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The Globe and Mail

CBC rides shotgun on Don Cherry's stagecoach

CBC has a message for those offended by Don Cherry referring to former players (who drew a connection between getting punched in the head and the depression and/or addiction that resulted) as "pukes," "hypocrites" and "turncoats." You don't understand the Great Man's subtle sense of humour.

"He has strong opinions and expresses them colourfully and sometimes even outrageously," explained CBC spokesman Jeff Keay, his ribs no doubt aching from the hilarity of Thursday night's Hockey Night in Canada. "But his arguments and the many others heard on CBC's HNIC address issues that are being debated at all levels of professional hockey."

For those of you who might have disagreed with Cherry's lament for the good ol' days when Scott Stevens could rearrange Eric Lindros's cerebellum with a crisp shoulder check, Keay explains, "we would note that Don's concern for player safety is long-standing and well-documented, extending well beyond professional hockey. Don has, for example, invested considerable time and personal resources into programs in minor hockey aimed at reducing injuries, like the STOP [Safety Toward Other Players]initiative."

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Furthermore, if you believe Cherry's jeremiad on Coach's Corner against new NHL player safety boss Brendan Shanahan was a tad one-sided, Keay assures us that CBC is the essence of balanced journalism. " Hockey Night in Canada and CBC News have provided audiences with extensive information on the latest information about head injuries among athletes. We will continue to do so to contribute to greater understanding of this important discussion about one of the country's most beloved pastimes."

In fact, all summer the network signalled its intent to embrace the concussion issue and the damage done by head shots as a major story. The NHL did the same. It only remained to see whether Cherry bought into the arguments as another season of Hockey Night In Canada debuted.

Thursday night we got our answer. Not only was Cherry prepared to double down on his support of head shots and fighting, but he was prepared to launch nasty ad hominem assaults on people such as Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, Jim Thomson and others who had, in his opinion, "betrayed the faith" of fighting.

It was as though we were back in the 1980 Coach's Corner, the days when getting "your bell rung" was sublime low humour for the hockey crowd. Cherry roared while Ron MacLean sat mute beside him, like a schoolboy afraid to interrupt the headmaster's remarks. The end result, as always, was the burnishing of Cherry's reputation as a straight shooter at the expense of a few vulnerable souls.

Then came Friday and CBC's risible claims that Cherry's just a beloved entertainer, the town fool and everyone is supposed to forgive and forget. No wonder an unrepentant Cherry was yukking it up Friday with fellow Cro-Magnons Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean on Sportsnet 590 The Fan about how it was only the journalists who wanted to take concussions and head shots seriously. With the CBC's PR machine cranking out the flaccid hits for you, you'd be bright and bon vivant, too.

Cherry's permanent get-out-of-jail-free card with CBC executives exposes an intractable dilemma within the Corp. News people have long been embarrassed by Cherry's antics. The one-sided screeds and shameless self promotion fly in the face of everything they stand for. After Peter Mansbridge's fine documentary about concussions this week, Cherry's blast (and don't think HNIC producers didn't know what was coming as they prepared video for him) was seen as treason by the newsroom types.

But HNIC makes significant money that the news people need to survive, and so it has been allowed to operate quasi-independently from the rest of CBC. With an anticipated funding cut of between five and 10 per cent from the federal government, the dollars generated by Cherry are precious. In CBC's current iteration as a purveyor of light comedy and even lighter reality programming there is no appetite at the top for taking on the Coach's Corner star.

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No doubt the CBC suits feel they cleverly deflected another Cherry bomb. Still, the league now agrees with the lightweights of the fourth estate. It has decided to crack down on the brain-concussing head hits Cherry so fondly remembers from the golden age of the sport. Cherry's laments are yesterday's news. The NHL's ship has sailed. So will the CBC placate its voluble star and risk alienating its partnership with the league even as we head to a new TV contract for the NHL in Canada?

Don't hope for anything dramatic on Saturday night, however. A chance for rebuttal from Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, Jim Thomson? Please, what do you think this is, balanced journalism? When the theme music plays for Coach's Corner, expect to see a gloating Cherry having survived once again thanks to the quaking managerial class at CBC.

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