Haggerty: It was easy to love Don Cherry, but there's no defending him this time

Joe Haggerty

Hockey Night in Canada analyst Don Cherry has been in hot water before with his controversial takes on "Coach's Corner," but "Grapes" took it one step too far this past weekend and is done after nearly 40 years entertaining hockey fans between periods with his bombastic analysis.

It's really too bad because Grapes found his niche on Hockey Night in Canada as an influential, old school combination of Archie Bunker and former NHL head coach while entertaining millions in Canada during national hockey broadcasts. He spoke directly to hockey fans and had the puck pulpit like nobody else has in the history of the sport.

His colorful wardrobe was as flamboyant as his opinions, and he always straddled the line between sports and real-world issues while never wavering in his vocal, fervent support of the military.

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People at NHL rinks in Canada huddled weekly around the press box televisions on Saturday night to see what Cherry and Ron McLean had to say during the first intermission of games, and players themselves waited to hear whether they got attaboys or chastisement from the legendary hockey  voice.

Unfortunately for Cherry, the impassioned pleas for supporting the troops for this week's Remembrance Day became his ultimate undoing. It wasn't his pleas for everyday Canadians to wear symbolic poppies that was the problem, though.

Instead, it was singling out groups that Cherry didn't see wearing the poppies.

"You people ... that come here, whatever it is. You love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that," Cherry said on Saturday night. "These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price."

Clearly nobody argues with Cherry's wish that more people show symbolic support for the troops, but it was his reference to "you people…that come here" that's divisive, offensive and certainly pointed toward immigrants to Canada.

It created a media firestorm over the last few days that prompted a public apology from Cherry's partner, McLean, on Sunday and pushed many to finally call for Cherry's removal after a long history of xenophobic references during his Coach's Corner segments. This time, Cherry's bosses couldn't simply let it blow over and it resulted in a change at what's been a Hockey Night in Canada staple since the early 1980s.

"It has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down," said Sportsnet President Bart Yabsley. "During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for.

"Don is synonymous with hockey and has played an integral role in growing the game. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada."

This humble hockey writer always defended Cherry because a.) he was entertaining and colorful with his hockey commentary, and that always makes for the kind of good TV that the NHL needs in its coverage and b.) scolding the 85-year-old Cherry for his views was akin to scolding one of my grandparents that had a hopelessly outdated view of society that was never going to change, or evolve, regardless of the circumstance.

But the comment was a bridge too far that rightly offended a lot of fair-minded people, and elicited some heartfelt reactions from friends and colleagues like The Athletic's Arpon Basu and Hockey Night in Canada's David Amber on Twitter.

There was no defending Grapes this time around, and instead, it's another lesson to everybody that free speech doesn't mean it's also consequence-free speech. Cherry can continue to speak his mind and perpetuate his antiquated worldview, but he's no longer going to enjoy the Hockey Night in Canada platform that he clearly took for granted on Saturday night with the clumsy way he offended so many hockey-loving people in the US and Canada.

None of it makes Cherry a bad guy as much as it makes him a bit of a relic that probably wasn't meant to be on a national broadcast anymore. The shame of it all is twofold. It opens up old wounds for many people that feel like they simply want to belong and have bought wholeheartedly into the "Hockey is for Everyone" mantra championed by the NHL.

And it also leaves a giant void in the iconic Hockey Night in Canada broadcast with Cherry's bombastic personality now missing, and nobody in the hockey world that's going to be able to step into those dapper Don shoes anytime soon. It's a bad situation all around, but one that almost felt inevitable given Cherry's attitudes in a world that needs more understanding, tolerance and togetherness than ever before.

It's just a shame it all had to end on such a sour note for a hockey voice that provided decades of entertainment to puck fans everywhere.

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Haggerty: It was easy to love Don Cherry, but there's no defending him this time originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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