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EDITORIAL: Cherry bombs — one rant too far

 Don Cherry and Ron MacLean of Hockey Night in Canada walk to centre ice as the Buffalo Sabres take on the Ottawa Senators at J.L. Grightmire Arena on Sept. 28, 2010 in Dundas, Ont.
Don Cherry and Ron MacLean of Hockey Night in Canada walk to centre ice as the Buffalo Sabres take on the Ottawa Senators in 2010. "Why should an entire country be transfixed by the fate of a hockey commentator? Perhaps because Cherry increasingly has been viewed as both icon and anachronism." - Dave Sandford

It was just “one little slip,” claimed Don Cherry. But it was a slip for which he would not apologize.

Cherry, 85, was given the opportunity. He chose to stand his ground. For that, he had to go.

He denied he criticized immigrants for not wearing poppies. But it’s implausible Cherry’s Saturday night televised rant could have been taken any other way.

“You people love — that come here, whatever it is — you love our way of life. You love our milk and honey. At least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that.”

For decades on Coach’s Corner, Cherry would veer off from analyzing the hockey being played to insult those he didn’t like or, apparently, understand. Europeans, especially Swedes and Russians. “French guys.” “Turncoats” who dared suggest the “Rock’em Sock’em” violence of the game, in which they had been combatants, could have tragic consequences.

Despite each ensuing controversy over Cherry’s words, his value — as a brazen drawing card who attracted millions of viewers to his segment — made him seem untouchable.

But there are limits. Cherry’s employers understandably weren’t prepared to let his derision toward those “that come here” stand.

By Remembrance Day, it became clear the chorus calling for Cherry to be fired for his “you people” rant on Hockey Night in Canada outnumbered, by far, those who thought he should stay.

It’s not that the numbers are no longer on Cherry’s side, if they ever were. It’s that this time, the rant was so over-the-top offensive that even Cherry’s most fervent supporters had to recognize the problem.

Sportsnet, the broadcaster responsible for Coach’s Corner, where Cherry held court for decades between periods, had no choice.

But why should an entire country be transfixed by the fate of a hockey commentator? Perhaps because Cherry increasingly has been viewed as both icon and anachronism.

Cherry came to hockey when the NHL was made up almost exclusively of Canadian-born players, fighting was expected and cumulative damage from concussions virtually unknown. But as the league evolved, drawing talent from around the world while struggling to deal with research that linked sports violence to life-changing brain injuries, he seemed increasingly out of step.

The game he grew up playing, and later coaching, had changed, forever — and for the better.

As, for that matter, had the country.

As the NHL, Sportsnet and others criticizing Cherry’s comments emphasized, today hockey — and Canada itself — must embrace inclusiveness and diversity. Cherry’s comments did the opposite.

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