There is more to Don Cherry's public criticism of his new bosses than a simple complaint about the time allotted to Coach's Corner.
Last Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry growled at sidekick Ron MacLean's prompting that time was too short for one of the subjects Cherry wanted to discuss. "Why are we tight? Why are we tight?" Cherry snapped. It was, to some, the first open sign that Cherry may be unhappy under Sportsnet, the new proprietor of HNIC, which has reduced the airtime and influence over the show that he enjoyed when it was produced by the CBC.
Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet at Rogers Media, called the dispute "a tempest in a teapot" on Monday, and said Cherry told him he was just frustrated because "had a lot to get in" his segment of the HNIC broadcasts.
But people close to the show see this as a test of wills between Cherry, who is used to getting his way, and his new bosses at Rogers.
At CBC, both Cherry and MacLean wielded more clout behind the scenes as HNIC's biggest stars, and were rarely challenged by the show's producers. The difference between them was that MacLean was more involved in the operation of the overall show while Cherry was chiefly concerned with Coach's Corner.
However, once Rogers took over HNIC last summer as the NHL's Canadian new national rightsholder, its executives were determined to establish that the producers, not the on-air stars, would be in charge.
At the CBC, Coach's Corner often ran over its scheduled six minutes, forcing producers to cut other segments on the fly to fit it into the first intermission of Saturday night broadcasts.
At the same time, Rogers has reduced the on-air presence of both Cherry and MacLean. Last season, Cherry was seen at least three times on HNIC – twice on Coach's Corner for the eastern and western games of the doubleheader, and usually between the two games. Under Sportsnet, Cherry is restricted to a five-minute segment on Coach's Corner, and his displeasure at the cut in both time and, more importantly, clout came through loud and clear.
MacLean saw a more radical change. He was replaced as the main host on Saturday nights by George Stroumboulopoulos and is now seen only on Coach's Corner and as host of Hometown Hockey on Sunday night Sportsnet broadcasts. This has led to a corresponding loss of influence on the show's production, although MacLean always protested this notion was overblown.
Cherry's outburst on Saturday night was not surprising to his colleagues. He often railed against CBC management on the air about matters such as the time allotted to his show or what he was or was not allowed to say. CBC executives often gave in to the star power of Cherry and MacLean.
There were a few attempts by the CBC to discipline Cherry over the years for some of his more intemperate remarks, but the penalties never amounted to much.
But, so far, Cherry's first public pushback has not produced much reaction from his new employers. This is an important staredown for Sportsnet, as the network wants to change the culture of HNIC, even though the show still has most of the same staff as the CBC version. Those staffers are watching carefully to see how the new managers handle a star throwing his weight around.
Will Cherry win the support of Canadians? Maybe not: A recent Angus Reid Institute survey found that 38 per cent of respondents were okay with the limited amount they see of Cherry on Sportsnet, while 26 per cent said that he had too much airtime.
Contacted by telephone, Cherry said "we got it straightened out," but did not want to say any more. "I'd just as soon leave it if you don't mind," he said, and repeated something he said on Toronto radio station Sportsnet 590 The Fan: "Sometimes I have a little too much coffee, I guess."
Gord Cutler, Sportsnet's senior vice-president of hockey production, said "we're happy to have Coach's Corner as part of our show. It's a great asset, but it's one of the assets we have every Saturday night." He referred further questions to Moore.
Moore played down the dispute, saying he got used to fielding calls about Cherry while in a former job – as head of CBC Sports.
"This is the first mildly controversial thing he has said [under Rogers]," Moore said, adding that people want to make it a bigger issue out of it than it is. Moore said that calls about Cherry on Monday for something the ex-coach said Saturday is "good news because it means people are watching the show."
By the numbers
Ron MacLean's reduced role on Hockey Night in Canada this season is not going over very well with Canadian television viewers, although they surprisingly do not seem to mind seeing less of Don Cherry.
An Angus Reid Institute online survey asked 1,504 Canadian adults about their perceptions of HNIC now that the show is being produced by Sportsnet. It found that 74 per cent of them believe MacLean's reduced role has hurt the show's brand. After Sportsnet's parent, Rogers Communications Inc., took over from the CBC as the NHL's Canadian national rightsholder, MacLean was replaced as the HNIC host by George Stroumboulopoulos. MacLean is now only seen on Coach's Corner on Saturday nights with Cherry and as host of Hometown Hockey on Sunday night broadcasts.
Cherry is also getting less airtime now, and he's not happy about it. He complained on the show last Saturday about Coach's Corner being cut to five minutes. However, when asked by Angus Reid how they felt about how much they have been seeing Cherry on the new version of the show, 38 per cent of the respondents said it was "the right amount," while another 26 per cent said it was too much. Thirty-six per cent said Cherry gets "too little" time.
Stroumboulopoulos has some catching up to do. When asked if they think he is a credible replacement for MacLean, 60 per cent of the respondents said no. The sentiment was almost evenly split among male and female viewers, with 63 per cent of the men feeling that way along with 59 per cent of the women.
However, it appears the viewers are aware the show is in its early stages, as 65 per cent of them feel the chemistry between Stroumboulopoulos, MacLean and Cherry is "coming along."
When it comes to a preference for the CBC or the Rogers version of HNIC, 45 per cent of respondents preferred the CBC show, while only 14 per cent said they liked the Sportsnet show better. However, 41 per cent said they did not have a preference.
Following are some of the questions from the Angus Reid poll:
Tell us how you feel about how much you're seeing George Stroumboulopoulos during the broadcast:
Too much – 41 per cent
Too little – 8 per cent
The right amount – 50 per cent
Tell us how you feel about how much you're seeing Ron MacLean during the broadcast:
Too much – 7 per cent
Too little – 48 per cent
The right amount – 45 per cent
Ron MacLean's reduced role on the broadcast has hurt the Hockey Night brand:
Strongly agree/agree – 74 per cent
Strongly disagree/disagree – 26 per cent
Tell us how you feel about how much you're seeing Don Cherry during the broadcast:
Too much – 26 per cent
Too little – 36 per cent
The right amount – 38 per cent
George Stroumboulopoulos is a credible replacement for MacLean as the main host:
Strongly agree – 7 per cent
Agree- 32 per cent
Disagree – 43 per cent
Strongly disagree – 17 per cent
Which statement best describes how you feel about this season of Hockey Night?
I like it more than the old CBC broadcast – 14 per cent
I like it less than the old CBC broadcast – 45 per cent
I don't have a preference either way – 41 per cent
Have you noticed a difference between the look and feel of the Rogers broadcast and the old CBC broadcast?
Big difference – 37 per cent
It's different but nothing major – 49 per cent
No difference – 14 per cent
A full look at the Angus Reid poll can be found here.