Don Cherry, fired by Sportsnet, hated any changes to hockey – and his imaginary Canada – The Globe and Mail

Don Cherry, fired by Sportsnet, hated any changes to hockey – and his imaginary Canada - The Globe and Mail
WARMINGTON: Don Cherry fired over controversial poppy comment
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Don Cherry, shown in Mississauga in 2010, was fired from Coachs Corner after making negative comments about immigrants on the Nov. 9 episode of the show.

The news comes one day after Sportsnet issued an apology for comments Cherry made during Saturday night’s Hockey Night broadcast. During Coach’s Corner, Cherry singled out new immigrants for not wearing poppies to honour Canadian veterans and soldiers ahead of Remembrance Day.

Back when people still thought of him as the prototype of perfect Canadianness, Don Cherrys son, Tim, tried to explain his fathers appeal.

I think he never takes a politically correct stance … and people appreciate that, Tim told a profiler. But theyre also waiting for the train wreck. Theyre waiting for him to say something thatll be the end of him.

He was a voice every Saturday night for hockey fans across the country, appearing alongside Coachs Corner host Ron MacLean since 1986. His coverage extended into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as well.

Twenty years and at least as many attempts at professional self-immolation later, its finally happened. Mr. Cherry was fired by Rogers Sportsnet on Monday.

Hockey Night has a host of options after ditching Don Cherry

Mr. Cherry was more than a broadcaster. He was an era. He represented how many both inside and outside this country defined Canada over a period of time.

Ostensibly, Mr. Cherrys work was analyzing hockey games. But, really, what he did was insult people – Quebeckers, Scandinavians, Slavs, pinkos, anyone who didnt appreciate the beauty of blood on the ice.

The 85-year-old Cherry has been on Coachs Corner since 1982 when the program was first started on CBC.

His mode was what might charitably be called free form. He had a disconnected, rambling speaking style. He often didnt make much sense, but he made even less sense at high volume. If his outrage was comedic, it also appeared real. It could be hypnotic.

Coach's Corner is a Canadian institution, and since its inception more than 30 years ago, the Don Cherry and Ron MacLean tandem has arguably been the most important team of broadcasters to offer hockey commentary across the country. Their five-minute sermon on Saturday nights has come to punctuate our fevered hockey religion in a nation that still sees excellence in the sport as our raison d'etre.  

Had some of his most notorious lines concerned, say, political participation or immigration, rather than sport – Ive been trying to tell you people for so long about the [does it matter who he said it about?], what kind of people they are. And you just love them in Canada, with your multiculturalism – hed have been written off as a crank shortly after hed started.

But Mr. Cherrys trick was using hockey as a lever. No one had ever done that before, or has so successfully since.

He made his name as an NHL head coach, particularly with some of the most brutal iterations of the Boston Bruins. He was a two-fisted type, quite literally. A little guy, a scrapper, someone who hadnt made the cut.

His callous employment of "you people that come here, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy," is a window into his anger at how Canada has changed, and it is the manifestation of a futile resistance to an inevitable multicultural and diverse evolution.

If it was once true that every Canadian kid dreamed of playing in the NHL, Mr. Cherry had lived that dream and fallen just short. It made him more relatable than the Lafleurs or Sittlers.

There was never a November when my immigrant father wouldn't proudly fasten that beautiful red flower to his lapel. This simple, important gesture of remembrance was a way for him to express his gratitude to the brave women and men from all walks of life who sacrificed their lives so his kids could have better ones. 

He came along in the seventies, as English-speaking Canada was beginning to discover that jingoism works just as well up north as it does down south. The Summit Series – our most eulogized contribution to the Cold War – started a wave. Mr. Cherry rode it into a broadcast booth.

He started out on the CBC in the early eighties. He quickly found his straight man in Ron MacLean. He learned the showmans trick of using costume to distract from content – because there wasnt much of the latter.

Adam Kassam is a Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation specialist physician who was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario. Adam received an undergraduate education from Cornell University , an MD from Dartmouth Medical School and a Master's in Public Health from Columbia University.

Mr. Cherry would appear for a few minutes during the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada and sputter about whatever was going on. Hed bang the desk and try to squirm his way out of those high-collar shirts.

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As a Canadian, you felt embarrassed watching his Coachs Corner segment with foreigners. This wasnt TV. It was vaudeville. It was two guys chasing a hat.

How to explain to someone not from here that this man wasnt just loved, but worshipped? You couldnt.

And why, after decades of mass-marketed video tapes of sporting blood, violence and the occasionally terrible techno soundtrack, did we wave it away as simply part of the games natural terrain, whom those seeking something better were forced to share? Don Cherry was this domains sultan who toggled between dinosauric roars of loyalty above all even when it meant risking brain injury – another maxim that, for years, many of us chalked up as being part of the game.

In 2004, the CBC framed a series around the search for the greatest Canadian. It was modelled on a show from Britain.

Because we live every day with the kinds of opinions expressed by Cherry before his demise – opinions about the rights of immigrants and their tax on society – some have suggested that were immune to mean frothing rants. But that doesnt explain why it was able to exist for decades. No matter how twisted the world has become through the centre-presence of Donald Trump, mainstream white supremacists and the alt-right, it all comes back to the game.

The British list included Charles Darwin and Queen Elizabeth I. The Canadian list included Mr. Cherry. He came seventh, between a couple of prime ministers.

Growing up, a lot of the best kids on my house-league teams were racialized teenagers. They scored, won Player-of-the-Week, and then disappeared. There was no path for them to continue beyond this level because there were no role models and no support, and thats still largely true: in the media, in the dressing rooms, and in the marketing realm.

He continued to talk about a Canada in which everyone grew up near an iced-over pond and held the flag above all things. But Mr. Cherrys Canada was not an idyllic place. It was beset by the encroachment of foreign influence into our national game and our way of life.

I openly lobbied for more broadcasters like him in the pressed-trouser world of telegenic sports punditry, rallying for someone to be heard who sounded like your uncle, your neighbour, the guy who sits at the rink. But weve learned a lot about our uncles, and a lot about ourselves. Hopefully, weve learned something about the game, too.

Perhaps people hadnt noticed that part of the act before, or hadnt taken it seriously – the xenophobia, the resistance to progress, the fairytale-ing of history.

He wanted hockey and Canada to remain just as they had been when he first got to know them. A mans game played by woodsy John Wayne types who could knock your teeth out on the rink and then help you raise a barn on the weekend.

His vision of masculinity suited this country for a time, when it felt itself weak. But now that Canada seemed to be getting the better of the 21st century, there was no need for Mr. Cherrys bantam rooster routine. It became provincial and gauche.

The tipping point may have been the gradual removal of fighting from hockey. Once people turned on fighting, Mr. Cherry turned on them.

He seemed to lose what little joy hed had in the to and fro. His bits turned into lectures, and then into sermons. He spent his Saturday nights rebuking a country that had moved on without him.

On a Saturday night in pro hockey arenas across the continent, many of those on press row would get up from their seats during the first intermission. Theyd move to a TV so they could see what Mr. Cherry had to say about what theyd just watched. No other analyst in any other sport commands that sort of attention.

Eventually, his frustration extended to the people whod changed the imaginary Canada Mr. Cherry still lived in. Newcomers, hockey agnostics, you people.

Mr. Cherry had finally taken on something too big even for him – our collective values. Hed given the country the excuse it needed to move on from the past.

In the end, bigotry didnt take down Don Cherry. Hed always been a bigot. What got him in the end was Canada.

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