Every Saturday night for the last 37 hockey seasons, Canadians have been subjected to a segment called Coach’s Corner featuring belligerent former NHL coach Don Cherry, who’s been accompanied by the more pacific Ron MacLean since 1986.
Ron and Don have been mainstays of the flagship Hockey Night in Canada program for a very long time. There has been little effort to change their good cop-bad cop style of commentary, except for a short stint by the incomparable George Stroumboulopoulos which, at the time, gave me hope. That hope proved short-lived. For those who aren’t familiar with Cherry, known affectionately as Grapes, or Canadian hockey culture, permit me to provide a primer. Cherry was appreciated for being brash and propagating a retrograde ‘rock’ em sock’ em’ type of hockey that glamorized fighting, peppered with unapologetic vitriol directed at “Francophones, newcomers, women, racialized minorities, and Indigenous peoples” and anyone with an appreciation for humanity and justice whom he labeled “left-wing pinkos”. Cherry was employed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for decades, and then Rogers Media bought the rights to the show and took over ownership in 2013. They continued to keep Cherry on the air despite his antiquated rhetoric, until Sportsnet announced he was fired on Monday afternoon.
At the end of what turned out to be his final Coach’s Corner commentary, Cherry infused his musings on Remembrance Day, and the tradition of wearing poppies in tribute of military veterans, with a pointed rant toward an unmistakable target. In his usual inarticulate and heaving manner, the 85-year-old pundit began with “You people who come here”, a clear direction of his anger towards immigrant communities. He labored forward as MacLean nodded in silence: “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. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.”
Cherry’s assertion that those from immigrant experiences are negligent of wearing poppies, or respecting veterans, is unequivocally untrue and unacceptable. Both my grandfathers were enlisted in the Royal Indian Forces, and served the Commonwealth in the second world war.
In addition his comments, beyond baseline inaccuracy, were ripe with xenophobia. Canadians from far and wide shot back and included messages and photos of their family members with the #youpeople hashtag.
Perhaps you’re wondering why this gong show routine was allowed to continue for so long. Rogers Media and Sportsnet did not suddenly decide to act with integrity. Cherry’s brand made them a lot of money. Cherry, himself, is a very wealthy man who has profited off of his racist remarks and openly supported right-wing political candidates in recent elections.
His brand is arguably synonymous with hockey culture in Canada. And Sportsnet didn’t suddenly decide to challenge him with integrity. Don Cherry became a liability for Rogers Media and, ultimately, more hassle than he was worth. But let’s move beyond the why? and focus on the what now?
The important question to ask is now that he is gone, what direction will Sportsnet take? Will they consider rebranding the nation’s highest-rated TV series into something that truly reflects the current Canadian hockey scene: women, LGBTIQ , Indigenous peoples, youth of color and very active Punjabi (yes, Punjabi) hockey community?
Will Rogers Media take a chance on these powerful voices or continue down the same path of uncreative provocateurs or those dreaded nice guys you wanna have a beer with? Hockey media is predominantly white, straight, able-bodied men. This is the time to change this, to add some new perspective and diversity into the mix, the diversity that shapes our values. The values that Sportsnet spoke of when they apologized for broadcasting his bile.
Even in the announcement of his firing, Cherry was “thanked”. Imagine torpedoing your career with a xenophobic rant and being lauded for your work.
The concern with the firing of this so-called Canadian media icon is that his cause is now being taken up by right-wing media, and those who oppose his dismissal, who cloak their own regressive views in arguments for freedom of expression. Make no mistake: Cherry has the right to express himself. He also has the right to be held accountable for his words and for offending thousands with his bigotry. His martyrdom is not something I am interested in partaking in. He went down in flames because what he spewed was tantamount to a burning pile of trash.
Additionally, Don Cherry’s dismissal was the top news story in Canada on Sunday and Monday, overshadowing actual Remembrance Day stories including important histories of Indigenous, black, and immigrant soldiers who gave their lives: the ones he cruelly dismissed.
Sportsnet and Ron MacLean did issue separate apologies. For his part, Cherry refused to back down, defiantly claiming: “I don’t regret a thing”.
And that ungraceful exit, my friends, is what makes the loss of Grapes far less sour to bear.