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Down Goes Don

Don Cherry fired amid on air controversy.

HNIC by Charles LeBlanc is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Down Goes Don

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Don Cherry, a long standing voice in hockey broadcasting, was fired from “Hockey Night in Canada”.

The dismissal came after anti-immigrant comments he made on the show on Saturday, November 9th. They centered around a Canadian tradition of Remembrance Day. The tradition honors fallen veterans primarily from World War I. Canadians all over the country wear poppy lapel pins or stickers and even lay poppies at memorials to honor military veterans. Poppies are also worn in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Cherry criticized immigrants who did not wear a poppy while his cohost of many years Ron MacLean, sat silently and gave a thumbs up. MacLean would later apologize.

On November 11th, after major backlash and calls against Cherry’s comments, parent broadcasting Sportsnet announced his termination. Sportsnet tweeted part of their larger statement:

And just like that, 85-year-old Cherry was off the air in Canada. He had hosted the “Coach’s Corner” segment since 1986. What would come next is the real story.

Quick Reminder: Cherry has prided himself on his controversial opinions for many years.

As a player, he only played one year in the NHL and spent the rest of his active years in the minor leagues. He coached in the NHL for six seasons. Throughout that career, he prided himself of his tough, “Canadian” hockey as he called it. He advocated for fighting as an integral part of the sport for both fans and players. He maintains that violence creates an air of respect for opponents but is against gratuitous violence or purposeful cause of injury.

Cherry also criticized players like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin for celebrating too much.

He has made comments about foreign players or first nation people. Keep in mind that over a quarter of the NHL is not from the US or Canada.

He has called for female reporters to not be allowed in locker rooms for post game interviews.

Just last week, he belittled a head injury hit to Ottawa Senators’s Scott Sabourin. Sabourin was knocked out and stretchered off the ice. The incident was emotional for everyone in the rink.

Don Cherry’s reputation as a loud opinion precedes him. His continuously controversial outlook on hockey and the world are well established. He is a vocal right-wing conservative with a tendency to push his political views into sports. His Saturday comments pushed the network and his critics over the edge.

But, as I said, the story is not the comments but the reaction.

Unsurprisingly, Cherry is adamantly defending himself. He maintains that the statements made were patriotic and in support of the troops. According to him, he did not say anything racist or bigoted.

About his departure, he said, “To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot.” He even stated in an interview that Ron MacLean “buried him.” He diminished the issue to a choice of words. According to Cherry, he made a mistake when he said “you people” instead of “everybody”. Yet, he refuses to walk to comments back further than that or apologize for them.

None of that is surprising. After a career built on speaking his mind loudly, he never had a reputation for listening. Cherry is notorious for never backing down, from a fight or a disagreement. To ask him to see his own error? That would be outside of hubris.

Cherry’s critics are outspoken…

Immediately following the news, I texted a family member about it. He responded “I saw that – it was past time for that.” The conversation then turned towards his fighting-based philosophy, history of problems and lack of Stanley Cups. For such a prominent voice in hockey, he never won a championship. His primary legacy is commentary and controversy.

Outside of personal opinion, NHL players and coaches spoke out against Cherry. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy denounced the xenophobic comments in a press conference shortly after the firing. Cherry coached the Bruins for 5 seasons. Other players, commentators, coaches and the NHL itself also criticized Cherry. Some military personnel said they “cringed” at the comments. To top it off, government officials and the Royal Canadian Legion joined in the backlash against Cherry.

One of the loudest and most notable voices is current Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan. Sajjan is an immigrant from India, a liberal and a veteran. He is also the first Sikh to hold the office. He stated that “our fallen would be disappointed” in Cherry’s words.

The message is similar from all the opponents. Hockey is inclusive. Hockey brings people together. This is not a platform for xenophobia. And Canada as a country agrees.

And so are his supporters…

For every tweet, article and message I have shared above, there is a comment section below it supporting Cherry. Not everyone in hockey and Canada agree with the vocal chastising. Fox News gave Cherry a platform to defend himself. Cherry received a job offer via twitter from a hockey team in Moscow. Yesterday, approximately 20 people protested the dismissal outside of Sportsnet headquarters. Even Bobby Orr, legendary Bruins defenseman has defended his former coach. This one stung-Orr was a hero of mine as young player.

Most of Cherry’s supporters identify as right-wing. Common phrases in the social media comments blame “left-wing PC” and “Communist” initiatives for the firing. The language was far more colorful than that. They defend Cherry for speaking in support of veterans and that he was not attacking immigrants. And if he did, he just told the truth. Their truth. Some have even come to the message boards claiming to hate hockey but fight “injustice.” They complain about everything that people say now being called “racist” and a loss of free speech.

Makes you wonder what they are saying. Ultimately, they are shouting on the internet but not anywhere else. The trolls are in their holes.

So, how do I feel?

I’m glad he’s gone. It really is that simple for me. Xenophobia has no place for me in this sport or any. Especially not a sport with a large number of international players and coaches. I haven’t ever been a huge fan of Cherry’s. He’s a thug and loudmouth for many years. At 85, he was behind the times in hockey and clearly now in world outlook. It was a time, he was wrong. He has a history of being wrong and offensive. I’m glad this was handled so quickly.

What is harder for me to grasp and remember is that hockey is still catching up to that notion. Part of me is often naive. I always think about hockey being an inclusive community. I’ve been proud as we’ve grown to outwardly supporting LBTQ+, women, and diversity in the NHL and to the world. We’re a small community compared to other sports. And our unity is our strength.

That doesn’t mean we are without faults. Players have had issues with racial slurs, particularly African American players. Players and coaches have been in scandals for things they have said before. It still happens but I’d like to think this is something the league and community are working on. The response from Sportsnet and upper levels of hockey have been swift and clear.

I’ve been upset by the community response. Every comment defending Cherry hurt. Every tone-deaf individual standing by him and his xenophobia hurts. I wanted to believe more open-minded people loved this sport. Politics, the news, the state of the world: these are things that make me sad. I always wanted to believe the hockey community was different than the global one.

But of course, every growing, changing community has conservative views.

It has people who want things to stay the way they were. For hockey, this means violent, old fashioned, and white. They bring those views into hockey from the outside, from a larger ideology. But nothing that stays the same grows and change means a future.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. I could write a twenty part series about Don Cherry and his legacy, the good and bad. I could spend article after article highlighting his cult of personality in the hockey community. And another series about whether he was any good for hockey at all. I won’t ignore the contribution to hockey he has given over many years. He is part of the fabric of the sport, a colossal figure with decades of influence and shaped hockey commentary.

But “Grapes” was on the wrong side of history in an increasingly global lifestyle for hockey and the world. I’m here for the future.

See ya later, Don.

Sarah Jane, Sarah, or SJ-depending on the source-is a director, educator, theatre artist and now, sports blogger. She lives in Queens with her darling, not-so-sports-fan boyfriend. She played ice hockey growing up for the NJ Quarry Cats and various other teams. Being team captain her last two seasons is the most important achievement of her life to date. She proudly also was about a quarter of the size of her opponents and often led her team in both penalty minutes and enthusiasm. She's a Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers fan (thanks, Momma!) and a New York Yankees fan (thanks, Poppa?) and was given zero choice on all three of these teams. Other hobbies include reading non-fiction books, cooking, and being spunky. Check in with her for all your greater hockey needs!

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