Back when people still thought of him as the prototype of perfect Canadianness, Don Cherry’s son, Tim, tried to explain his father’s appeal.
“I think he never takes a politically correct stance … and people appreciate that,” Tim told a profiler. “But they’re also waiting for the train wreck. They’re waiting for him to say something that’ll be the end of him.”
Twenty years and at least as many attempts at professional self-immolation later, it’s finally happened. Mr. Cherry was fired by Rogers Sportsnet on Monday.
Mr. Cherry was more than a broadcaster. He was an era. He represented how many both inside and outside this country defined Canada over a period of time.
But times change and Mr. Cherry wouldn’t. That derailed him.
Ostensibly, Mr. Cherry’s work was analyzing hockey games. But, really, what he did was insult people – Quebeckers, Scandinavians, Slavs, pinkos, anyone who didn’t appreciate the beauty of blood on the ice.
His mode was what might charitably be called free form. He had a disconnected, rambling speaking style. He often didn’t make much sense, but he made even less sense at high volume. If his outrage was comedic, it also appeared real. It could be hypnotic.
So, for a couple of decades, Canada outsourced its id to this pugnacious twerp from Kingston.
Mr. Cherry said things other people said, but never in company. And certainly never on TV.
Had some of his most notorious lines concerned, say, political participation or immigration, rather than sport – “I’ve been trying to tell you people for so long about the [does it matter who he said it about?], what kind of people they are. And you just love them in Canada, with your multiculturalism” – he’d have been written off as a crank shortly after he’d started.
But Mr. Cherry’s trick was using hockey as a lever. No one had ever done that before, or has so successfully since.
He made his name as an NHL head coach, particularly with some of the most brutal iterations of the Boston Bruins. He was a two-fisted type, quite literally. A little guy, a scrapper, someone who hadn’t made the cut.
If it was once true that every Canadian kid dreamed of playing in the NHL, Mr. Cherry had lived that dream and fallen just short. It made him more relatable than the Lafleurs or Sittlers.
He came along in the seventies, as English-speaking Canada was beginning to discover that jingoism works just as well up north as it does down south. The Summit Series – our most eulogized contribution to the Cold War – started a wave. Mr. Cherry rode it into a broadcast booth.
He started out on the CBC in the early eighties. He quickly found his straight man in Ron MacLean. He learned the showman’s trick of using costume to distract from content – because there wasn’t much of the latter.
Mr. Cherry would appear for a few minutes during the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada and sputter about whatever was going on. He’d bang the desk and try to squirm his way out of those high-collar shirts.
Mr. MacLean played Edith to his Archie Bunker, soothing him with, “Now, Don …”
As a Canadian, you felt embarrassed watching his Coach’s Corner segment with foreigners. This wasn’t TV. It was vaudeville. It was two guys chasing a hat.
How to explain to someone not from here that this man wasn’t just loved, but worshipped? You couldn’t.
In 2004, the CBC framed a series around the search for the greatest Canadian. It was modelled on a show from Britain.
The British list included Charles Darwin and Queen Elizabeth I. The Canadian list included Mr. Cherry. He came seventh, between a couple of prime ministers.
That was really all you needed to know about Canada at the time.
Fifteen years can be a long time. For Mr. Cherry, they were an absolute age.
He continued to talk about a Canada in which everyone grew up near an iced-over pond and held the flag above all things. But Mr. Cherry’s Canada was not an idyllic place. It was beset by the encroachment of foreign influence into our national game and our way of life.
Perhaps people hadn’t noticed that part of the act before, or hadn’t taken it seriously – the xenophobia, the resistance to progress, the fairytale-ing of history.
But they started to.
In the end, what Mr. Cherry really hated – and he hated an awful lot of things – was change.
He wanted hockey and Canada to remain just as they had been when he first got to know them. A man’s game played by woodsy John Wayne types who could knock your teeth out on the rink and then help you raise a barn on the weekend.
His vision of masculinity suited this country for a time, when it felt itself weak. But now that Canada seemed to be getting the better of the 21st century, there was no need for Mr. Cherry’s bantam rooster routine. It became provincial and gauche.
The tipping point may have been the gradual removal of fighting from hockey. Once people turned on fighting, Mr. Cherry turned on them.
He seemed to lose what little joy he’d had in the to and fro. His bits turned into lectures, and then into sermons. He spent his Saturday nights rebuking a country that had moved on without him.
Hockey people were still watching, even the ones who found him distasteful.
On a Saturday night in pro hockey arenas across the continent, many of those on press row would get up from their seats during the first intermission. They’d move to a TV so they could see what Mr. Cherry had to say about what they’d just watched. No other analyst in any other sport commands that sort of attention.
But Mr. Cherry had lost everyone else, and he knew it.
Eventually, his frustration extended to the people who’d changed the imaginary Canada Mr. Cherry still lived in. Newcomers, hockey agnostics, “you people.”
Mr. Cherry had finally taken on something too big even for him – our collective values. He’d given the country the excuse it needed to move on from the past.
In the end, bigotry didn’t take down Don Cherry. He’d always been a bigot. What got him in the end was Canada.
The Globe and Mail, November 11, 2019