To the utter confusion of people outside Canada, the removal of a TV figure has convulsed the nation. After 38 years, he is no more.
Confession: I did an entire chapter on the Don Cherry phenomenon in my book The Meaning Of Puck: How Hockey Explains Modern Canada. My conclusion after approximately 5,000 words: Go figure.
He was a broadcast savant. And he understood the TV game better than any of us idiots chasing after him for 35 years. Knew how to flip the story. The classic wrestling heel doing hockey. We won’t see this act again any time soon.
But none of this will bring him back.
Cherry has been everywhere since his firing – including a bizarre interview with Tucker Carlson on Fox News – explaining what he meant by the expression “you guys” in his controversial comments on the final Coach’s Corner. As with everything Cherry touches, this spin was equal measure inarticulate, bombast and self-pity.
Judging by phone-ins that I’ve been party to, Cherry still maintains a large fan base that thinks he was shafted for a weak moment and wished he’d said it differently. Except Don has said something in a weak moment and wished he’d said it differently about 50 times during his 38-year broadcast TV career. And was forgiven every time on the promise he would think twice the next time.
My sense is he’s relieved that the high-wire act is over. He’s able, in his own words, to “go out on his shield,” worshipped by his fans. He’s made enough money and will receive enough attention to sustain him in his remaining days.
The biggest loser in all this is probably Cherry’s Topo Gigio, Ron MacLean. In a hockey culture that reveres loyalty, MacLean gave Cherry the Judas kiss in an effort to save his own hide. For someone who made his substantial living milking his Cherry bonafides, this will be seen as a disqualifier for many hockey sweats.
The response on the part of the nation that doesn’t think Cherry invented hockey can best be summed up with these words: Let’s move on. The guy’s 85. He’s lost his fastball. The game has passed him by. Even Archie Bunker had a final show.
So the hot stove is now consumed with “who wears the crown as intermission icon now that Cherry is gone?” The betting favourite is another raging old white guy, Brian Burke. Others want Cassie Campbell sitting next to MacLean. If forced to drop someone into Don’s shoes, I’d only say let them be funny outside the hockey bubble. Please.
But my old radio running mate Mike Richards has the best sentiment regarding what comes next: “#CoachsCorner is over. Done. Don’t entertain continuing the format. Move on. Try something new. These replacement ‘suggestions’ are stupid. … Ron can fit in anywhere, in any format. Let’s be #Creative.”
We’ve been here before, of course. Rogers, fresh from getting the National Hockey League TV and digital rights in Canada, made a tentative move into the 21st century when they hired George Stroumboulopoulos and his tight pants as intermission host. The idea was to move the Sudbury Saturday Night culture into the heart of modern Canadian zeitgeist. Let millennials have someone remotely their age mention their South Park or TikTok references.
Strombo was supposed to lure the musicians, actors, writers, comedians, etc., from his CBC show into the most visible TV program in Canadian history. Broaden the base of viewers to include people who’ve tuned out the endless panels and mindless boys’ banter.
The problem with this noble concept was that Hockey Night in Canada dumped George into the existing show and then basically abandoned him. They lost their courage. As Ron-MacLean-in-Italian-sweaters-talking-whiteboard, Strombo was a wasted opportunity.
It’s hard to exaggerate how much Cherry defined the tone of HNIC outside Coach’s Corner. His talking points – both good and bad – were the talking points of virtually everyone on HNIC. The traditional coaching memes, the values, the oppressive lack of levity stemmed from fear of Don inside the building.
There was zero attempt to interact through social media live with fans, because that was too egghead. Someone might interrupt the narrative where Brendan Shanahan was supposed to slash a rookie’s arm for celebrating too hard. You had to go to TSN to realize that there might be something or someone else with an opinion on how the game is played, who should play it and why it is what it is. (And believe me, TSN is no raging den of radicals.)
So let me take Richards’ idea and ask for a second stab at making HNIC relevant. The vast majority of HNIC viewers are there to see the crest on the chest. Their team. With what’s left of the time after they’ve seen the Habs or Leafs or Flames, try to reflect a bigger picture.
There are singers, dancers, standup comedians and more who love hockey, too. Go to a book store and see how much is being written on the sport from history to analytics. How about tapping into them each Saturday?
Maybe the new host, instead of lecturing, does an interactive segment reading viewers’ Tweets, Facebook posts and Instagram posts (radical, I know). After all, your big sponsor is Huawei, a communications giant.
And, for god’s sakes, find a few people of colour outside David Amber to expand the base. Pay Adnan Virk whatever he wants to come home and host the show. Let him talk about Scorsese and Pacino.
The opportunity is there for Rogers. Seize it. Or risk being the show that Don Cherry forgot.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.