By Neal Lyons
As a Canadian kid, growing up in the 80’s & 90’s, Don Cherry was hockey’s most legendary figure, that wasn’t on the ice. His “Rock’em Sock’em” videos were our bibles. Secret Santa exchanges were basically every kid on the team just giving each other a copy. At the Christmas tournaments, we would gather as a team to watch his newest release before going to sleep and dreaming of playing hockey the “right way”, according to Don.
It was all immature fun but, as I got older, I began to notice that the people he was railing against (mainly Europeans/Quebecers/skilled players) were some of my good friends, and teammates, many of whom were also the most talented players I knew. I saw how those comments hurt and confused. I can only imagine what it was like to be one of those guys. Canadian at heart but being talked about like the enemy.
Unfortunately, I say a lot of this in hindsight. Sure, I noticed, but, for the most part, I just ignored it. I couldn’t go against Don. Hockey players don’t get hurt feelings. “C’mon, suck it up buttercup”, right??
With maturity, my devotion to Don slowly faded. He became nothing more than white noise in the background of the first intermission. A cartoon character; The Ghost of Hockey & Canada Past. I cherished my youthful memories but no longer shared his views. Indifference set in.
Right or wrong, for most of his carrer, anytime Don caused an uproar (which was often), I reacted like you react to that outspoken relative during Thanksgiving dinner. Mainly with eye rolls.
“You people … that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life, that you enjoy in Canada.”
His use of “you” & “our” still makes me cringe, days later.
I mean, credit where due, Don has admirably fought for the memory of our veterans, forever. Arguably, no one has done it better. This Saturday would have been no different than any previous ‘Coach’s Corner’, airing the weekend before November 11th. He’d always made his plea. Only this time he decided to mix in some xenophobia with it. It was a hurtful commentary that has no place on any broadcast, let alone a national one.
The response was quick. Social media was flooded before the second period even started, and Don has been trending ever since. His sidekick, Ron MacLean, opened Sunday night’s, ‘Hometown Hockey’, broadcast with a remorseful and heartfelt apology, on behalf of himself and Don. Sportsnet also distanced itself from his words. Yet Don remained silent. His decision to dig in and not apologize was, no doubt, the reason he was eventually fired, on Monday.
Since his firing many have come to his defence. At the end of the day, Don is just an 85 year old man, born of a different era in Canada. He doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. But his departure is long overdue. He hasn’t been relevant in years, resisting change while spewing divisive commentary from his weekly soapbox. The only reason he still had a job was because Sportsnet was afraid to disturb his base. Anytime it was even hinted at, uproar ensued. They are equally to blame for showcasing his tired opinions. It was only a matter of time before it really blew up in their face. That time was Saturday.
So, where does Hockey Night In Canada go from here? I can guarantee that this Saturday’s ‘Coach’s Corner’, or whatever they do, will be must-see TV, up here. I have no clue as to what the direction will be. What I do know is that it’ll never be the same. But, sometimes, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.