TORONTO — When sociology professor Kristi Allain saw that “Hockey Night in Canada” commentator Don Cherry was fired for on-air, anti-immigrant remarks Monday, she was hopeful that it spoke to a change in Canadian social values, and an intolerance of racism.

But then she logged onto Twitter and saw the reactions.

While some have been jubilant he was axed over his “Coach’s Corner” segment rant accusing immigrants of not wearing poppies, others have called for a Sportsnet boycott and are using the hashtag “Don Cherry Is Right.”

Allain says she’s now “deeply concerned that Cherry, and our reactions to Cherry, mark a divisiveness in Canadian social life.”

“It’s a broader issue about issues of Canadian national identity. I think we have to ask critical questions,” says Allain, associate professor in St. Thomas University’s department of sociology in New Brunswick.

“We celebrate hockey and ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ as emblematic of what it means to be Canadian. We talk about hockey as a space that tells a particular story about Canadian national identity. And I think if we want to hold firm to that, we need actually understand what it is we’re celebrating.

“The ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ franchise has been largely white people commenting on the sporting activities of seemingly straight, white, young, able-bodied men. It’s been a sport process that’s lacked diversity and inclusion…. I’m hoping that this sparks more critical discussions about how we talk about diversity, inclusivity and race and racism in Canadian social life.”

Cherry denies he was singling out visible minorities when he said “you people,” and that in the segment he was referring to “everybody” and “anybody that’s newcomers to Canada” when emphasizing the need to honour veterans. In an interview Monday with The Canadian Press, he also said he was given the chance to keep his job but didn’t want to make certain concessions that would turn him into a “tame robot.”

A one-time National Hockey League and minor-league enforcer, Cherry served up an outsized personality wearing outlandish suits for four decades on “Coach’s Corner,” alongside sportscaster Ron MacLean. Legions of fans tuned in for his jocular, feisty commentary, patriotism and support for veterans.

“What made this guy so popular is that he was who he was on camera,” says David Shoalts, a retired Globe and Mail sports writer and author of “Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Faceoff over the NHL.”

“He wasn’t someone who adopted a persona on the air as opposed to what he was off the air, which a lot of people do.”

The Kingston, Ont., native also became a spokesperson of sorts “for folks who were deeply concerned about changes in Canadian social life,” says Allain, who studied “Coach’s Corner” for her dissertation research examining the intersection of gender and Canadian national identity within the sport of men’s ice hockey.

Cherry’s comments over the years were perpetuating what Allain calls “crisis masculinity,” she says.

That’s “an idea that certain men and particular expressions of masculinity are under attack by a new social order that encourages progressive understandings of gender, that maybe asks for hockey to take into account the health and wellbeing of players, issues around immigration and diversity in Canada,” she explains.

Cherry sometimes got into hot water with controversial opinions. Yet the CBC — and, in recent years, Sportsnet — continued to renew his contract.

“I’m not totally without sympathy for the network, because this guy was the biggest thing in hockey,” says Shoalts. 

“There was a time there where Don Cherry was the most famous Canadian period.”

But “the CBC shouldn’t skate on this,” Shoalts adds.

“Over the years he became such a phenomenon that he became the 800-pound gorilla and just started talking about anything he wanted — and in this case, stuff that he didn’t know enough about to voice an educated opinion, and the network let him get away with it.”

Allain feels Canada has ignored Cherry “at our own peril.”

“He was an early adopter of right-wing populism, for example,” she says. “Before Trump, before the Ford brothers, there was Don Cherry.

“And I think we need to be paying attention to him and thinking about how not only did he come to hold the position he did, but why CBC allowed Cherry to stay in this role after numerous problems. And then when Rogers had a chance to do something different, they put him right back in there.”

Shoalts feels Cherry’s appeal was also beginning to wane in recent years, noting “he didn’t recognize that hockey is trying to be diverse.”

“He wasn’t as nearly the cultural force as he was, say, 15 years ago even, so his departure now will probably have a little less impact than it would have even 10 years ago,” Shoalts says.

“His opinions became less important to a greater number of people.”

Allain hopes “Hockey Night in Canada” moves in a different direction, and does not try to duplicate Cherry.

“We need new, progressive, interesting voices. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that space — a space to talk about more progressive issues in hockey, or a space where we can disrupt the kind of common sense understanding about who should be talking about hockey?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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