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What Canadians Think Don Cherry's Firing


For the first time in almost 40 years, tonight, Canadians will not see and hear Don Cherry say, it's hockey night in Canada. Mr. Cherry, a former player, coach, still a Canadian national icon, was fired earlier this week for on-air comments that many, including, ultimately, his employer Rogers Sportsnet, deemed offensive to immigrants.

Cathal Kelly is a sports columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.

CATHAL KELLY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So, first of all, what did Don Cherry actually say?

KELLY: Well, that he's a big supporter of veterans in this country. Remembrance Day was coming up and usually has a big push here for the poppy - wear the poppy to remember the vets.

SIMON: You make a donation to help the families of veterans, and you get a red poppy.

KELLY: Exactly. And then you wear the poppy, usually for a couple of weeks leading into Remembrance Day. And Cherry began, as he often does, a screed about something that had upset him. In this case, it was that people weren't wearing the poppies. This time, he veered into far more dangerous territory when he began, seemingly - and I don't think there's any other way to interpret it - berating immigrants for not wearing them.


DON CHERRY: You people love - you 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 poppies or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.

KELLY: And that caused a 24-hour firestorm that consumed him.

SIMON: Can we understand down here the space, as we say it nowadays, Don Cherry has filled in Canadian culture?

KELLY: I don't know if there's an American analogy, but Cherry embodies something about a Canadian ideal. It was much more than the sport. The sport is so central to this culture or has been - that's changing - that Cherry came to personify the most masculine version of it. That was something clownish, cartoonish, fun about him. He was impossible not to know. Fifteen years ago, the CBC, our national broadcaster, did a poll trying to find the greatest Canadian. Don Cherry came seventh (laughter), which tells you where Don Cherry exists. And this is in the entire history of the country.

SIMON: What if Don Cherry had said something like, look; people come to this great country from all over the world, and we're proud of that, but once a year, we should remember the sacrifice soldiers made, so give a donation and put on a red poppy?

KELLY: You know, if someone like you had said that, Scott, I think that would've gone over fine. But Cherry had a history of - bigotry I think is the only word you could call it. But his targets were softer targets in general, Quebecois, Scandinavians, Russians, players he thought were insufficiently tough. But he would round those criticisms into generalized criticisms.

SIMON: You mean relied on skating skills as opposed to elbows.

KELLY: Yeah, exactly. They were not - they had all their teeth. And in Cherry's world, that doesn't make you much of a hockey player.

SIMON: Well, I have to ask you. A friend in Canada sent me a link to the story of Jess Allen on CTV who, speaking of hockey players and even fans, said, quote, "they all tended to be white boys who are, let's say, not very nice."


SIMON: She won't be let go for referring to hockey players as white boys - right? - or calling them bullies.

KELLY: That's absolutely true. Like, I mean, I argue that most people in this country until that happened had no idea who Jess Allen was. I think that's part of her protection there. We also have to talk about the cynical level on which Cherry was fired. It wasn't just for the comments. Rogers Sportsnet has paid a fortune for the broadcasting rights to hockey - $5 billion. And that's not going so well. And Cherry makes an awful lot of money. So there was also an element here where they probably wanted to ship him out, and this was their opportunity.

SIMON: Are Canadians talking to each other about this or just hurling preset spears of opinion at each other?

KELLY: That's the kind of really disappointing thing about this is that, yes, it hasn't become that rational discussion about why this has provoked so much feeling in so many people one way or the other. Right now, it is - it's still at the screaming stage, but then it gets into a more uncomfortable conversation, I think bizarrely in this country, about hockey and what hockey means to us because that is changing. And I don't think - there's a lot of people who don't want that to change. Hockey is - it's so foundational in Canada in terms of our self-image. So, you know, what Cherry has done, I think unwittingly, is touched off an entire discussion about the central place of that sport in our culture.

SIMON: Cathal Kelly, sports columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper, thanks so much.

KELLY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.