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What you need to know about COVID-19: August 12, 2020
Don Cherry knew it would end this way. He didn’t know when. He didn’t know how.
He just knew that, one day, saying the wrong thing — or, in his stubborn mind, what others thought to be the wrong thing — would catch up to him and end his time with Hockey Night in Canada .
He told me that years ago. He said he would never step down, as the Sportsnet news release indicated he did. He would never quit. They would have to push him out. And that’s what happened on Monday afternoon.
He knew how many times he had walked the tightrope while working for CBC. He understood, for the most part, how far he could push the envelope — and, every once in a while, he pushed it too far. Internally, the CBC, where he spent the majority of his broadcast career, would go apoplectic looking uncomfortably away while figuring out how to balance profit, ratings and Cherry’s bombast and butchering of the English language with its own rather stringent broadcast values.
More than once, maybe more than 10 times, he was on the verge of being fired. But the CBC held its breath, ignored its best instincts and hoped whatever controversy of the day would go away. Don Cherry was good business for Hockey Night in Canada and Hockey Night in Canada was big business for the CBC.
Cherry could be old-school. He could be anti-French or anti-Russian or anti-Swede. Or anti-anything for that matter. He would intentionally mispronounce names and then those names became of his act, the way the loud clothing was, the big collars, and the ostentatious suits. As time went on, there were more shout-outs to the police and the men and women who served and sometimes, unfortunately, not enough hockey. Times changed, and in many ways, he didn’t. That was part of his charm, part of his downfall.
When he crossed the line with his offensive comments this past Saturday night, this time it was different. This time, there was no Ralph Mellanby to fight for his survival. The National Hockey League issued a statement distancing itself from Cherry. Hockey Canada issued a statement. Even the Canadian Legion — and that must have hurt — issued a statement. There were never these kind of responses before to his “you people” rant. Rogers Media had no choice, really, but to say goodbye, with the blessing of its chief advertisers.
It was time. It was probably overtime. And I believe had he chosen to apologize the way his co-host Ron MacLean did, had he swallowed his pride for just a moment, he’d probably be back on the air this Saturday.
But Cherry won’t — or can’t — apologize. That’s not who he is or what he’s ever been about.
I first met Don when he was on a book tour in the early 1980s. He had just been fired by the Colorado Rockies after one season in Denver. He was looking for a job in hockey. We met at a bar, not surprisingly, and had a few cold ones, and from there a relationship was built. Coach’s Corner had not yet been invented. But it was easy to see back then why he was such a television prospect.
He was impossible to dislike. He had an enormous personality. He had thoughts on just about every subject, some hockey, some not, and he could tell a story with a vigour few could match. That led to one show, then another show, then more than three decades of Coach’s Corner .
In the early years, we watched because you never knew what he was going to say about anything, and you sure didn’t want to miss it. In the later years, it was more about shock value and on occasion an old man struggling to find words, but the gathering around the television, that never changed. It was still the place to be at the end of the first period.
In the press box in Toronto on Saturday night, there was always a large gathering of media around the television at the end of the first period. What was Cherry going to say this time?
It was the same in the bars across Canada. So often, the hockey games are on several different screens, and usually without sound. But then the period would end and the best bar operators knew the sound would come on at the end of the first period.
Like him, hate him, believe in him, be disgusted by him, the one thing we never did was ignore Don Cherry. We always listened. Mostly, we always tuned in. Right to the last Saturday night. The show that ended his career. And, hopefully, the show he won’t be best remembered for.
I got to know Don reasonably well after his book tour and, over the phone, I got to know his first wife, Rose, a wonderful, gracious woman who passed away in 1997. In some ways, back then, she was the conscience of the family. She kept Don on the up and up as much as that was possible.
After a Saturday night in which Cherry said something particularly galling or controversial or outrageous, I would often call the home on Monday for a debrief. What did he say? What did he mean? Was his job in jeopardy?
Rose would always answer the phone — Don rarely does, even to this day — and after the usual hellos and how are yous, she would ask the same question: “What did he do this time?”
We would talk about it for a few minutes, analyze it, then talk about their lives or my life or whatever happened to be going on in the world that day. And she would promise that Don would call when he came home. Most of the time, he did.
Over the years, Don got bigger, more popular, louder, and that became so much of his act that you had trouble distinguishing the character he played on Coach’s Corner from the man he happened to be. A living, breathing caricature of himself. On television, he was colourful and the proudest of Canadians, wearing outfits that defied description, but privately, he was something of an introvert, advocating rough-house hockey, a creature of habit who would go on the road and stay in his hotel room and hope to never be noticed.
He didn’t go to restaurants. He didn’t wear those costumes when he was sitting in the corner with his son watching GTHL minor-midget games, which is one of his passions. He would bring his second wife Luba’s salmon sandwiches on the road with him in the playoffs: That’s what he ate. He had restaurants in his name, he just didn’t eat in them. The old salmon sandwiches worked for as long as they lasted.
He knew how to behave when the lights came on every Saturday night and he knew how to properly disappear when it wasn’t his time. That’s the Don I’ve known: Big-hearted, big-mouthed, charitable, forever stubborn. He was a miracle of modern media, lasting as long as he did, against all odds, with so many out to get him until he got himself fired.
Fired without an apology. Just the way he figured it would end.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019