When I was a kid, I thought Don Cherry knew everything about hockey. My family didn’t have cable, so my hockey fandom was reliant on three sources: hockey cards, Hockey Night in Canada, and Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em.
Hockey Night in Canada was the only time I was able to watch NHL hockey and Don Cherry was a central figure. The refrains of the Coach’s Corner theme song during the intermissions let me know that the titular coach was about to dispense some wisdom. He would always take the time to talk to “you kids out there” and I felt like he was talking directly to me.
Then there were the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos, my primary source for hockey highlights. Watching those videos, I grew an appreciation for fantastic goals, incredible saves, huge hits, and, of course, hockey fights. All of it was narrated by Cherry, in his own bombastic way: “Watch this here...Wang-o! What a beauty.”
I’m sure I’m not alone among many of my generation: Cherry played a significant role in how we became hockey fans, how we watched the game, the types of players that we loved to watch. With time, however, I, along with many other millennials, started to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the comments Cherry made.
Cherry has complained about hockey growing softer, but it’s happened because of a growing understanding of concussions and other dangers. When a few of Cherry’s beloved enforcers — Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson — spoke out fighters struggling with substance abuse, Cherry turned on them, calling them “pukes,” “turncoats,” and “hypocrites.”
The hits that Cherry celebrated in his Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos no longer looked like harmless entertainment, but an irresponsible promotion of a style of hockey that ends careers and causes real, lasting trauma.
It’s easy to dismiss them as a product of their time, just as it’s easy to forgive Cherry for being a product of his time, but Cherry was still there on Hockey Night in Canada, week after week. Just one week ago, Cherry laughed off an unconscious Scott Sabourin getting stretchered off the ice: “He got knocked out, that’s all.”
But beyond the old-school hockey takes that felt outdated and uncomfortable, there was everything else.
The xenophobia was impossible to miss, even if it was always guised in a defence of Canadian hockey. He constantly criticized European and Russian hockey players, but would go further than that: French Canadians were a regular target as well. Anyone that wasn’t an English-Canadian was insulted and derided, unless they happened to conform to his vision of how hockey should be played — then they were one of the good ones.
Then there was the sexism, the climate change denial, and calling people who eat seal meat barbarians and savages. He railed against “left-wing pinkos” — his definition of a “pinko” being anyone that isn’t right wing. Yet, for some reason, those that want politics out of sports rarely took issue with Cherry.
For the millennial audience that grew up with Don Cherry on TV every Saturday, it’s been tough to reconcile the man that helped us become hockey fans with the man that continued to sit next to Ron MacLean every single year. As we grew older, our understanding of hockey and the world around us changed, but Cherry didn’t change. He stayed the same.
When Cherry ranted about immigrants on Saturday — “you people that come over here” — it was just a continuation of who he’s been for decades. The only difference is that he didn’t couch his xenophobia in hockey terms as he has in the past and the backlash was severe.
Much of that backlash came from the millennials that grew up watching Cherry and the resulting pressure forced an apology from Sportsnet and Ron MacLean, along with lukewarm and vague statements from the NHL and Hockey Canada, as wonderfully parodied from Russian Machine Never Breaks.
Statement from RMNB: pic.twitter.com/NhWm2fQYnf— RMNB (@russianmachine) November 10, 2019
So many people complained to the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council that it overwhelmed their server. The pressure was on: Cherry’s comments were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Cherry should have been let go years earlier, whether for one of his other controversial statements or because the audience of Hockey Night in Canada had passed him by, but this time Sportsnet and CBC couldn’t just wait a week for the story to die down; this one wasn’t going away.
So, Sportsnet fired him. Cherry refused to apologize for his comments or offer any clarification — “I have had my say,” he told Joe Warmington at the Toronto Sun — so his comments were exactly what they sounded like: bigoted and xenophobic.
According to Sportsnet, Cherry’s remarks “do not represent our values or what we stand for” but they were right in line with remarks he’s made throughout his career. I guess, until Saturday, Cherry did represent Sportsnet's values.
Paragraph One: We had to fire this guy for constantly being an unapologetic bigot.— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) November 11, 2019
Paragraph Two: This guy is synonymous with hockey.
That's quite the accidental implication. https://t.co/5tsQpWrXwK
What really happened, it seems, is that Sportsnet recognized that Cherry’s remarks don’t represent the values of a large chunk of their audience. Millennials and the generation younger than them, Gen Z, simply don’t agree with Cherry on a wide number of topics, both in regards to hockey and social issues. If they want to hang onto that audience, there was only one choice they could make.
A lot of millennials have to deal with family members with antiquated views on race, gender, and sexuality. It’s tough to reconcile the genuine love and affection you feel for family with the distaste you might feel towards their views. It’s similar with Don Cherry.
Without Cherry, I might not have become a hockey fan and I still have a lot of genuine affection for his enthusiasm for the game of hockey, as well as a lot of fond memories of watching him on my TV when I was a kid. But it was long past time for him to stop being on TV.
Our family members with offensive views don’t get a national spotlight every Saturday while we watch our national (winter) sport. Neither should Don Cherry.