By Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Sportsnet brass made the call to end Don Cherry’s nearly four-decade run on Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coach’s Corner” after his rant over the weekend. Their next big decision may be even tougher.
With his bombast, insight, experience and over-the-top delivery, Cherry created an institution with his appearances on the popular Saturday evening segment.
Love him or hate him, he’s hard to replace. Therein lies the challenge for Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley, Rogers Media president Jordan Banks and other company powerbrokers.
Oh to be a fly on the wall in the Rogers boardroom this week. Do they continue with the segment or rebrand for the future? If Cherry is replaced, who gets the nod? And should a successor move in right away or down the road?
Consistently a ratings hit, the first intermission this Saturday night will be appointment viewing.
“It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what they do and I wouldn’t be surprised if they just let it slide for a while and put something else in there,” said David Shoalts, a former Globe and Mail sports reporter and author of “Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Face Off Over the NHL.”
“It’s not as difficult as it would have been for them, because under Rogers they did cut (the segment) to five minutes. At the CBC, he had come to take up the whole first intermission, so that would have been a big problem.”
HNIC 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 still broadcast on CBC in a sub-licensing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.
Sportsnet apologized Sunday for Cherry’s comments about his belief that new immigrants don’t wear poppies, and in turn, don’t support veterans.
On Monday, Cherry was shown the door. In a statement, Yabsley said the comments were “divisive.”
Cherry prefaced his on-air remarks Saturday night with the phrase, ‘You people’ — drawing criticism from all quarters — but denied in interviews after his departure that he was singling out visible minorities. He has not publicly apologized for his comments.
“If I had to do it over again, I probably would have said ‘Everybody,'” Cherry said Tuesday in an interview on Sirius XM Canada’s “Canada Talks” channel. “But I didn’t and there’s no sense of whining about it and I paid the price.”
A spokesman said Sportsnet is “still considering options” for the first intermission segment and that company executives would not be doing interviews at this time. Segment co-host Ron MacLean did not immediately return a telephone message.
There were rumblings the network was considering moving on from Cherry during the off-season, but the 85-year-old wasn’t included in the recent wave of big-name on-air departures.
However, it’s likely Sportsnet already had ideas for the segment’s future post-Cherry.
Given his long tenure, how — or if — his departure is addressed this weekend will be fascinating, as will MacLean’s thoughts. The veteran HNIC anchor apologized last Sunday.
A complete “Coach’s Corner” reboot is possible or there could be a shuffling of other segments. Extended highlight packages could help fill the gap. The segment could be dropped altogether, although that’s unlikely given its history and showcase status.
The network may choose to recognize the massive impact Cherry had as a commentator, but it would be tricky to balance that with his rather ignominious exit.
A career overview could buy some time since the seat might be a little too hot for an immediate replacement. Of course, it’s possible the page gets completely turned and Cherry’s name is not mentioned at all.
Just like when he was on the air, there will be no shortage of critics and plaudits.
“I had a good time,” Cherry said. “I’m 85 years old and I’m still having a good time. As I have always said, ‘I’m glad I’m going out on my shield. I’m not going out with a whimper.'”
Several candidates would be qualified to replace Cherry. Former hockey executive and current Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke is the early betting favourite.
Burke is a 3-2 pick to replace Cherry this Saturday and a 5-4 pick to fill the role next season, according to odds released Tuesday by SportsBettingDime.com. Sportsnet hockey commentators Kelly Hrudey, Colby Armstrong and Craig Simpson were listed among the other early favourites.