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Don Cherry (Michael Peake, Toronto Sun)
Don Cherry while he was head coach of the Colorado Rockies in 1979.
During the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, a colleague led an expedition of scribes to the White Horse Tavern in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Now, there’s nothing unusual about a group of sportswriters heading to a bar. At least there didn’t used to be. But the White Horse was a singular destination, a drinking hole whose regulars had included Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas, the Welsh writer and heavyweight drinker who, according to mythology, downed 18 shots of whisky at the tavern, collapsed and died days later.
Soon thereafter, I was relating the story of the writers’ pilgrimage to Harry Neale, Hockey Night In Canada’s colour man. Standing nearby was Don Cherry, whose ears perked up at the mention of Thomas.
“Such a sad story,” Cherry said, shaking his head. “He was such a great writer and he drank it all away.”
This, we emphasize, was Dylan Thomas he was talking about, not Steve or Wayne or any of the other Thomases associated with hockey, and I almost expected Cherry to start reciting A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
That wasn’t the only time Cherry surprised. Over the years, there were other encounters where he would reveal layers at odds with his public persona. I’m not going to tell you he was complicated and people misunderstood him. But there was a depth there he seldom showed to his audience, which makes the events of the last couple of days, to say nothing of the platform on which he built his celebrity, so infuriating.
Cherry was fired Monday, on Remembrance Day of all things, by a broadcaster that suddenly determined he was a liability to its image. That’s pretty funny because, for over 30 years, Cherry has presented opinions that had no place on the public airwaves; opinions that would have been offensive on a public-affairs program but were offered, remarkably, in a segment that was supposed to be about hockey.
Cherry, in fact, crossed the line so many times that he succeeded in moving it. I thought he had toned things down over the last six years when he moved over to Sportsnet and, by Cherry’s standards at least, his latest screed about poppies and immigrants was standard fare.
But this apparently was the tipping point for the 85-year-old former NHL coach, which raises one question for the people who have carried HNIC over the years.
What did you expect?
Cherry, by all rights, should have been fired decades ago; but he created something so large, so powerful that he changed the rules. Think about that for a moment. Think about the CBC, that citadel of inclusion and sensitivity, allowing that foghorn on its airwaves.
As for the reason he was tolerated all those years, it’s not hard to identify.
The man delivered unprecedented numbers and made the network a boatload of money. Even though his views were anathema to everything the CBC represents, they went along for the ride; and if there was turbulence along the way, that was just the price of doing business.
Cherry, after all, was a ratings machine. In 2004, the CBC held a popularity poll to name the greatest Canadian in history. Cherry finished seventh, one spot before Sir John A. Macdonald, the Father of Confederation, and two before Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
At the height of his popularity, everyone wanted a piece of Cherry. The Province employed him as a columnist, a process that consisted of Cherry faxing over some 30 pages of his deeper thoughts that had to be condensed into a readable form. This was Paul Chapman’s job at the newspaper. He reports Cherry’s stuff was pretty good.
That was also just a minuscule part of his empire. His Rock’Em, Sock’em videos were bestsellers. He had a chain of restaurants. He had his own TV show beyond Coach’s Corner.
He was, in short, big business.
As for the why, I wish I could tell you. He built his brand on an outrageous caricature, but he sold it and Canadians bought it. Again, it was inconsistent with the values I identify with this country, but there was also something about the Cherry package — the bombast, the bluntness, the wardrobe and, yes, the humour — that was appealing.
Or maybe he made it safe to be a bigot. I don’t know. I just know it was the same drumbeat for over 30 years and, for the most part, people ate it up.
Have things changed that much? That’s part of it. But political correctness isn’t a construct of 2019. It was talked about back then. Cherry’s commentary could be just as offensive. But it made money, lots and lots of money.
The irony in all this is, while Cherry was ranting about immigrants and francophones and their threat to national unity, it didn’t dawn on him that Canada was strong enough to absorb different cultures and languages without falling apart. I mean, if our country was really in peril, we would have noticed something over the last 30 years.
But we’re still here; still strong, still vibrant, still diverse. It seems we can be more than one thing at any one time, which also describes Cherry.
I would have liked to remove the parts I didn’t like and left behind the reader, the thinker, the student of history. But he wouldn’t have been Cherry.
That’s also funny because Cherry wanted to remove the parts of our country he didn’t like. He just didn’t understand what was left wouldn’t be Canada.
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