On November 11, 2019, Don Cherry was fired for making inappropriate comments on Coaches’ Corner.
During the show, Cherry singled out immigrants in Canada for, in his view, failing to properly honour fallen soldiers by wearing poppies. His comments were divisive and offensive to some. They also contradicted a core Canadian value: respect for diversity and the inclusion of all people. Given the chance to later reflect, Cherry stood by them.
Whatever you think of his firing, it is undoubtedly a sad moment for hockey and a sad moment for Canadians. The end of his Hockey Night in Canada career marks an important moment for reflection on both the man and the role of hockey in shaping and showcasing the values of our country.
Reflecting on Sportsnet’s Dismissal of Don Cherry
Don Cherry: A Cultural Icon
“Now all you kids out there!” barked the voice through the television. As a Canadian kid, when I heard that voice I would sit up on the edge of my couch. My eyes were wide at attention, hanging on every word. The man on the TV was a loud, passionate authority on the game that I’d come to love. I was not alone. To many Canadians, Don Cherry was more than just a sports broadcaster. He was a cultural icon.
As a young adult, I was fortunate to get the chance to meet Don Cherry at the premiere for his movie, Keep Your Head Up, Kid. He was kind and generous with his time. He patiently took a photo and had a word with every member of the public who wanted one, even as his handlers were trying to whisk him away. Cherry clearly saw himself and tried to behave as a man of the people.
Every Saturday night for 33 years, through his Hockey Night in Canada segment Coach’s Corner, Don Cherry taught millions of Canadians about all things hockey. He preached the importance of backchecking, of defencemen getting their sticks out of the way when blocking shots, of putting the puck off the glass to get it out of the zone.
Cherry wasn’t just about tactics. He also taught young hockey players how to protect themselves on the ice, as well as respect the game and their peers. Player behaviour was always important to him. He hated when players showboated after scoring goals, focused on the individual over the team, or tried to hurt each other with “dirty” plays. He glorified toughness, but always highlighted players who treated their teammates and opponents with respect.
Impact on Canadian Values
For many, he came to represent certain Canadian values such as toughness, honour, and integrity. In Canada, a country that, at times, has had too modest an opinion of itself, his stubborn TV personality and proud promotion of Canadian hockey represented a show of strength that was badly needed. He was also one of the main people who helped promote the development of young players and shine the spotlight on the small towns whose passion has fed the game. He visited rinks everywhere, bringing Coaches’ Corner and its viewers with him all over the country.
Despite his passion and kindness, over the years his bravado could sometimes lead him to cross lines. He was prone to expressing stereotypes about hockey players from other countries. He often had difficulty pronouncing the names of these players, and he did not seem to care much whether he got it right.
Cherry saw Canadians as a team and a tribe, of which he was a proud member. He regarded hockey as a competition between nations. He was, in his own way, a Canadian flag bearer. Many Canadians, including myself, loved that he was willing to take on the world with candour and pride.
Canadian Identity and the Role of Hockey in Promoting Inclusion
Canada has changed considerably since Don Cherry began his hockey career in the 1950s. Over that time, multiculturalism, and the open acceptance of all people who wish to call themselves Canadians has become entrenched as a key feature of Canadian identity. Some would argue that Cherry’s relatively narrow view of Canada’s tribe no longer fits with its identity.
We also live in a time where some other countries, even those who used to be accepting of immigrants, are becoming increasingly tribal and hostile towards them. In this era, Canada’s focus on promoting the inclusion of all people takes on heightened importance as an example to the world. Hockey, as a key aspect of Canadian culture, has a significant role to play in reflecting and promoting Canadian values like diversity and inclusion.
It is this context that makes Don Cherry’s recent comments so upsetting for so many, and his firing such an important topic for Canadians to reflect on and discuss. This past Saturday night, Don Cherry crossed a line. His status as a Canadian cultural icon meant his comments had to be quickly condemned. People argue that they revealed a level of bigotry and ignorance towards immigrants that is inconsistent with Canada’s inclusive identity. Had they gone unchallenged, coming as they did from such an important figure, their divisive nature could have potentially undermined Canada’s goal of creating an inclusive society for all people, as well as the role of hockey in fostering that inclusion. Whether firing him was the right way to challenge his statements is something Canadians will continue to debate.
Over the course of Don Cherry’s life, Canada has changed and evolved. Don Cherry lost his public platform in part because he failed to change with it. That stubbornness was part of his charm to some. It is sadly ironic that he was fired on Remembrance Day, a day that has meant so much to him, and to the veterans and military service members whose cause he has often promoted. As a Canadian icon, he had a history of doing good for hockey as well as his country. Don Cherry deserved a better exit from the public view. At this important moment, Canadian hockey arguably deserves a more inclusive minded icon.