In the great white north of Canada, former National Hockey League player, coach, and TV broadcasting legend Don Cherry sat comfortably in the “Coach’s Corner,” a segment that aired every Saturday night during “Hockey Night in Canada,” the country’s most viewed weekly hockey program. Although Cherry’s career was built on decades of unapologetically speaking his mind, off-the-cuff comments on immigration recently led to his character assassination and, ultimately, firing.
“Hockey Night in Canada,” which Cherry co-hosted for 33 years, was a welcome staple in the lives of Canadians nationwide. For decades, one would have been hard-pressed to find a proud Canadian who wasn’t intimately familiar with the program. The show’s iconic intro, full of swelling horns, thumping drums, and a driving bassline, was practically the second national anthem of a country obsessed with hockey — and with Cherry.
It may be difficult for those south of Canada’s border to fully grasp how popular this loud-mouthed, no-nonsense sports broadcaster was and still is. Cherry was once voted seventh-greatest Canadian on CBC’s 2004 television project, “The Greatest Canadian.” That seventh-place ranking beat out Alexander Graham Bell, who is credited with inventing the telephone, and Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, who is revered nationally as a founding father of the Dominion of Canada.
Despite having played only a single NHL game and having only a mildly successful stint as an NHL coach, sportswriters and players alike, including all-time NHL great Bobby Orr, regularly say Cherry should be inducted to the NHL Hall of Fame.
The Rant That Got Don Cherry in Trouble
Last Saturday was a pivotal moment in Cherry’s decades-spanning career. During Saturday’s broadcast of “Hockey Night In Canada,” Cherry went on a tangent about the poppy, a lapel flower worn in the U.K. and Commonwealth nations to commemorate the lives of those lost in military service.
Live on the air, with more than a million people watching, Cherry said the following:
I live in Mississauga. Very few people wear the poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears the poppy. … Now you go to the small cities. You people … that come here, whatever it is — 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. These guys paid the biggest price for that.
By Sunday morning, the outrage media circus had already begun. Affectionately nicknamed “Grapes,” a play on his last name and “sour grapes,” Cherry, at the ripe old age of 85, had sparked a nationwide debate.
Cherry, in essence, was calling out newcomers to Canada for a perceived lack of interest in the country’s military history. Two keywords in Cherry’s rant caught a particular amount of attention: “You people,” the forsaken words former U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot could have written a book about. By adding these two words, Cherry raised the red flags of every single person in the media desperate to find “racism,” and eager to rush to it like a moth to light — despite the fact that most recent Canadian immigrants have been European.
Cherry has never been known for his ability to gracefully articulate himself. Part of his charm has always been his matter-of-fact, rough-around-the-edges delivery. This comment was certainly not his first in lambasting Canada’s foreign visitors, either. (In 2004, Cherry said players who wear protective visors are “Europeans and French guys,” one of hundreds of instances Cherry has ripped on French-Canadian and European hockey players.) But by presenting his thoughts in an “us versus them,” “you people” package, Cherry shot his entire point in the foot.
The Reality of Past Conflicts
As decades pass, moving us further and further away from history’s bloodiest conflicts — World Wars I and II — a part of Canada’s story falls away in the rearview mirror. Coupled with Canada’s rise in immigration from regions that remained largely dormant during World War II, even under the British Commonwealth rule, a generation of Canadians who may not have the same sentimental and familial relationship as previous immigrants may be more of a reality now than in decades past. From pre-World War I to post-World War II, immigrants to Canada hailed primarily from Europe, with migrants from Britain given the highest priority.
The people who vehemently agree with Cherry on this topic are people like my dad. Raised by an English father and an Irish Catholic mother, the realities of war for his family were tangible. Uncles, fathers, and grandfathers fought for Canada and were accessible and able to recount war stories firsthand.
This is absolutely not to say that minority groups weren’t visibly fighting with and for Canada during both World Wars, as federal party leader Jagmeet Singh noted. Cherry is pointing out what he considers a lack of enthusiasm. Mind you, this enthusiasm does exist in large numbers of immigrants. Mexican immigrants from my family celebrate Canada Day with more enthusiasm than many born-Canadians I know, and reluctance to wear a poppy was not something I’d ever seen growing up.
Cherry — or anyone else, for that matter — has done no polling on the topic. There is no true way to know what percentage of Torontonians are wearing poppies, or if that number has declined. What Cherry was clearly expressing was his anecdotal opinion. At no point does Cherry call for any action against Canadians who refuse to wear a poppy. What Cherry was doing was inviting all Canadians, albeit aggressively, to wear a poppy — to honor those who fought for what we have now and what we are able to enjoy as an entire country. For this, Cherry was fired.
Don Cherry Says He Wouldn’t Change a Thing
Following the airing, Rogers Sportsnet, Cherry’s employer, released a statement about the comments. When this didn’t appease the rabid mobs calling for Cherry’s head, they fired him. The nationally beloved, hockey-loving uncle to all Canadians was axed. The statement said:
Sports brings people together — it unites us, not divides us. Following further discussion with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down. During this broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.
As observed by social commentators and comedians alike, we are currently living in the midst of a cancel culture. True to his signature coaching style that brought forth the hard-hitting Big Bad Bruins of the mid-’70s, Cherry didn’t back down at all. In fact, Cherry said he wouldn’t change a thing about his comments:
I speak the truth and I walk the walk. I have visited the bases of the troops, been to Afghanistan with our brave soldiers at Christmas, been to cemeteries of our fallen around the world and honoured our fallen troops on Coach’s Corner … To keep my job, I cannot be turned into a tamed robot.
We still don’t know whether this will be the last we see of Cherry in the media. The 85-year-old was contemplating retirement just last year and has earned himself a comfortable living in his storied broadcasting career. What is certain, though, is that any conversation about the history of hockey, and certainly in Canada, cannot be had without talking about Cherry. Thank you for everything, Don.