Last Saturday night, when Don Cherry began driving his Coach’s Corner jalopy off the road with his incendiary remarks about “you people [who] come here,” there were no guardrails to save him anymore.
They had all fallen away, ground down and discarded over the years under what people who were previously involved in the production of Hockey Night in Canada described to The Globe and Mail this week as a culture of extreme and sometimes fearful deference toward Cherry and his friend and co-host Ron MacLean.
Gone was the seven-second delay between Cherry talking and the moment that his comments would go live to air, an electronic escape hatch that had been created in the spring of 2003 after he made controversial comments about the Iraq War. His trusted sidekick MacLean, who had McGyvered him out of numerous scrapes over the previous 33 years, could no longer be counted on, acknowledging on Sunday night that he “didn’t catch” the ugly comments. And it appears that none of the Hockey Night in Canada control room and production crew who had access to MacLean, through an earpiece, raised an alarm and rushed to give him guidance on how to save Cherry.
Some people who spoke with The Globe this week drew parallels with the enabling environment at CBC that was described in an April, 2015 report, by a company hired in the wake of the firing of broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi to audit the workplace of the public broadcaster, as a toxic “host culture.”
The lax culture, which grew over the more than three decades when Coach’s Corner was under the editorial control of CBC and which continued after the rights to the show were taken over by Rogers Media for the 2014-15 hockey season, helped create a set of circumstances that made it almost impossible for anyone to hold the two stars to account, which ultimately proved fatal.
One person who was recently involved with the production, echoing a number of others who spoke with The Globe, said there was a lack of accountability and a large amount of fear among the staff toward the duo known as “Ron and Don.” The Globe granted confidentiality to the sources for this story because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
That sense of fear and entitlement hadn’t always existed. When Cherry began his Coach’s Corner segments during the 1980 playoffs, he offered tightly scripted advice to amateur players on how to improve their game play. For almost 20 years, producers regularly reined him in when he wandered.
During that era, CBC showed little inclination to indulge the whims of its hockey broadcasters: In March, 1987, after the network chose to switch to a news broadcast at the end of a Toronto Maple Leafs game instead of joining a Montreal Canadiens game that was still in progress, Dave Hodge was fired for expressing frustration on air with “who’s responsible for the way we do things here.”
He was replaced the following week by MacLean.
Even through much of its second decade, producers would oversee and approve the content of Coach’s Corner. But that control began to flag, even as Cherry’s propensity for making inappropriate comments attracted more attention. One person familiar with the production environment at CBC suggested a culture of “hero worship” began to form around the two stars, as they began to make unusual demands that would benefit their segment, sometimes at the cost of the larger broadcast.
According to another person familiar with the production during the time it was under the control of CBC, Cherry would watch the first period of games for slick goals or other highlight-reel plays, and, if he spotted a particularly good camera angle, he would instruct his producer to inform the control room to not use the angle in an in-game replay, so that it would be fresh for the viewers of Coach’s Corner.
That same individual also noted that, when Cherry and MacLean would travel during the NHL playoffs, they would often stay at hotels that were different from the Hockey Night production crew, underlining their special status.
A spokesperson for CBC said he could not directly address any of the allegations of the culture of deference. “Any decisions that were made regarding Don Cherry, while CBC held the national broadcast rights for NHL hockey, were made in the moment on a case-by-case basis,” Chuck Thompson said. “But because none of the individuals involved in any of the decisions that were taken are with the CBC anymore, it would be unfair of us to speculate on what they were thinking, or speak on their behalf.”
Asked about a culture of entitlement that enabled Cherry and MacLean and left them without a safety net, Sportsnet spokesperson Andrew Garas said, “We’re focused on looking ahead.”
Last Saturday, Sportsnet producers knew in broad strokes what Cherry was going to say. In fact, an executive who had overseen previous broadcasts, and other production-crew members who spoke to The Globe, noted that Cherry has chastised people for not wearing poppies during the Coach’s Corner segments before Remembrance Day in previous years. The bulk of his comments during last Saturday’s broadcast therefore would not have caused alarm and – given the frenetic environment of a live-TV production – may not have even been noticed by the crew.
Coach’s Corner is – or was – produced live, airing only in the East, during the first part of the Hockey Night double-header broadcasts. If there were three games in progress in the East, as there was last Saturday night – the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Ottawa Senators were all seen in their home markets – the segment would air live during the first intermission of the first game that wrapped up its first period.
Then, as the other games individually entered their first intermissions, the segment would begin airing, on a time delay that could be anywhere from a split-second to many minutes. But it would not be produced all over again for another game in the East, no matter how delayed that game might be in concluding its first period.
Even if Cherry’s comments had been noticed, there may not have been much that could have been done in the moment. The seven-second delay had been removed in 2007, because it had little practical use except in cases where someone might use a readily identifiable racial epithet that needed to be deleted in a split-second.
The Hockey Night production crew is not equipped with crisis-management experts who might have prodded MacLean to jump in on a comment Cherry had made: their expertise is in keeping the broadcast moving and reacting to a limited set of possible scenarios.
Late on Friday, Sportsnet said it was still working on what exactly the first intermission of the first Don Cherry-less Hockey Night in Canada in almost 40 years would look like when it unfolds Saturday night. Ron MacLean will be on air, and a segment will spotlight the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees. One former producer who was involved in discussions about Sportsnet’s post-Cherry plans suggested that the broadcast would probably air a soft feature in the former Coach’s Corner spot for the next number of months, similar to the ones that currently air before the games, and then possibly launch a new marquee segment during the playoffs. Sportsnet may also wait until next fall to launch anything new.
But, while former hockey executive Brian Burke was hired to be a Sportsnet commentator as part of succession planning, Rogers may be so snakebit by the events of the past week that it could go in an entirely different direction.
Besides, that spot may now be a poisoned chalice. As Scott Moore, the former president of Sportsnet, told the New York Times two years ago, when asked about who might succeed Cherry: “You don’t want to be the guy who replaces Walter Cronkite. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces Walter Cronkite.”