I was on Coach’s Corner once.
Well, at least my then-new hockey book was – and Don Cherry, at his snarliest, was warning his faithful to stay clear of such treacle.
It was quite a turnaround, as not all that long before I had tagged him “The Prime Minister of Saturday Night” in a 1992 front-page feature in the Ottawa Citizen. He had embraced the interview, as it gave him a forum to spout pure-Don political views – from scrapping the metric system to knocking turbans off Mounties and bringing back the lash for domestic abusers – “And I’d volunteer to do the lashing!”
Even back then, he was often criticized for going farther than too far. “Alpo?” he once quipped on the segment when Winnipeg assistant coach Alpo Suhonen’s name came up. “Isn’t that a dog food?”
But mostly he kept to hockey, as surely was the original intent of Coach’s Corner when it first aired in 1982. That would change over time as non-hockey matters such as the Gulf War, Canada staying clear of the invasion of Iraq, francophone Olympic flag bearers, etc. would see the hockey-opinion equation flip.
Mordecai Richler might have argued that the segment be renamed Yahoo’s Corner, but back then Cherry’s popularity was never higher: a between-periods segment on Hockey Night in Canada that was said to attract more viewers than the game itself, a chain of restaurants bearing his name, a syndicated radio show, commercials with his wife, Rose, and even his bull terrier, Blue II.
When someone like that chooses to slam your book in public, it does not help sales. Cherry, however, had done what hockey players he so admires do; he had taken my number and waited for his chance. I had earlier questioned in print the optics of the CBC handing him a weekly pulpit with which to celebrate hockey fights – while he was profiting from his Don Cherry’s Rock‘em Sock‘em Hockey videos.
From then on, each brief encounter in a hockey arena produced nothing but a quick snarl or curse. “My father had taught me,” he had told me in that earlier interview, “to never, ever take a slight.” And he never would.
In the more than quarter-century since, the character gradually evolved into caricature. He became far more interested in his opinions than the games on which he was supposed to opine.
He lost touch even with how the game is played, still telling “you kids out there” to get out of the way of the shots, so the goalie can see, long after the game had become block everything you can and trust that any puck that gets through the blockade will slam into a goaltender big enough to cover the net like a tarp.
He ridiculed Europeans and francophones who wore visors. He celebrated fisticuffs long after they began to disappear from the game and scientists began connecting headshots to brain disease. He dismissed former enforcers speaking out against fighting as “pukes,” which led to a rare apology from him.
The Canadian Encyclopedia tweeted Tuesday that Hockey Night in Canada is the world’s longest-running TV sports program and that “no segment has been as popular as #CoachsCorner.” That may be rather out of date. The segment is now on Sportsnet – Rogers having taken over NHL coverage from the CBC five years ago – and while there was a time when bars would go quiet and the volume turned up when Cherry went on, the family-room trend in recent years has been to mute the volume or change the channel. He remained popular with some segments, obviously, but never as popular as was once the case.
Whereas players once feared his criticism, today they often ridicule it. When he called last season’s Carolina Hurricanes a “bunch of jerks” for their choreographed postvictory celebrations, the team embraced the slag and turned it into a popular T-shirt.
A halfhearted survey of two beer-league groups this week produced few older players who still paid attention. Nor was there any sympathy for the 85-year-old Cherry, who was fired Monday for a last straw no one could fit into the overstuffed barn that holds all the previous last straws.
Maybe he should go into politics, one young player suggested: “He could replace Max Bernier and change the name to the You People’s Party of Canada.”
The reference, of course, was to the dog-whistle phrase “You people,” with which Cherry began his final, doomed rant. The shot was clearly at “different” Canadians – immigrants – who were not wearing as many poppies as Cherry thought they should. The recoil on social media was instant. The network stumbled, sponsors railed – and the deed was finally done on Monday, Remembrance Day.
As Cathal Kelly wrote in this newspaper, “Times change and Mr. Cherry wouldn’t. That derailed him.” The mouth that amused had long since become too often the mouth that abused.
There are Don Cherry influences that will remain in the game. His weekly salute to “sharp-dressed” players has had a ripple effect that often sees peewee teams walking into rinks wearing white shirts and ties. Make of that what you will. His support for women’s hockey was welcomed by a sport in need of friends and believers. Other influences – the belief in some unwritten “code” that requires fighting, the praise for injured players who “suck it up” and try to remain on the ice when they should be undergoing a medical examination – have been harmful to the game, but at least they are gradually receding.
The game Cherry was hired to analyze and comment on in 1982 is a game he has not recognized for years. He is hardly the only senior citizen in that condition – is that absurd drop-pass power-play rush actually supposed to catch the other side off-guard? – but he was the only one with a weekly forum and national audience.
There has been much talk of a replacement for him, but only a fool would take such a job if offered. Surely it won’t be, as Coach’s Corner should have shut down years ago, when Sportsnet took over from the CBC. If it had, Cherry would have bowed out to great applause.
It ended just as he himself had so often predicted. He would one day go too far. He went too far on enough days to make years, but finally, finally, he went too, too, too far – and the only bowing to be had was to public outrage.
He has always loved history. His heroes are Horatio Nelson and Sir Francis Drake. He has read every book written on the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place more than two centuries ago.
We will not have to wait that long to see how history will remember Don Cherry, but it will still be a considerable time. And, if the measures of this week hold up, it is not likely to be kind.