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The Globe and Mail

Angry NHL clubs ganging up on Don Cherry and HNIC

Last Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada, Don Cherry claimed that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke had gone behind his back to his CBC bosses to have the Coach's Corner star fired.

In fact, Toronto was only one of several Canadian franchises to criticize the overall performance of HNIC – including Cherry and sidekick Ron MacLean – during an NHL board of governors meeting in Ottawa at the all-star game, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Following CBC's annual presentation to the NHL board in Ottawa, Burke delivered a blistering critique of the program's treatment of him and then-coach Ron Wilson. Other Canadian teams, including the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators, blasted the network for the Toronto-centric nature of the program and complained about deteriorating journalistic standards.

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However, participants of the meeting reported that no one asked for Cherry to be fired, and that Cherry is only one bone of contention with CBC. "I didn't comment at all on [Ron]MacLean or Cherry," Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk told The Globe. "My issue dealt with the number of games shown on HNIC that are not Sens games and my concern about how skewed they are to another team that you can easily deduce. ... I wasn't given any concrete response."

"It got a little warm in there," says Edmonton Oilers president Patrick LaForge. "If NHL realignment was a 3 on the Richter emotional scale, this was a 5. Having said that, it's not abnormal for our meetings to get that way. I just didn't think it was the right format for that discussion."

Sources say the CBC's vice-president of English services, Kirstine Stewart, and Jeffrey Orridge, executive director of sports properties, were blindsided by the vitriol they encountered after making a pitch to keep the public broadcaster as the NHL's partner in Canada. The CBC's contract with the league expires after the 2013-14 season.

The confrontation ended when the Canadian teams decided the issue should be discussed away from the larger group of governors. The CBC executives pledged to get back to the clubs on the substance of the issues raised at the meeting.

Burke and Orridge evidently met in the days following the showdown. That meeting may have led to Cherry's complaint last Saturday that Burke didn't come directly to him with his complaints, preferring to talk to the people who employ Cherry at CBC.

Orridge cancelled an interview with The Globe on Friday afternoon. Neither Stewart nor Orridge responded on Friday to requests for comment on this story.

"Kirstine and Jeffrey were invited by [commissioner]Gary Bettman to give an update to the NHL's board of governors on activity CBC has been partnering with the league on, including ... Hockey Day in Canada," spokesman Chuck Thompson said. "With respect to Coach's Corner, only one team had anything to say about Don Cherry."

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Since The Globe first revealed that the league's discontent with HNIC may affect CBC's ability to preserve its NHL rights, new details have come to light about the breadth of opposition from the Canadian clubs. LaForge said that the teams want a "higher level of partnership" with CBC.

"The Canadian teams have a good history on the network," LaForge said in a phone interview. "It has benefited both of us. This is the No. 1 TV show in Canada every year. And often the No. 3-4-5-6 most popular show in Canada. Both sides want to make it better partnership. We need to discuss how to go forward."

According to sources, Toronto led the question session with CBC by raising the topic of the treatment Burke and Wilson had received from Coach's Corner. According to a source at the meeting, Burke said he was tired of being attacked and questioned every week.

Three of the seven teams in Canada said that HNIC was mainly concerned with Toronto and very little about other Canadian clubs. Calgary had no representatives at the meeting, though president Ken King said Friday that the Flames care "no more or less" about the issues than the other teams.

The pushback from the Canadian teams comes at the same time as the league itself has reportedly become annoyed by the editorial direction of the show, which is dominated by MacLean and Cherry. While league executives would not discuss the matter publicly, it is known that the NHL wants the program to focus more on players and teams. Some say Coach's Corner has become more about Ron and Don than hockey, and when they are discussing the game, too often it regards archaic issues of honour and politics rather than the play on the ice.

It hasn't been an easy season for the 78-year-old Cherry. Contrary to his long-standing claim of bringing viewers to HNIC, ratings obtained by The Globe in midseason showed that audiences were dropping in the range of 600,000 to 1 million viewers during the first intermission, when Coach's Corner comes on. While CBC has continued to produce films about the former NHL coach, it has also had to field criticism of Cherry calling former players speaking out on drugs and depression as "pukes."

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