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Six years ago this month, when Rogers Communications dropped a five-billion-dollar bomb on the Canadian television landscape when it scooped up the national NHL broadcast rights, one of the most talked about questions was what it meant for Don Cherry .
That this was one of the most talked about questions was indicative of just how incredibly outsized Cherry’s role as Canada’s Great Hockey Crank had become. The NHL rights deal had blown up the plans of TSN, the CBC, and was a massively risky bet for Rogers, but the big uncertainty was: what would it mean for Coach’s Corner? What if, gasp, the old guy dressed like grandma’s curtains wasn’t around to grouse about the old days and lament the influx of Swedes? Could Canada survive such a cultural loss?
Cherry eventually answered those questions himself. “I know I’m number one and Coach’s Corner is number one,” Cherry, then a spry 79 years old, said the week of the big Rogers deal. He followed this with a question of sorts for the suits at Rogers: “And what are you going to do?”
It was Cherry saying that he was untouchable. And he had reason to believe it, given the many instances of controversy he had survived. If there was a line he could not cross, he had somehow managed not to cross it.
He crossed it a couple of nights ago. In the time since Cherry complained on Hockey Night in Canada about people who don’t wear poppies, his comments have been put in the context of someone who often says risky things: about fighting, about foreign hockey players, about commies and pinkos and Rob Ford and Donald Trump. And yet, for all of the many times his remarks have landed with a thud and led to renewed calls for him to be removed from his pulpit, nothing he has said had the bitter, nasty edge of his Saturday-night comments. Even for Cherry, complaining about “you people” who “come from wherever” was a new nadir. Suddenly, all the checks and balances of a television broadcast had fallen away, and it was just a grumpy old man spouting off about something he didn’t like. The surprise, really, is that it has taken this long.
Sportsnet announced on Monday that Cherry was done. After discussions with Cherry, said a statement from president Bart Yabsley, “It has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down.” Budweiser Canada, which sponsors the intermission segment, said late Monday that it had expressed concerns about the comments, and that it respected Sportsnet’s decision.
The move is at once not surprising and surprising all the same. Given that Sportsnet had already said the comments were discriminatory and offensive, and given that Ron MacLean, Cherry’s good-natured foil, apologized rather abjectly on air on Sunday night, saying his partner’s comments were hurtful and discriminatory, and “flat-out wrong,”
Cherry’s comments couldn’t easily be left out there to hang. How do you say someone has been discriminatory on your airwaves and then just hope it all goes away?
(Cherry told The Toronto Sun on Sunday that he had said his piece on the matter already, and that was that. He reiterated that stance a day later.)
It’s a question that people in the Sportsnet and Rogers executives offices must have decided they could not properly answer. It sure took them some time to reach that breaking point. About six years, that is.
The move is at once not surprising and surprising all the same
None of the people running Sportsnet, or Rogers, were around at the time of the big NHL deal, but that was the first and most obvious point at which Coach’s Corner could have been shelved.
But the company, which was already under attack for messing with Hockey Night — the new host had earrings! — didn’t want to wear the execution of Coach’s Corner, and so Cherry and MacLean have stuck around, even through multiple contract extensions. Despite significant cost-cutting measures at Sportsnet in the summer, with the departures of mainstays like Bob McCown, Nick Kypreos, John Shannon, and Doug MacLean from its broadcasts, Cherry has endured. The 85-year-old analyst boasted that he knew he was safe, because his segment has a big sponsor. And so, another chance to cut ties came and went, another season with Cherry on his national soap box began.
Eventually, he stepped in it, as it always seemed Cherry would.
It is, admittedly, old and tired to compare Cherry to a grandpa, but I always come back to that. My late grandfather joined the Canadian army as a teenager, and was wounded in Italy. He didn’t like talking about the war and he found Remembrance Day too painful. I think of him when I wear a poppy. He was also funny and warm, and occasionally profane and caustic, and it would have been a huge mistake to put him on television every Saturday night.
That’s about where we are with Don Cherry. Or, rather, where we were.
Back in 2013, when the questions about the NHL on Rogers were coming fast, Hubert Lacroix, then the president of the CBC, Cherry’s long-time enabler, said all of these things would be determined by the new guys.
“That’s a Rogers responsibility,” Lacroix said. “And you know what? That’s fair — they just paid $5.2 billion for it.”
They sure did. They got the benefits, and the headaches. They probably even talked to some CBC people who warned them of the hazards of airing the unfiltered thoughts of Cherry every Saturday night.
They decided to risk it anyway. Even if all involved probably knew how it would someday end.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019