Don Cherry banner. Image: haven't the slightest/Flickr

Don Cherry wasn’t always “Don Cherry.”

Long before Coach’s Corner, Cherry was just a coach for the Boston Bruins. After a Montreal game, Ken Dryden recalls doing simultaneous interviews under the stands, with Cherry beefing loudly about some calls. Dryden dreaded walking up the corridor beside Cherry afterward, but nothing was said till Cherry muttered, “The things I do for twenty-nine five.” ($116,000 today.)

That Cherry wasn’t just a self-parody, he was a conscious self-parody with a dry self-awareness. Back then he might’ve even thought about his “you people” outburst and apologized. Justin Trudeau did and he’s still got his job. But that kind of fame and celebrity traps and scars almost everyone who achieves it. You start identifying with your own myth.

• It took Sportsnet, not CBC, to act.

The irony is that it was a private, profit-making sports network, not the public, morally posturing national broadcaster, that dumped Cherry. CBC’s VP for PR smugly said they weren’t responsible since they only carry the show and have no, ugh, “purview.” Hands washed. Of course they owned Hockey Night in Canada, which incubated Coach’s Corner, for 80 years, till 2014. It still runs out of their building. They just didn’t have the guts to take Cherry on.

One reason CBC never acted is that it’s always had, as Bruce Dowbiggin says, “a working-class problem.” You almost never hear those voices on CBC. To the extent they even exist, they come in various forms. My own sense is, they often have a direct quality, lacking the conditional clauses and asides that imply a multi-degree education in middle-class people, whose voices tend to be both apologetic and arrogant (“It may not seem obvious but if you give it a moment’s thought you’ll see…”).

CBC radio sounds like a perpetual self-congratulatory whine. At most you hear middle-class voices talking down. An annoying case of someone trying to sound WC is Joe Biden’s tedious, “Look, here’s the deal –” Cherry’s version is, “Listen, you kids –” CBC knew it should include those voices but didn’t know how. Long ago, they tried with The Tommy Hunter Show, etc. but never had their hearts in it and Cherry became, by default, that voice, leaving its audience, which is partly but far from wholly white, mainly in the mitts of radio talk jocks and eventually you wind up with Trump.

Cherry’s the CBC version of Frank magazine’s Dick Little, though Dick has a wry self-awareness (but Cherry once did too). The petition to rehire him starts, “Don Cherry is a Canadian icon and a symbol of the working class.” What CBC needs is a Bernie Sanders version — “I wrote the damn bill!” — a left, or progressive, or Canadian alternative to Cherry/Trump populism.

• The huge blind spot.

Cherry wasn’t just a xenophobe, he had a massive blind spot about hockey itself, which was the international contribution. He never got that it was Europeans and Russians who, among other gifts, turned hockey from what Dryden called a possession game, like football, to a transition game, like basketball. Think Mitch Marner. This came out in his usual, hateful way when the Winnipeg Jets made a Finn, Alpo Suhonen, a coach in their system in 1989. Cherry said, “I don’t wish him well” because there were lots of good Canadian coaches, and added, “What’s his name, Alpo? Sounds like dog food to me.”

Years later, when Suhonen was an assistant with the Leafs (and later became the NHL’s first European head coach), Cherry repeated his witticism, as if he’d kept it on the shelf awaiting a reprise, since it was so cherce, as Archie Bunker would say.

• A word about poppies.

They’re great symbols precisely because they can alter their meaning. They don’t need Cherry to confine them to his corner and dictate their sole significance. Some people wear them for his reasons. Some won’t because they say it’s pro-war. Others wear them because they remind us of war’s horror and why it must end; the First World War, after all, was the war to end wars. I recently shifted to the latter camp, after being anti-poppy for years. It’s always a relief to find yourself changing.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: haven’t the slightest/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.