge to him, a side deemed xenophobic. And he crossed a line Saturday, and lost his pulpit from which he preached his brand of Canadian nationalism.
Sportsnet pulled the plug on Coach’s Corner — a staple of the first intermission Hockey Night in Canada — following a backlash to Cherry’s inflammatory comments he made Saturday.
He said, in what could now be known as his “you people” rant, that he was seeing fewer people wearing poppies to honour fallen Canadian soldiers, singling out those he believes are immigrants in Toronto and Mississauga.
“Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down,” Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.”
Labatt Breweries of Canada — which sponsors Coach’s Corner through Budweiser — had a say in Cherry’s ouster.
“The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views,” Todd Allen, VP of Marketing, Labatt Breweries of Canada, said in an email.
“As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet.”
Cherry did not return phone calls from the Star, and his Twitter account was silent.
He did reach out to the Toronto Sun, saying he had “no problem” being “fired,” saying his words were not racial or bigoted but patriotic and respectful of Canadian troops.
“I know what I said and I meant it,” he told the Sun. “Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers.”
The CBC hired Cherry — a career minor-leaguer and former coach of the Boston Bruins — in 1981 as a colour commentator. That eventually turned into Coach’s Corner, then with Dave Hodge.
Hodge chimed in on Twitter, endorsing Cherry’s removal.
“The day Don Cherry decided he should speak to and for Canadians on any subject at all should have been the day that somebody told him he couldn’t, because he was an ex-coach hired to comment on matters related to a telecast called Hockey Night in Canada,” Hodge said.
Cherry was outrageous and outlandish, controversial and conservative, outspoken and garish, free to speak his mind, regardless of who he offended.
At least until Saturday.
“You know, I was talking to a veteran, and I said, I’m not going to run the (annual Remembrance Day montage) anymore, because what’s the sense? I live in Mississauga, nobody wears, very few people wear a poppy,” Cherry said on Coach’s Corner. “Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy.
“And I’m not going to, and he says, wait a minute. How about running it for the people that buy them?
“Now you go to the small cities and you know, the rows on rows, you people love — that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price. Anyhow, I’m going to run it for you great people and good Canadians that bought a poppy.”
The Royal Canadian Legion distanced itself from Cherry.
“Mr. Cherry’s personal opinion was hurtful, divisive and in no way condoned by the legion,” Thomas D. Irvine, CD, Dominion President, said in a statement emailed to the Star.
“His comments ran contrary to our own articles of faith which are based on respect for people from all backgrounds. We do remain appreciative of his passionate support for veterans.
“We know many new Canadians understand and welcome the tradition of the red poppy. For our part, we will continue to do our best to educate all citizens about the significance of this powerful symbol, and the meaning of Remembrance.”
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As for the national poppy campaign, the legion said close to 20 million are distributed, resulting in about $20 million annually in donations. The numbers can fluctuate, and the final numbers won’t be known for months, but there is nothing to indicate there were fewer worn this year, said spokesperson Nujma Bond.
Cherry’s co-host, Ron MacLean, was also caught in the crossfire of criticism, but apologized both on Twitter and on Sunday’s Hometown Hockey broadcast for not challenging Cherry when he made his comments.
There’s no word yet on what Hockey Night in Canada will do in the first intermission to replace Cherry. Ex-Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke — who can be just as outspoken — is part of Hockey Night’s crew and could be in for a bigger role.
There had been talk of Cherry leaving TV before. In 2004, there was a contract dispute with CBC, which then held national TV rights. When those rights transferred to Rogers in 2013, there was some talk Cherry wouldn’t be part of Sportsnet’s coverage.
And this past summer, when Sportsnet let go some high profile and expensive talent — like radio host Bob McCown and Hockey Night analyst Nick Kypreos — there again was chatter that Cherry would be let go.
But Cherry was simply too popular, even if his ideas on hockey seemed outdated, or his political views too extreme, and even branded xenophobic.
He’s always cared a great deal about Canadian hockey, and the Maple Leafs in particular, as well as the Bruins.
In some ways, Canadians couldn’t take their eyes off him. Cherry was voted the seventh greatest Canadian on the CBC special, “The Greatest Canadian,” in 2004.
Agree or disagree, love him or hate him, Canadians seemed to want to know what Cherry would say.
He often offended.
French Canadians took the brunt of it, Cherry frequently offended by separatist sentiment in Quebec. But there were others. He was critical of:
- The Canadian government for not supporting the U.S. in the 2003 invasion of Iraq;
- Montrealers for booing the U.S. anthem;
- European hockey players — their names routinely mangled — for simply being Europeans;
- Anyone that wore a visor;
- He called Russians “cheating Russians” and had choice words for Alex Ovechkin;
- He likened coach Alpo Suhonen, a Finn, to dog food;
- Former enforcers fighting alcoholism and emotional issues linked to fighting were called “pukes” because he said they were hypocrites. He later apologized;
- And last year, he called the Carolina Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” for their post-win celebrations, because in Cherry’s mind it was counter to hockey’s humble culture. They embraced the nickname, even printed up T-shirts.
CBC, which now merely broadcasts what Sportsnet produces on Saturday nights, agreed with the move to remove Cherry.
“Don Cherry’s remarks on Saturday night were divisive, discriminatory and offensive and we respect Sportsnet’s decision that this is the right time for Don to step down,” the CBC said.