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Sportsnet fires NHL commentator Don Cherry over 'divisive remarks'

By Ian Austen

OTTAWA — Don Cherry, the colorfully dressed fixture of “Hockey Night in Canada” broadcasts, was fired on Monday after comments that were widely viewed as a racist attack on the patriotism of immigrants.

“Following further discussions with Don Cherry after Saturday night’s broadcast, it has been decided it is the right time for him to immediately step down,” Bart Yabsley, the president of the cable channel Sportsnet, said in a statement.

Cherry, 85, had long hosted the six- to seven-minute “Coach’s Corner” segment on “Hockey Night in Canada.” An unabashed right-wing conservative with the on-air persona of someone holding forth in a bar, Cherry has repeatedly provoked calls to take him off the air as he has offended wide swaths of Canadian society.

In somewhat rambling remarks Saturday night, Cherry criticized what he believed to be the insufficient patriotism of Canadians who weren’t wearing small plastic poppies on their lapels. The poppy is a symbol of remembrance of World War I, worn in a number of countries with historic ties to the United Kingdom.

In his remarks, Cherry complained that in downtown Toronto “nobody wears a poppy,” a contrast with “small cities.” Then, apparently addressing nonwhite Canadians, who make up just over half of Toronto’s population, he added that: “you people love — 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. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

Cherry, who is as well known for his flamboyant dress as for his inflammatory opinions, appeared in his segment wearing a Royal Canadian Legion blazer, even though he is not a veteran. In its lapel was a poppy, sold as a fund-raiser by chapters of the veterans’ group.

Before the firing on Monday, the national day of remembrance, Canada’s news media furiously debated whether Cherry had finally gone too far with his latest remarks.

From a country where immigration is encouraged and immigrants are generally welcomed, the reaction to his original comments had been swift. Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who leads the federal New Democratic Party, posted a photograph of his great-grandfather in uniform from when he served in the British military during both World War I and II.

The former Liberal Party leader and Ontario premier Bob Rae called Cherry’s remarks “ignorant and prejudiced.” Bonnie Crombie, the mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, the Toronto suburb where Cherry lives, posted that “to say that ‘you people’ do not respect our veterans is despicable.” Several people noted that Cherry’s claims about the lack of poppies on display appeared inaccurate.

Before firing him, Sportsnet apologized for Cherry’s comments and called them “offensive.” Ron MacLean, the co-host of “Coach’s Corner,” disowned them on a broadcast on Sunday.

“Don Cherry made remarks that were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat-out wrong,” MacLean said. “I owe you an apology too. That’s the big thing I want to emphasize. I sat there, I did not catch it, I did not respond.”

The N.H.L. called the comments “offensive and contrary to the values we believe in.”

Cherry has so far been uncharacteristically quiet, suggesting to a columnist at The Toronto Sun before his firing that he wasn’t backing down or apologizing.

“I have had my say,” he told the newspaper.

“Hockey Night in Canada” provided Cherry with a powerful pulpit. Almost from the time it first aired on CBC television in 1952, the show has enjoyed one of the largest audiences in English-language Canadian television.

In 2014, however, the N.H.L. rights for English-language broadcasts in Canada passed from the CBC, a public broadcaster owned by the federal government, to Rogers Communications, a cable television and cellphone company and broadcaster, which also owns the Toronto Blue Jays and is one of two partners in the company behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors.

In an unusual arrangement to maintain the tradition of free, over-the-air broadcasts of “Hockey Night in Canada,” the CBC now broadcasts Rogers’s production of the games on Saturday with all the advertising revenue flowing to Rogers. Chuck Thompson, a spokesman for the CBC, said the CBC had no control over the production, including the decision to use Cherry, although it also allows Rogers to use its logo in connection with the show, which is streamed on the CBC’s online platforms. Thompson said the network raised its “serious concerns” about Cherry’s remarks with Rogers on Saturday night.

Cherry’s political views are not the only thing that have dogged him in recent years. Long an advocate of a rough style of hockey — he once marketed hockey highlight videos as “Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey” — his analysis has come to be seen by many as dated in an age where speed and skill have become more important to the game.

 

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