Hockey Broadcaster Don Cherry Keeps His Independence

Don Cherry has enjoyed a rich, varied, and polemical career as a hockey player, sportswriter, celebrated public figure, five-season coach of the Boston Bruins, longtime commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, and co-host of a between-periods segment called Coach’s Corner. No stranger to controversy, he has refered to progressives as “left-wing pinkos,” made disparaging comments about European hockey players, called separatist Quebecers “whiners” and lit into hockey icon Sidney Crosby for “diving.” Cherry was never one to mince words, whether commenting on hockey, politics, or public life.

During an airing on Saturday night November 9, two days before Canada’s Remembrance Day marking “the end of hostilities during the First World War and an opportunity to recall all those who have served in the nation’s defence,” Cherry sealed his broadcasting fate by embarking on what has been called a “rant” supporting the tradition of wearing poppies on Remembrance Day, to memorialize the lives of those who died serving the nation. “You people love—they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. The least you could pay [is] a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada. These guys pay the biggest price.”

Asked to clarify his remarks, he told Global News: “I do believe to this day that everybody in Canada should have a poppy on, out of honour and respect of the fallen soldiers that have fallen in the Second World War, Korea and the whole deal. Those people who gave their lives, at least we can buy a poppy.” And in an interview with the Toronto Sun, Cherry assured his critics that “his words were not racial or bigoted but patriotic and respectful of our troops. ‘I know what I said and I meant it. Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers.’”

In a mordant irony, Cherry was fired on Remembrance Day by Sportsnet programming, owned by Rogers Communications. Sportsnet President Bart Yabsley had this to say: “Sports brings people together—it unites us, not divides us. 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. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.” The boilerplate concluded in standard bureaucratese: “Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”

The Canadian state broadcaster, the CBC, was true to form. “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.” Budweiser, which sponsored Coach’s Corner, added its two cents: “The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views.”

Coach’s Corner co-host Ron MacLean, whose job was twice saved by Cherry’s intervention on his behalf, and who gave a thumbs-up at the end of the offending segment, apologized in an obvious effort to save his bacon. “Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong,” he said. “I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond.”

Unlike MacLean, Cherry was not contrite. “I speak the truth and I walk the walk,” he said. “I have visited the bases of the troops, been to Afghanistan with our brave soldiers at Christmas, been to cemeteries of our fallen around the world and honoured our fallen troops on Coach’s Corner...And it has been an honour to back the fighting men and women in uniform.”

Cherry has always been outspoken and remains impenitent.  “To keep my job,” he said, “I cannot be turned into a tamed robot.” Indeed, he is one of the few television personalities on the scene who has not been studiobroken, who has retained his independence, and who, like him or not, is an authentic human being rather than a pixilated figment.

With only a few exceptions, Cherry has been universally condemned by the media, the sponsors, the official networks, and an innumerable cohort of tweeters. Perhaps he did not choose his words as carefully as he might have — no surprise given his tendency to bluster and pontificate and his less-than-complete command of the English language and elocution. His appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight is ample proof of his tormented tussle with his native tongue.

Despite the fracas, he maintains a broad base of popular support. A Change.org petition called "Bring Back Don Cherry!" has amassed more than 200,000 signatures at the time of this writing. The number continues to grow. The Western Standard affirms that “Don Cherry is a Canadian icon and a symbol of the working class. He may be politically incorrect, and may not have been as careful as he should have in his remarks, but his offence does not warrant firing. Sportsnet and CBC should not cave into [sic] a mob of liberals and twitter activists, and should immediately restore Cherry to his job.” Obviously, this isn’t going to happen.

Many people—the “silent majority”—have understood what Cherry was surely getting at. Many in my native province of Quebec were by no means enamored of Canada’s war contribution, a sentiment dating back to the anti-conscription rallies during World War II, founded on a hatred for the British and a sympathy for Nazi Germany. (Quebec at the time was under the tutelage of the anti-Semitic Ultramontane church.) More to the immediate point, I recall attending a Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, part of a massive crowd bundled against the cold while the veterans marched and the jets flew overhead in precise formation. The event was marred by a group of Muslims heckling the marchers and shouting anti-Canadian slogans. Such dishonorable episodes occurred in other cities as well.

Having dwelt for five years near CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Kingston, Ontario, I met retired soldiers who had served in Afghanistan and who swore they would never again put their lives on the line for a country that did not honor them, a country which had allowed the corps to be feminized, had become politically correct, and whose barracks had been selectively commandeered under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (he of Canada has no core identity fame) in order to house a vast influx of Muslim immigrants. Their patriotism had been affronted, the risks they had assumed discounted, and their bitterness was unforgiving.

One of my new friends told me: “I would never have put on a uniform had I known I would be betrayed by my country.” He added: “We fought these people. Now we’re bringing them over.” Another said that he was glad he had not been wounded in Afghanistan for he would have been resentful for the rest of his life. These men would have been solidly in the coach’s corner. They reminded me of how many American servicemen must have felt under Barack Obama, a president who had no love for the military, who freed five Taliban recidivists for Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, and who was surely privy to the Benghazi scandal in which four brave Americans were allowed to perish.

As to be expected, the press is “cherry” picking soldiers who profess to cringe at Don Cherry’s remarks. The campaign against him is proceeding at warp speed. Although I flinched at his carnival get-up, his often bombastic ramblings and his mutilation of English grammar and syntax, I admired his brashness, his lack of respect for conventional pieties, and his generally good hockey sense. Cherry famously referred to hockey ex-forcers who wanted to take fighting out of the game as “pukes and hypocrites.” The epithet applies equally to his sanctimonious detractors.