Like many pro hockey players, Tyson Barrie grew up watching Don Cherry ruminate, sometimes on matters he should have left alone, on Hockey Night in Canada. As he sat at his dressing stall on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs defenceman mulled the long-time broadcaster’s dismissal by Rogers Sportsnet.
“It is unfortunate to see him go out like this,” Barrie said. “Don is a legend, and has been such a big part of hockey.
“In the age we are in, when you say something [publicly], it is out there for the world to see, and that generates a lot of opinions.”
On Saturday night, the combative co-host of Coach’s Corner singled out Toronto-area immigrants for not wearing poppies during a tribute to war veterans.
“You people that come here, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that," the 85-year-old Cherry said while jabbing one finger at the camera. “These guys pay for the way of life you enjoy. [They] paid the biggest price.”
The furor triggered by his comments led Cherry to be fired on Remembrance Day. There is a terrible irony in that, because he has always fiercely supported the military. His eyes often teared up when he talked about his love for soldiers on the air.
Cherry has since described his words as not being racial or bigoted but patriotic and respectful. His employer, Sportsnet, the NHL and the CBC, for whom he worked across four decades, disagreed.
When asked to apologize by Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley, as his partner on the program Ron MacLean had on Sunday, the pugnacious former National Hockey League coach refused. That caused him to be dropped from a broadcast he first joined for the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs.
On the day after, reverberations were felt around the league.
In Montreal, Max Domi expressed admiration for Cherry, who has always operated with controversy in his wake. Over the years, among other things, he sideswiped francophones and blasted European players, called Liberals pinkos and made fun of climate-change believers.
“I love Don Cherry," said Domi, who has known him all of his life. His dad, Tie, was a bare-knuckles brawler, the hardscrabble type of tough guy Cherry held in the highest esteem. “What he’s done for this sport is remarkable. I will always look up to him.”
As of Tuesday, nearly 200,000 people had signed a handful of different petitions being circulated that demand Cherry be reinstated. Fans called him a symbol of the working class, and railed at Sportsnet for caving to the politically incorrect. Others lauded the network for making a decision they say was long overdue. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council was so overloaded with complaints about his diatribe that it exceeded the organization’s capacity to keep track of them.
In a series of television interviews on Tuesday night, Cherry said he would not apologize for what he said, but would choose different words.
On a busy practice day for the Maple Leafs, Cherry’s departure garnered as much attention as Mitch Marner’s injured ankle, Zach Hyman’s imminent return and the arrival of rookie goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo.
Hyman, who underwent knee surgery during the off-season, will rejoin the team when it plays the Islanders in New York on Wednesday night. Kaskisuo was called up from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies after Michael Hutchinson, the backup to Frederik Andersen, was waived on Monday.
Hyman, 27, recalled how excited he was the first time Cherry ever mentioned his name on television.
“It was awesome," Hyman said at the team’s practice rink in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. "He has been around hockey forever, but you can’t say stuff today like he did. You’ve got to be accepting of everyone.
"'Hockey Is For Everyone’ is one of our slogans in the NHL, and it’s really true. For him to say that sort of stuff is unacceptable.”
John Tavares, the Maple Leafs captain, grew up in Toronto and recalls seeing Cherry stand behind the glass when he played in minor hockey tournaments.
“I think it is disappointing on many fronts, the comments, but certainly the way his tenure ended,” Tavares said. “There was so many good things that he did through his commitment to the game. I think everybody would wish something like this never happened.”
Jason Spezza, who at 36 is the oldest member of the team, finds it sad.
“I’m not one to weigh into it too much, but what makes Canada great is the equality we have and how diverse our culture is,” Spezza said. “You don’t like anything that is discriminatory and offends anyone, but Don is an icon. You don’t like to see things end that way.”
Head coach Mike Babcock said he understands why people were offended.
“I know when you are in a situation like I am you have to be mindful of how great the game is and what it is all about,” he said. “I am sure it must be tough on him and his family, but having said that, certain things are right.”
Back at his dressing stall, Barrie said he believes Cherry’s comments may have been misunderstood.
“He is 85 years old,” Barrie said. "I don’t think he meant it the way it has been taken. At the end of the day, though, we all are responsible for our actions.”