Sportsnet fires Don Cherry in aftermath of poppy controversy
Don Cherry poses for a photo in Toronto on Monday, March 10, 2014. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young)
TORONTO - Brash, outspoken, opinionated - longtime hockey broadcaster Don Cherry was never afraid to ruffle feathers during his “Coach's Corner” segment on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
His latest outburst cost him his job.
In a two-paragraph statement Monday afternoon, Sportsnet confirmed that it was cutting ties with Cherry.
“Sports brings people together - it unites us, not divides us. 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,” said Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley. “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 Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”
Cherry's ouster came after a segment that sparked a swift backlash from inside and outside the hockey world. The network apologized Sunday for Cherry's comments about his belief that new immigrants don't wear poppies, and in turn, don't support veterans.
On Monday - Remembrance Day - the network took it one step further.
Cherry, 85, had singled out new immigrants in Toronto and Mississauga, Ont., where he lives, for not honouring Canada's veterans and dead soldiers.
“You people ... you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said Saturday night. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
“Coach's Corner” and HNIC are broadcast on CBC in a sub-licensing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.
“Don Cherry's remarks on Saturday night were divisive, discriminatory and offensive and we respect Sportsnet's decision that this is the right time for Don to step down,” CBC said via Twitter from its Hockey Night in Canada account.
Cherry did not respond to multiple phone calls from The Canadian Press seeking comment. He has yet to publicly apologize.
Budweiser, the sponsor of “Coach's Corner,” released a statement later Monday afternoon condemning Cherry's comments.
“The comments made Saturday on Coach's Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser's views,” said the statement from Todd Allen, vice-president of marketing for Labatt Breweries of Canada, which has Budweiser as one of its brands.
“As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet today.”
Scotiabank, a longtime NHL partner, also issued a statement.
“Hockey brings Canadians together, fosters inclusion and builds community. We are proud to support one million kids and counting through our commitment to community hockey across Canada.”
Outrage over Cherry's words mounted until his dismissal was announced. Shakir Mousa, who came to Canada from Iraq roughly 30 years ago, said earlier Monday he was hurt and disgusted by Cherry's words and worried they could ignite hatred and discrimination.
Though he wears a poppy to mark Remembrance Day, Mousa said there are many ways to honour those who serve their country - like his son, who served in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq and just returned to Ottawa from his most recent deployment.
“I come from a dictatorship country,” the Montreal resident said. “There is a real appreciation for Canada and what Canada represents ... I appreciate what democracy is and what liberty is and the freedom that we enjoy.”
“I don't need somebody like Don Cherry to tell me about it because he doesn't represent the good side of Canada with comments like these,” he added.
Others noted many newcomers have relatives who fought and lost their lives in various conflicts, including the world wars, something Cherry overlooked in his comments.
“Canada is my country as much as it is yours, both of us are settlers on this land,” Pardeep Singh Nagra, executive director of the Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada in Mississauga, said in an open letter to Cherry posted over the weekend.
“When you are talking about 'our way of life,' people who look like me have 'built' your way of life. It isn't something exclusive, the sacrifices were made for us. Shame on you. You don't deserve to wear the poppy.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council said it was so overloaded with complaints about the segment that it exceeded the organization's technical processing capacity. The CBSC said it was dealing with the broadcast under its normal process, but was not able to accept further complaints.
“Coach's Corner” co-host Ron MacLean apologized Sunday evening.
“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong ... I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond,” MacLean said. “Last night 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.”
Criticism of Cherry's comments came quickly as video clips of the segment circulated online. A consistently polarizing figure over his long broadcasting career, Cherry also had his share of supporters weigh in on social media after his rant.
A hard-nosed career minor-leaguer who won coach of the year honours with the NHL's Boston Bruins in 1976, Cherry moved in front of the camera in 1980.
Known for his outlandish suits and thumbs-up gesture, Cherry was liable to say anything during the popular first-intermission segment. Over the years, he occasionally weighed in with thoughts on off-ice topics that sometimes landed him in hot water.
“Hockey Night in Canada” was a longtime CBC Saturday night staple, but the show and its games moved to Sportsnet when Rogers landed a $5.2-billion, 12-year national broadcast rights deal with the NHL that began in 2014.
There was no immediate word on who might replace Cherry on “Coach's Corner” or if it would continue in its current form. A spokesman said Sportsnet was “still considering options for our first intermission segment.”
A native of Kingston, Ont., Cherry played one game with his beloved Boston Bruins in the 1954-55 post-season. His minor-league playing career continued through the 1971-72 campaign.
He spent parts of three seasons behind the bench in the AHL before beginning a five-year run as a head coach in Boston.
After the Bruins fired Cherry, he spent the 1979-80 season as coach of the woeful Colorado Rockies. He joined HNIC in 1980 as a playoff analyst and was so popular that he was kept on as a colour commentator.
CBC later created “Coach's Corner” as a vehicle to showcase Cherry with MacLean eventually replacing Dave Hodge as his sidekick.
The list of controversial Cherry moments is a long one.
In 1989, when asked about then-Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, Cherry quipped that his name sounded like “dog food.”
Seven years later, Cherry lambasted Ottawa fans after they cheered for Russia against the U.S. in a World Cup of Hockey semifinal.
“Don't do it again, it was a disgrace. If Saddam Hussein put up 1,000 missiles at our country, who would you go to for help? The Russians or the U.S.? Don't do it again.”
During the 1998 Winter Games, after a Bloc Quebecois MP complained that there were too many Canadians flags at various Olympic sites, Cherry responded: “It's a funny thing they don't want the Canadian flag but they want our money. I've never seen such a bunch of whiners in my life.”
In 1999, Cherry attacked Peter Forsberg, showing a clip of the Swede hitting Chris Chelios from behind: “He's a back-stabbing weasel. And there should be something done about it. This guy, because his name is Forsberg, he doesn't get suspended.”
Cherry was voted the seventh-greatest Canadian on CBC's television project, The Greatest Canadian, in 2004. He finished ahead of Wayne Gretzky, inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Canada's first prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald.
That same year, Cherry was publicly reprimanded by the CBC and subjected to a seven-second tape delay when he said only “Europeans and French guys” wore visors.
- With files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 11, 2019.