Shireen Ahmed is a sports writer and co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast.
Arguably the most joyous day for my parents was not their kids’ university graduations nor the birth of their grandchildren (sorry, kids.) It was the day my mother met her sports hero, Guy Lafleur. She had purchased a brand new red hijab to match her Habs jersey. My father, a white-bearded Muslim man took dozens of photos, and met Elise Beliveau, the wife of Canadian legend Jean Beliveau. Later, I could hear the lump in his throat as he recalled the moment. My parents, immigrants to Canada, were received with happiness and pride that day at the Bell Centre.
In my world, that defined what hockey should be. On Saturday night in a segment for Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry showed precisely what hockey isn’t.
The NHL coach turned Coach’s Corner commentator went on a rant about why, in his opinion, there are fewer poppies worn. He targeted those living in downtown Toronto – who he once dismissed at “left-wing Pinkos”- and newcomers specifically.
“You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Mr. Cherry said. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.” Any sentence that starts with “you people” should immediately raise red flags – but not for co-host Ron MacLean, who nodded along.
My maternal grandfather was in Burma fighting in the trenches with the Royal Indian Army. My paternal grandfather was in the Royal Indian Air Force. They sacrificed a tremendous amount, with the other allied nations. For Mr. Cherry to point at immigrant communities and blame them for a perceived lack of respect is disgusting and unacceptable. This, too, from a man who has never served a day in his life.
And how, precisely, does Mr. Cherry know there are fewer poppies being worn this year? And that immigrants aren’t donning them? Did he go out and survey the tin cans of donations from youth and community members selling poppies? Has he checked the lapels of people’s coats?
Further still, has Don Cherry ever acknowledged the many vets who are suffering from homelessness, substance abuse, mental health issues who get so little support? Has he commented on the Indigenous peoples who fought on the front lines only to come back to Canada and not be allowed to vote? Or the black men who served and were not welcomed in the sport he claims to love?
Does he know who has or has not supported the vets and their families with kindness, monetary gifts, and social supports? Is he familiar of the histories of black and brown bodies who were made to serve in wars created by rich, powerful white men?
If he is going to use a hockey platform, Mr. Cherry better get his facts straight.
Mr. Cherry is using his own politicized agenda to vilify people of colour and claim we are uncaring and disrespectful. His claims are not only untrue but disingenuous and unpatriotic. His sidekick, Ron MacLean, sat there nodding quietly affirming Cherry’s comments. Mr. MacLean allows his co-host to spew bigotry and is therefore complicit. I would be satisfied with Mr. Cherry being fired, but even happier with both being replaced. Perhaps with one of the amazing CWHL players – who are intelligent and talented athletes but without a league. If not them, then the fantastic team of Hockey Night Punjabi who do a fantastic job of sharing important stories and joy through hockey, in a manner that is desperately needed.
Sportsnet issued a shoddy apology Sunday morning, claiming that Mr. Cherry’s views are discriminatory and do “not reflect their values,” yet they continue to pay Mr. Cherry huge sums of money to share such views. If that doesn’t represent who they are as a media outlet, I’m not sure what does. Sunday evening, Ron MacLean also issued an apology and stated “I wished I had handled myself differently.” But he spoke for himself and on behalf of Mr. Cherry- and underlined that they “love hockey,” which made me uncomfortable. He called Mr. Cherry’s comments “divisive.” He spoke about making amends and in order to make amends, the mic needs to be passed. And for once, these men need to sit down, and just listen. A way to move forward is to simply get out of the way of progress.
Mr. MacLean also expressed that "our diversity is one of our country's greatest strengths." I agree with that; that diversity needs to be reflected in hockey media, and on Hockey Night in Canada.
It is time for Sportsnet to cut ties with Mr. Cherry unless they are keen on bankrolling the intolerant, unacceptable systems of discrimination that ruin sport. Fighting for justice and equality is what hockey needs. Don Cherry is the enemy of this fight. He needs to be muted – permanently.
For many Canadians, Remembrance Day is a time of solemn reflection, and on how to make this country better. I will honour my late grandfathers by fighting against bigotry.
We don’t need to be lectured on how to respect veterans and remember sacrifices – and certainly not by Don Cherry. Hockey deserves far more. Hockey is for everyone.
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