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Don Cherry on the set of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada (CBC)
Don Cherry on the set of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada (CBC)

David Ebner

NHL’s TV deal puts Don Cherry’s future with HNIC in doubt Add to ...

The kaleidoscope suits are one-of-a-kind. The thuggish rock ’em, sock ’em philosophy is from the previous century.

He was never really much of a hockey player – just one NHL game – and couldn’t quite seize the Stanley Cup as a head coach, but when he landed on the CBC’s top-rated program, Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry’s personality, his bombast, made him the singular television icon of this country’s national winter sport.

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The long era of Coach’s Corner, which has run more than three decades since Cherry arrived at the CBC, appears to be approaching its coda, an end hastened by Rogers Communications Inc.’s blockbuster $5.2-billion deal this week for a dozen years of NHL broadcast and multimedia rights.

Cherry, who turns 80 in February, plans to use his Saturday night pulpit to reveal his feelings on the tumult of change – but the public utterances of the new bosses do not bode well.

And experts say while Cherry may be an unmistakable, divisive iconoclast, no individual is bigger than, or essential to, the franchise of Hockey Night in Canada.

Rogers will carefully map out its strategy for “the most valuable content of any kind” in Canada, said David Kincaid, chief executive officer of Level5 Strategy Group, in an interview on Friday.

“The Hockey Night in Canada brand is bigger than Don Cherry,” Kincaid said. “And it’s just not good brand strategy to build your brand around a person.

Kincaid envisioned Cherry continuing on in a role, but less prominent, and not for a long time. This jibes with the words from the executives who will take charge of hockey broadcasting in Canada. They have been polite and praising but also notable in their distinct lack of explicit support for Cherry. Hockey Night will remain on CBC for four more years, but Rogers will produce it.

Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, said last Tuesday talks had not started about the new look for Hockey Night. The vagueness was enough to spur NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to issue what amounted to a denial of something that wasn’t actually said: that this is the end for Cherry. “I didn’t want anybody to take Keith’s very well-said comment to somehow represent the sword of Damocles, because I don’t think it was that.”

Scott Moore, in charge of broadcast at Rogers Media, was relatively more frank, with the usual praise and then the reality.

Moore said on Citytv this week that when he ran CBC Sports several years back, he once offered Cherry a lifetime contract. Moore acknowledged Cherry as a big ratings draw and likened walking down the street with him to strolling with the Pope through a Roman Catholic church.

“I’m a big fan of Don Cherry,” Moore said in an e-mail to The Canadian Press. “I look forward to sitting down with him to discuss if he wants to be part of the new arrangement.”

Cherry has always been more than a hockey commentator. He is the personification of a rawer time, when bells got rung and men skated on, their injured brains suffering long-term costs. He continually praises physically scrappy play – the type of game he played during his 17 seasons in the minors – over skill and speed, and his views veer into the political, where his stance is decidedly right wing. Three years ago, Cherry was at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s side during Ford’s inaugural city council meeting. Cherry bestowed the chain of office on Ford’s neck. Wearing a pink-and-white silk suit, he declared Ford would be the “greatest mayor this city has ever seen.”

“I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything,” he began, concluding with: “You can put that in your pipe, you left-wing kooks.”

Cherry has been mostly mum this week amid the whither-Cherry questions, adding oomph to his Saturday night segment after the first period of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Montreal Canadiens tilt.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Cherry said to reporters last Tuesday, after the deal was announced. “So I’m asking you guys: Do I have a job?”

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