The Current

Why now? Here's why Don Cherry's poppy comments may have been 'the final straw'

We spoke to three sports broadcaster and commentators about why Don Cherry's comments about immigrants and poppies on Remembrance Day led to his firing by Sportsnet, taking into account his long history of making divisive remarks.

Poppy rant wasn't Cherry's first divisive remark, but analysts say there are reasons this time was different

Don Cherry has a long history of making remarks that many find hurtful. But some analysts say there are reasons why this particular remark caused him to lose his job. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

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Don Cherry's poppy rant on Saturday was far from the first time he's made controversial comments on his Coach's Corner segment.

So what was it about this particular incident that caused Sportsnet to fire the longtime hockey commentator?

For Bhupinder Hundal, it's reflective of a changing Canada, where people of colour — especially immigrants — have a far bigger voice than they once did.

Hundal is a senior producer at CBC Vancouver and a former broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi.

When his parents first came to Canada, "they were the generation that were just trying to survive, make ends meet and had to turn the other cheek," he told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

"They didn't have the benefit and the privilege that I have right now to be able to have a platform and be able to speak out on these types of issues and call them out for what they are."

Part of that changing Canada, said Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur, includes a widening discourse about what Canadians do and don't find acceptable.

"Don's bigotry used to be a kind of a hockey bigotry," he said. "It was 'chicken Swedes.' It was 'untrustworthy Russians'. It was even [insults about] French Canadians."

For a long time, many hockey fans may have considered those sorts of comments acceptable hockey banter, said Arthur.

But then the world changed, he said — while Cherry didn't.

Ellen Hyslop, co-founder of The Gist, a sports website for women, says Cherry's comments on Saturday were "really the final straw." 

When The Gist posted about Cherry's firing, she said, many of their followers were elated.

"They were far and away saying, 'Good riddance, we're glad that this time is over with Don Cherry because of what he's been saying over the last five to 10 years,'" she said.

One can trace Cherry's history of controversial statements further back, through multiple decades.

He once told Indigenous people to "go out and get your own fair shake in life and work for it."

In 1992, Cherry slammed the goaltending of Manon Rheaume, the first woman to play in an NHL game, as a "a PR stunt" and said women "should stick to women's hockey."

He mocked gay people. As far back as 1990, he railed against "foreigners coming over here earning the dough" on CBC's The Fifth Estate.

Financial incentive

Sportsnet, which is owned by Rogers Communications, may have also had a strong motivation to cut Cherry's salary, which Arthur called "the biggest at the network."

Since Rogers landed the $5.2-billion,12-year rights deal for Hockey Night in Canada in 2014 — which until that point was broadcast by CBC — the show has been losing them money, Arthur explained.

"Sportsnet has been trying to cut salary for a long time," he said.

But he added that for decades before that, the financial incentive for keeping Cherry on TV outweighed any concerns about the size of his salary.

"The CBC for a very long time made a lot of money from Don Cherry, and so did Sportsnet for a time," he said, despite the fact that "no one, for the last almost 20 years ... has been able to control Don Cherry and what he says."

Somewhere along the line, that calculation may have changed for Sportsnet.

"This is just the first time that someone decided he was more trouble than he's worth," said Arthur.

Bringing new audiences 'into the tent'

Beyond cold hard cash, Sportsnet may be thinking more about the need to appeal to fresh audiences, said Arthur.

"Hockey needs new Canadians ... and Don Cherry has been preaching to one part of the church of hockey for a long time," he said.

For Hundal, there's an opportunity now to "acknowledge and talk about race and how it plays in hockey."

He pointed to examples like San Jose Sharks player Evander Kane, who is black, calling out racism he's experienced from hockey fans on social media.

Those conversations won't be easy, said Hundal, but they will be beneficial to the sport.

"It's going to help the game evolve, it's going to help the game move forward, and it's going to bring more people into the tent," he said.

Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Ines Colabrese, Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Cameron Perrier.


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