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This Nov. 9, 2010 file photo shows NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan speaking to reporters during the annual fall meeting of the hockey league's general managers, in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
This Nov. 9, 2010 file photo shows NHL vice president Brendan Shanahan speaking to reporters during the annual fall meeting of the hockey league's general managers, in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

USUAL SUSPECTS

Cherry's stance making NHL executives squirm Add to ...

As former NHL enforcers Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson fight back against Don Cherry, a less public but perhaps more important exchange was happening between the NHL and CBC over other comments Cherry made in his segment last Thursday.

Specifically, Cherry challenged Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s new vice-president of player safety, for altering the nature of the sport by severely penalizing head hits.

To illustrate his distaste for Shanahan’s new mandate, Cherry showed a series of debilitating checks to the head area delivered by former player Scott Stevens. A couple of those hits ended or curtailed the careers of players such as Eric Lindros. The show of “old-time hockey” was nothing new for viewers who’ve watched Cherry for years. Increasing its impact, however, Hockey Night in Canada was shown across the U.S. on the NHL Network.

What’s changed is that Cherry is now working without the safety net of the NHL. In the past, his views on fighting and head checking found a sympathetic ear within the league’s hockey operations. Like-minded guys who’d grown up in the era that Cherry lionizes, these NHL execs enjoyed when Cherry played the macho card.

But with the installation of Shanahan as the man responsible for suspensions and fines, the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman (never one of those hockey sweats tickled by Cherry’s antics in the first place) have signalled they’re slowly moving on from the style of hockey Cherry has championed from his pulpit at HNIC. While fighting is likely to remain part of its brand for the foreseeable future, deliberate head shots are a part of the past. If Cherry and CBC want to continue their pugnacious pantomime, they will now be without the same sort of support as in the past.

That was evident in the wake of Cherry’s blast last Thursday. The day after, CBC offered a boilerplate PR defence of Cherry as “colourful” and “outrageous” while defending him as an “expert” on hockey -- standard operating procedure with multiple Cherry flare-ups in the past.

What happened next is unclear, except that CBC says Kirstine Stewart, CBC’s vice president of English operations, called Bettman to talk. Perhaps she was doing damage control in advance of an anticipated Bettman call. Perhaps she was responding to a message to call. After all, CBC tells Usual Suspects, the two “talk often”.

Whatever the nature of the call, Stewart then issued a press release on Saturday to distance CBC from its star - and this time attached her name to it - saying that he was entitled to his opinion but it didn’t synch with CBC’s policy toward safety in hockey etc. She said she’d reaffirmed CBC’s bonafides on the subject with Bettman. It was a subtle rebuke fro Cherry and one rarely heard from CBC execs in the past when Cherry went over the top. It must have been galling for Cherry to see CBC executives, who must have seen the tapes prepared for last Thursday and have known what was coming, leave him holding the bag for the segment.

In a vacuum it might all have blown away quickly with the sides linking arms and singing whatever theme music HNIC uses these days. That was then, this is now. Bettman has been less than happy with certain aspects of the recent HNIC -- he did not do his annual one-on-one interview with HNIC host Ron Maclean this past playoffs, for instance. Cherry’s recalcitrant broadsides at Shanahan over the product are not making Bettman feel any more cordial to CBC.

With a new NHL TV contract in Canada due in 2014, the cash-strapped CBC is going to need all the friends it can muster at the NHL to retain its iconic Hockey Night In Canada franchise. Having Cherry sing out of an old hymn book on fighting and violence is decidedly not the way to inspire the affections of the commissioner. So it will be interesting to see how Cherry operates in the future now that his impunity has been called into question by the executives at CBC.

Revolt Overstated: Speaking of Shanahan, there have been multiple stories intimating that the former NHL star is wearing out his welcome with NHL GMs over his decisive and lengthy suspensions so far in the young season. The tone of these stories is, “Who does he think he is?” and that he's losing the league's general managers.

But Usual Suspects has learned that, if criticism of Shanahan is happening, it’s isolated and muted. If anything, most of the GMs have been heartily supportive of Shanahan’s suspensions of James Wisniewski and Jody Shelley. Shanahan’s record is not a regular topic as GMs talk amongst themselves, either. Perhaps that might change when they all get in the same room in December, but for now, the purported insurrection is several leagues shy of Occupy Wall Street.

Now, we wouldn’t have some reporters simply repeating rumours without themselves doing the legwork, would we? Never.

Tiger Time: One of the best comedians tweeting sports is the terrific @Kathleen Madigan, a St. Louis product who keeps an eye of her Cardinals, Rams and Blues. This week she was watching Tiger Woods make a very rare appearance on the fall PGA Tour in preparation for The President’s Cup.

“kathleenmadigan Rolex should've hired Elin instead of Tiger for their ads. She's a tad more likeable. And at this point, probably putts better.

kathleenmadigan Elin laying in a pile of cash, holding a 9 iron, wearing a rolex. "Time makes everything better"--Rolex. There Rolex. Thts for free.”

Too perfect.

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