Don Cherry shouldn’t have been on TV, not at the end, not at 85. But he was a Canadian institution, the most famous man in hockey not named Wayne Gretzky, the loudest voice in the country. And nobody, for a long time, had been able to tell him no.
People tried over the years and some succeeded, but Don outgrew Hockey Night in Canada, of all things, and the problems always blew over. That was one of the lessons of Don Cherry over the years, along with keep yer head up, dress right, don’t put your stick in front of a shooter, everybody loves fights, let’s go. He rode roughshod over critics, co-hosts, and most significantly, executives and producers. He did it for nearly 40 years in a game that sometimes seems allergic to unfiltered honesty, and a lot of Canadians adored him for it.
And on Monday, Don Cherry got fired, on Remembrance Day. He was fired two days after he performed one of his greatest hits on Hockey Night in Canada, because at 85 everything is an old idea, a classic. As he had many times before, he complained not enough people wore poppies. As the Star’s Kevin McGran reports, poppy sales aren’t actually down. Don, for whatever reason, felt like they were.
And he addressed one group, one specifically. Not every Canadian. The ones from elsewhere: You people, who come here.
“Downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears a poppy,” said Cherry, on Hockey Night in Canada. “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 (an annual Remembrance Day montage) for you great people and good Canadians that bought a poppy.”
It’s clear what he was saying, if you know Don, and Canada does. He was dividing Canadians into bad and good, and he was saying he didn’t see people wearing poppies, and he was blaming “you people . . . who come here.” How can you tell if someone not wearing a poppy isn’t from here, in one of the most diverse cities in the world? You can’t. How can you assume it? Skin colour, I guess. That’s it.
Cherry was clearly given an opportunity to apologize, and refused, and his career at Hockey Night ended with that. It was inevitable, in a way. He was 85, on national TV with an insufficient safety net, a big Donald Trump fan in a country where 20 per cent of Canadians approve. Nobody could stop him from saying something really bad. Eventually, he did.
It should be said, Cherry did good things. He visited kids in hospitals. He raised countless millions for charity. He supported women’s hockey, though not female journalists. He took time for people. There are a lot of Don Cherry autographs and selfies in this country. More than we can count. There are a lot of reasons he was loved.
But there is more than one Canada, and more than one hockey, and Cherry didn’t preach to them. What was it like for Swedish players, or Russians, or French Canadians whose kids went to school after Don Cherry called their parents chickens, or whiners, or some other blanket barstool insult? Many in English Canada found that soft hockey bigotry funny, but a lot of people in the game didn’t. What was it like when, in 1990, he talked on national TV about how foreigners were stealing Canadian jobs? Back then, he was Jackie Gleason, veering to Archie Bunker, and was considered a charming sort of bigot.
The problem with being Archie Bunker is this is the age of Donald Trump, and that’s part of what happened to Don. People have seen where this stuff goes, now. People have seen how ugly it can get.
And now, as Sean Fitz-Gerald writes in the book “Before The Lights Go Out,” hockey needs new Canadians. As my friend Arpon Basu of The Athletic in Montreal, a wonderful hockey writer and man, told me, “It’s not like people in the game haven’t said things like that before. Having him say it on that show — as he always has, with zero consequence — is the biggest problem here. It sends the message that ‘you people’ aren’t in the club.”
You people. You people, that come here, whatever it is.
“The world changed,” said one longtime friend of Cherry’s, who still views him with affection. “And Don didn’t.”
So finally, after 38 years of Don Cherry sitting in the biggest chair in Canadian broadcasting, his bosses decided he was more trouble than he was worth. And so ends an age. For a lot of people, Don defined hockey more than any other single figure over the last four decades. Don promoted hockey, but his version, celebrating and selling VHS tapes of goals and concussions even after it was clear what they did to his beloved fighters. Don once apologized for calling former enforcers Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson and Jim Thompson “pukes” and “turncoats” and “hypocrites,” after they voiced opposition to fighting. It was a pretty half-ass apology, though. That was 2011.
Again, when Coach’s Corner began in 1981, Don didn’t pick the topics; the broadcast did. That changed, and few had the will and agency to change it back. That’s why he could loudly advocate for Canada to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003, on national TV. A year later, he finished seventh in the CBC’s Greatest Canadian show.
The usual suspects are braying about political correctness and, in truly incorrect fashion, free speech and censorship, neither of which applies here. Many are whatabouting that the prime minister has appeared in blackface, while declining to note the prime minister apologized, and stopped doing such dumb, racist things. Some people can grow. Some have help.
Don had more enablers than anything, and that’s why it ended the way it did. In 1993, Leigh Montville profiled Cherry for Sports Illustrated, and Cherry said, “My wife, Rose, wants me to quit. She stays home and just worries. She hates the show, hates it. She knows I’m going to say something sometime that’s going to send everything up in flames. Probably some of the political stuff. She hates the political stuff.
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“You know, though, she’s my best critic. If I go home and she won’t talk to me, that’s when I know the show has been really good. The best ones are the ones she hates most.” As Montville wrote, former Hockey Night producer Ralph Mellanby said he was glad he didn’t do the show anymore, that Cherry was beating the foreigners and fighting drums too much, that he was doing too much politics, that something will happen.
Something finally did. Donald S. Cherry was a simple career minor-leaguer from Kingston who mangled words and specialized in sucker punches, and he somehow became the biggest name in hockey, or at least its loudest voice. But he never changed, even as the world did, and Rose died, and his best producers left and in the end he sent everything up in flames, just as he predicted. He was wrong, of course, at the end. He was wrong, and he was fired on Remembrance Day.