One year ago today, Rogers Sportsnet fired Don Cherry over a rant that singled out immigrants for not honouring Canada’s fallen soldiers by buying poppies. Forget that Cherry had not one shred of tangible evidence to back up his claim, his rant about “you people that come here…you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey…these guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada,” was divisive and, at best xenophobic, at worst racist.
Hockey Night in Canada, meanwhile, has survived. Ratings dropped slightly for a short time, not enough to alarm executives at Rogers, but it’s undeniable that the buzz associated with Cherry was absent for a time. But Hockey Night got creative and filled the void with two people who have improved the product. Former NHLer Kevin Bieksa represented the equivalent of the Cam Neely-for-Barry Pederson steal for the network and much of the buzz that previously surrounded Cherry was recreated by Bieksa. (Bieksa’s playful back-and-forth with analyst Elliotte Friedman is worth watching alone. His insights into the finer points of the game are pure gold.) Former NHL executive Brian Burke, meanwhile, was freed up to opine and provide perspective on issues facing the hockey world without worrying about stepping on Cherry’s turf, relaying his real-world experience in the NHL as a backdrop. The people giving us our information between periods are more diverse and knowledgeable than ever. And it’s always been about the hockey anyway. We’re seeing that now.
More importantly, though, when the executives at Rogers Sportsnet fired Cherry, they could never have predicted how events in the world – both the hockey world and the real world – would unfold over the next 12 months. And in that respect, they actually caught an enormous break when Cherry gave them no other choice but to have him step down from Coach’s Corner. Having Cherry’s voice in the middle of the tsunami that was late 2019 and all of 2020 would have been, well, awkward. So in that sense and so many others, it was time.
The hockey world that Cherry left a year ago is radically different than the one that exists now. Roughly three weeks after Cherry stepped down, Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters was forced to resign after former player Akim Aliu detailed Peters’ laundry list of verbal and racial abuse that was directed at him when both were in the minors. That began a seismic conversation about race and inclusion in the game. The global pandemic shut the game down for months and the day it started again, Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild gave a stirring and powerful speech about racism in the game before taking a knee for the national anthems. Then in August, after watching their league’s ham-handed attempts to address the shooting of Jacob Blake, and others, at the hands of police, players took matters into their own hands and paused for two days during the playoffs to protest racial injustice and violence. The Hockey Diversity Alliance was formed and players such as Ryan Reaves, Nazem Kadri and Dumba, many of them sons of “you people” to whom Cherry referred, felt comfortable speaking out and not sticking to sports. These guys are working hard to make hockey a safer, more inclusive place, and Cherry’s position in the game would have been another obstacle.
Even if Cherry would have chosen not to take a stand on any of these issues, there’s no doubt he would have been out of place in hockey’s march toward inclusivity, which has already been far too slow. Having him as an opinion leader in the hockey world would have continued to legitimise and normalise bigotry. In fact, he was already doing that when he was there. Oftentimes when the NHL tried to highlight its attempts at inclusion and insist that Hockey Is for Everyone, Cherry’s name came up as Exhibit A in the argument that the league was simply pandering to public opinion with meaningless words that were not backed up by meaningful actions. Shortly before Cherry was fired, Sportsnet put out a statement saying his comments, “do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network.” The NHL, which is the network’s broadcast partner, said the remarks “were offensive and contrary to the values we believe in.”
From there, it was only a matter of days before pressure from both the major sponsor of Coach’s Corner and the public forced the network and the league to act. And given what was about to unfold over the following months, it turned out to be the absolute right move. Are the television airwaves and the game better off now without Cherry? Yes. Yes, they are.