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End of an era or two

Jody Vance: Yes, the ignoble end of Don Cherry’s career is a sign of the times – but also something he predicted himself.
By Dave O, CC BY-SA 2.0,

There was a time when I talked hockey for a living. With my phone ringing off the hook for comment on the end of the Don Cherry era on Hockey Night in Canada, I thought I would address it here, for you.

Most ask me what the fallout should be (or should have been) for these iconic men of sports media, both of whom I’ve had the chance to work with.

My reaction is twofold: first, Don Cherry deserved to be fired for his racist rant; and second, Ron MacLean should be forgiven, with the hard lesson that it’s no longer okay to be a bystander when ignorance gets a platform.

With Don now doing the interview rounds lurching between “I would have apologized next Saturday” to “I have nothing to apologize for, I meant what I said.” Depending on the outlet.  We can all reflect on a time when Canada literally stood still to watch Don Cherry talk hockey.

Remember “good Canadian kids" and a big thumbs up?

At some point, the positive – love of good Canadian kids – morphed into something negative; dislike of French Canadians, Europeans — and, oh my goodness, Russians. You could see the intolerance build, and seemingly left unchecked.

It was a long, slow slide, which made it easier to dismiss things he said with it’s “harmless,” or “Don being Don.”

As long as the viewers were there, the advertising dollars would be there to plump the coffers at Hockey Night in Canada/Sportsnet.

In terms of intelligent commentary, recent years saw us all robbed, a bit. We’d get a little less hockey and a little more Don Cherry persona or politics. More and more families would find themselves discuss differing views rather than hockey Xs and Os.

We found ourselves collectively counting on Ron MacLean, more than ever before, to make sense of the rants, comment, and then masterfully wrap up often uncomfortable segments.

November 9th, 2019, there was no saving it. There was no punny wrap. Things went absolutely off the rail.

There is pushback from Cherry supporters that this is an attack on freedom of speech. It’s not. It’s a highly paid Canadian broadcaster breaking standards set by his employer. Using one of the country’s most watched broadcasts to spout racist dog whistles cannot be tolerated in Canada, full stop.  People recognized that from coast to coast to coast immediately.

Yes, Cherry has always been known for his passionate support of our service people, and veterans in particular. But his lack of reflection on how he worded Saturday night’s rant speaks volumes. And it didn’t just “come out wrong” – in multiple interviews since his firing Cherry has reiterated that he meant everything he said and makes no apologies.

It fell to Coach’s Corner co-host Ron MacLean to make multiple apologies. Ron wasted no time in posting a full mea culpa to his social media. On Sunday evening, the very next day, Ron then used a sizeable chunk of time on Rogers Hometown Hockey to again address it to the viewing audience, offering again a full and heartfelt apology.

I believe Ron has learned a lesson we can all take away from this controversy: in the face of intolerance and racism, there is no place to be a bystander.

We’ve all been bystanders, at one time or another. Stood by, albeit with great discomfort, as someone spewed views that belittle or bully. We’ve seen someone do or say unacceptable things and stayed silent, perhaps even put on a face with a knowing nod to simply get out of that uncomfortable moment, in the name of self protection.

Not. Any. More.

What should we do differently?  Something. Giving a pass isn’t good enough; you can't just walk away. If it’s that eccentric uncle at Christmas, tell him that’s not what we teach kids in 2019. A similar line could be used in the workplace: “I’m quite sure that is not aligned with company standards.”  These uncomfortable conversations are necessary in the face of intolerance.

It is fascinating how one Coach’s Corner could teach so much to so many — for Canadians to learn that the days of trying to “being Switzerland,” stay neutral in the name of “staying out of it,” should be gone.

From my vantage point, it seems Canadians are largely on the same page on not being a bystander; reaction to Cherry’s final rant managed to crash the CRTC Broadcast Standards Council online email complaint website.

Just as he himself predicted with Rick Mercer a decade ago, Don Cherry’s incredible career ended in a trainwreck. Don should have stuck to talking hockey. He didn’t – and that’s why he’s out.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.