Don Cherry has been dismissed from his long-time position on Hockey Night in Canada as a result of contentious remarks he made last Saturday during his Coach’s Corner segment.
The opinionated 85-year-old former National Hockey League coach, who has been part of the Hockey Night broadcast team since the Stanley Cup playoffs of 1980, singled out Toronto-area immigrants for not wearing poppies during a tribute to Canada’s war veterans.
“You people love … our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said. “These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
Around 3 p.m. ET, Rogers Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley issued a statement via Twitter, announcing the broadcaster had cut its ties with Cherry.
“Sports brings people together – it unites us, not divides us,” the statement said. “Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.
“Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game over the past 40 years. We would like to thank [him] for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”
The NHL, which on Sunday labelled his comments as “offensive and contrary to the values we believe in," said Cherry’s ouster from Sportsnet was well deserved.
“While we recognize Don Cherry’s four decades of service broadcasting NHL games, today’s decision was a justifiable response to his comments on Saturday night,” the league said in a statement. “The opinions he expressed are in direct conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that we embrace as pillars of our sport.”
Late Monday, Cherry refused to apologize for what he said, saying he could have kept his job as co-host of Coach’s Corner if he’d agreed to become “a tame robot who nobody would recognize.” He added that he wasn’t directing his comments to minorities, and that what he said applies to English, Scottish or Irish immigrants or any newcomer.
In recent years, Canadian NHL teams have hosted swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens. Games are broadcast all over the world through international partners. In Canada, they are telecast in Punjabi and Spanish.
Cherry’s comments rankled at least one of Hockey Night In Canada’s major sponsors.
Todd Allen, the vice-president of marketing for Labatt Breweries, issued a statement on Monday. Labatt’s Budweiser brand is the name sponsor of Coach’s Corner.
“The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views,” Allen said in a statement. “As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet today.”
An attempt to reach Cherry by phone failed. The native of Kingston played hockey as a defenceman in the minor leagues for nearly two decades, but is better known for serving as the head coach of the Boston Bruins. He took them to the playoffs in each of the five seasons from 1974 to 1979 before serving as head coach for one year with the Colorado Rockies.
His notoriety and popularity took off as a commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Company on Hockey Night in Canada. He was especially famous for wearing flamboyant suits, supporting the military and speaking so bluntly that it would cause him to become ensnared in controversy.
In 1998, during CBC’s coverage of the men’s Olympic gold-medal hockey game in Nagano, Japan, Cherry referred to Quebec nationalists as “a bunch of whiners.” Five years later, as the U.S.-led Iraq War broke out, Cherry lashed out at the Canadian government for not sending troops to the region. In recent years, he argued that female reporters should not be given access to the locker rooms of professional male athletes, criticized NFL players for kneeling before games to protest civil-rights violations and ridiculed those who believe in climate change.
Network bosses stood by him on each of those occasions, but apparently decided they could not this time. The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council was so inundated with complaints from viewers on Monday that it posted a message on its website saying it could not accept any more. Even the Royal Canadian Legion bashed him on Twitter.
Cherry’s forced departure is a headache for Rogers, which assumed control of Hockey Night in Canada from the CBC in 2014. Rogers is paying the NHL $5.2-billion for rights to its games through 2026 in an agreement that also allows Hockey Night in Canada to be shown every Saturday on Sportsnet and CBC.
Ron MacLean, his co-host on Coach’s Corner, offered an apology on Sunday night at the beginning of his Rogers Hometown Hockey broadcast. MacLean acknowledged he should have intervened when Cherry made the remarks.
“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong,” MacLean said. “We know diversity is the strength of the country. We see it in the travels with our show, and with Hockey Night in Canada.
“So, I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond. [It] was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize. I wanted to thank you for calling me and Don on that last night."
Bo Horvat, the Vancouver Canucks captain, said that he agreed with the decision to fire Cherry.
“He’s been in the game for a long time but at the same time, hockey is supposed to bring people together and there’s no place for stuff like that,” Horvat told Postmedia on Monday. “I think it’s the right decision. It’s upsetting hearing things like that being said.”
Before Cherry’s dismissal on Monday, as people across Canada attended ceremonies commemorating Remembrance Day, a debate raged over Cherry’s diatribe.
Many found his rant to be cringeworthy and xenophobic. But some defended Cherry. Still more simply dismissed him as no longer being relevant.
#FireDonCherry, #DonCherryIsRight and #BoycottSportsnet all trended on social media.
Sportsnet has not said if Cherry will be replaced or if its long-standing format will remain unchanged on Saturday nights.
With reports from Simon Houpt and The Canadian Press