Love him or hate him, Don Cherry is a Canadian icon. Even people who disagree with his views on hockey have faithfully tuned in to Hockey Night in Canada to watch his regular Coach’s Corner segment (and see what outlandish suit he is wearing) for the past 31 years.
Cherry was even voted the seventh Greatest Canadian of all time — ahead of even our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald [#8] — by participants in the 2004 CBC program of the same name.
It seems unlikely that any other sportscaster in any other country could become such a public institution. His status is as much a testament to the special place hockey occupies in Canadian culture as it is a reflection of Cherry’s personal popularity.
As a connected, knowledgeable analyst, Cherry has probably been surpassed by TSN’s Hockey Insider, Bob McKenzie.
Still, in many ways, Cherry is the personification of our love for the game.
In his 18 years as a professional hockey player, Cherry played a grand total of one game in the NHL.
He laced up for more than 1,200 in the minors. He endured all those bad motels, all those dark, dank arenas and all those red-eye bus rides to the next game just so he could play a single game for the Boston Bruins.
What Canadian boy hasn’t dreamt of playing even just one game in the bigs?
He coached the way he played, too. Taking over the Bruins at the end of the Orr-Esposito era, “Grapes” remade the team with “grinders and muckers” and shaped them into the “Lunch-Pail Gang” — solid checkers and journeymen who had to work hard for every win.
That’s why Cherry often rubs society types — such as CBC executives and federal politicians — the wrong way: He’s too blue collar for their sensibilities.
And that’s why he has often gotten himself into hot water over comments about European players, who he imagines are floaters and soft.
Cherry’s also a patriot who is not afraid to support our troops and to stand up to the forces of political correctness, which hasn’t endeared him in all the right circles, either.
Now, as the Toronto Sun’s erudite hockey columnist Steve Simmons has reported, the NHL itself may be trying to force the CBC to dump Cherry.
Hockey Night in Canada’s contract to broadcast league games runs out in two years. By then, Cherry will be 80, if you can believe it. And according to Simmons, there are already hints from the league office that if the CBC wants to renew its deal, it will have to push Cherry out. His, apparently, is not the face NHL execs want representing their game.
Cherry has resisted several past attempts to dump him, but these negotiations may represent the perfect storm.
There has always been a hoity-toity faction at the CBC who were embarrassed to be associated with Cherry. Then there are the fancy-pants at NHL HQ. Even Toronto Maple Leafs management are said to favour an end to the Cherry era because they have been the frequent target of his broadsides.
But whose game is it really?
It belongs to fans. And it is time the NHL stopped treating Canadian fans in particular as second-class.
It’s past time the league stopped taking Canadians for granted like the dull, but reliable boy who moons over the pretty girl and can always be counted on to be there when her flirtations with more dashing suitors fall through.
If Canadian fans want to watch Don Cherry talk about our national passion, what right has the NHL to stop us?