By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Brash, outspoken, opinionated — longtime hockey broadcaster Don Cherry was never afraid to ruffle feathers during his “Coach’s Corner” segment on “Hockey Night in Canada.”
His latest outburst about new immigrants not wearing poppies cost him his job, and in an interview late Monday night he wasn’t apologizing.’
“I know what I said and I meant it. Still do. Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers,” Cherry told The Canadian Press, saying Sportsnet fired him.
Sportsnet cut ties with Cherry earlier Monday, saying in a statement that following discussions with Cherry, it was decided it was the “right time for him to immediately step down.”
The network had already apologized Sunday for Cherry’s comments about his belief that new immigrants don’t wear poppies, and in turn, don’t support veterans. Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said the comments were “divisive.”
“Sports brings people together — it unites us, not divides us,” Yabsley said in a two-paragraph statement that also thanked Cherry for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.
Cherry, 85, had singled out new immigrants in Toronto and Mississauga, Ont., where he lives, for not honouring Canada’s veterans and fallen soldiers.
“You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said Saturday night. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
Outrage over Cherry’s words mounted until his dismissal was announced.
Cherry, however, denies he was singling out visible minorities.
“I did not say minorities, I did not say immigrants. If you watch ‘Coach’s Corner,’ I did not say that. I said ‘everybody.’ And I said ‘you people,'” Cherry said.
“Irish, Scotch, anybody that’s newcomers to Canada, and they should wear a poppy to honour our dead from the past, whether they’re Scotch or Irish or English, or where they come from.
Cherry added that he could have stayed on “if I had turned into a tame robot who nobody would recognize.”
“I can’t do that after 38 years,” he said.
A hard-nosed career minor-leaguer who won coach of the year honours with the NHL’s Boston Bruins in 1976, Cherry moved in front of the camera in 1980.
Known for his outlandish suits and thumbs-up gesture, Cherry was liable to say anything during the popular first-intermission segment. Over the years, he occasionally weighed in with thoughts on off-ice topics that sometimes landed him in hot water.
“Hockey Night in Canada” was a longtime CBC Saturday night staple, but the show and its games moved to Sportsnet when Rogers landed a $5.2-billion, 12-year national broadcast rights deal with the NHL that began in 2014.
“Coach’s Corner” and HNIC are broadcast on CBC in a sub-licensing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.
“Don Cherry’s remarks on Saturday night were divisive, discriminatory and offensive and we respect Sportsnet’s decision that this is the right time for Don to step down,” CBC said via Twitter from its Hockey Night in Canada account.
“Coach’s Corner” co-host Ron MacLean apologized Sunday evening.
“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong … I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond,” MacLean said.
“Last night was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize. I wanted to thank you for calling me and Don on that last night.”
The Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council said it was so overloaded with complaints about the segment that it exceeded the organization’s technical processing capacity. The CBSC said it was dealing with the broadcast under its normal process, but was not able to accept further complaints.
Cherry said he is receiving many phone calls and texts of support. He said he doesn’t have any immediate plans.
“I’m figuring out what I’m going to do with all my jackets,” he joked.
Shakir Mousa, who came to Canada from Iraq roughly 30 years ago, said earlier Monday he was hurt and disgusted by Cherry’s words and worried they could ignite hatred and discrimination.
Though he wears a poppy to mark Remembrance Day, Mousa said there are many ways to honour those who serve their country — like his son, who served in Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq and just returned to Ottawa from his most recent deployment.
“I come from a dictatorship country,” the Montreal resident said. “There is a real appreciation for Canada and what Canada represents … I appreciate what democracy is and what liberty is and the freedom that we enjoy.
“I don’t need somebody like Don Cherry to tell me about it because he doesn’t represent the good side of Canada with comments like these.”
There was no immediate word on who might replace Cherry on “Coach’s Corner” or if it would continue in its current form. A spokesman said Sportsnet was “still considering options for our first intermission segment.”
The list of controversial Cherry moments is a long one.
In 1989, when asked about then-Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, Cherry quipped that his name sounded like “dog food.”
Seven years later, Cherry lambasted Ottawa fans after they cheered for Russia against the U.S. in a World Cup of Hockey semifinal.
“Don’t do it again, it was a disgrace. If Saddam Hussein put up 1,000 missiles at our country, who would you go to for help? The Russians or the U.S.? Don’t do it again.”
Cherry was voted the seventh-greatest Canadian on CBC’s television project, “The Greatest Canadian,” in 2004. He finished ahead of Wayne Gretzky, inventor Alexander Graham Bell and Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald.
That same year, Cherry was publicly reprimanded by the CBC and subjected to a seven-second tape delay when he said only “Europeans and French guys” wore visors.
— With files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto and Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton.