The end of an era: An interview with U of T’s Peter Donnelly on Don Cherry

Skates in a locker room (iStock image)
Skates in a locker room (iStock image)

Hockey Night personality Don Cherry was never known for his demure personality or mild opinions. From his colourful outfits to his celebration of hard hits and criticism of European players, he made no secret of how he feels about things. But, on Saturday evening, Cherry’s outspokenness seemed to go a step too far when he accused some people, who many interpreted to mean immigrants, of enjoying the lifestyle Canada affords them without showing respect to its veterans. The backlash was swift and furious, ending in Cherry being first condemned and subsequently fired by Sportsnet. 

We spoke to Peter Donnelly, a professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, about Cherry’s comment and its repercussions. Donnelly specializes in sport policy and politics and used to teach a course on hockey in Canadian culture, with Don Cherry featuring as a course unit.

How did Don Cherry feature in your course on hockey in Canadian culture?

In the 1990s Phil White and I developed a course at McMaster University on Hockey in Canadian Culture (the course was also taught a few times at UofT, and is still on the course calendar).
Don Cherry was such an iconic figure at that time that we had to include an analysis of him in the course. His popularity went beyond hockey, and many people who never watched hockey would tune in to watch Coach's Corner during CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. His comic dress style and bombastic manner of speaking made him an object of humour, but the audience was always waiting for him to say something outrageous.

We wanted to explore, and we wanted the students to explore the contradictions: the 'clown' who made sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic statements; the person who visited injured players, often children, in hospital but ridiculed players for wearing a visor; the 'expert' who counselled children against checking from behind but made a fortune from his annual Rock 'em Sock 'em video series (edited from game tapes made available to him by Canada's public broadcaster) that celebrated violence in the game; and the cheerleader who routinely celebrated an often imaginary form of Canadian working class masculinity despite the fact that NHL players were increasingly coming from much more affluent backgrounds.

For over 30 years, many Canadian boys grew up watching HNIC -- and Coach's Corner -- on Saturday nights, and receiving a Rock 'em Sock 'em video for Christmas. They learned a particular kind of masculinity -- that 'real' Canadian good ol' boys were tougher than Americans and Europeans, that they played through pain and injury and never turned away from a fight, that women's place was in the kitchen. In sum, Don Cherry was advocating a kind of masculine, white, Anglophone Canadian nationalist populism that many have recently recognized as problematic.

It was impossible not to include him in a course on hockey in Canadian culture.

Were you surprised by Cherry’s comment – or the immediate and widespread pushback it received? 

I was disturbed that anyone on a sports broadcast with a national platform would feel empowered, 20 years into the 21st century, to refer to some of his fellow Canadians (including new Canadians) as "you people." But, given our past examination of Don Cherry, I was not surprised. Nor was I surprised that Canadians who actually live in, and celebrate living in the most diverse society would push back hard against a widely publicized statement that probably would have passed unnoticed 50 years ago, but not today. It has been gratifying to see the critique emerging from all levels of Canadian society, from politics and board rooms to the grassroots.

How do you feel about the response from Sportsnet, who fired Cherry following the backlash? 

I had two immediate responses. First, it would have been far more dignified, and shown far more 'class' if he had resigned on Sunday. Second, it was about time.

In many ways I can understand why the CBC tolerated his outrageous comments for so many years, comments that would have caused other people to be banned from the public airwaves. HNIC and Coach's Corner generated significant amounts of advertising revenue for the public broadcaster, and enabled the production of other important programming. 

I suspect that the audience for Coach's Corner has declined in recent years. The 'corporate masters' in the NHL, Sportsnet and Budweiser/Labatts, also with concerns for the bottom line but also concerned about increasing the diversity of the audience for hockey, likely felt that they would be better off without such a controversial figure. I'm sure that Don Cherry still has widespread appeal and support among his 'base', but that 'base' is smaller now.