Tuesday, November 12, 2019

I grew up on Coach’s Corner. Don Cherry’s fall has been hard to watch

I can’t believe they actually did it.

News broke Monday afternoon that Don Cherry had been fired from “Hockey Night in Canada,” after Saturday’s comments that singled out immigrants for a lecture on the importance of poppies and patriotism.

Fired. Not gently nudged out to pasture at the end of a season. Not allowed to resign at a time and place of his choosing. No mutual parting of the ways, with friendly well wishes for future endeavors. They actually canned him, after 39 years.

This time, Cherry went too far in a way that he hadn’t before, at least not so brazenly. Or maybe he had, and people like me just weren’t listening closely enough, to him or to the people he was targeting. But as more than a few people said in the aftermath of Saturday’s comments, this time felt different.

Whether his fans want to admit it or not, Saturday’s poppy rant was vintage Cherry. Bigoted and bullying, maybe without even realizing it, or maybe just without caring. Love him or hate him, you can’t say that he changed for the worse. The rest of us did, for the better. Or at least enough of us did that it finally tilted the scales toward the side that plenty of Canadians had been on all along, waiting for the rest of us to catch up. We’ll say that he finally crossed the line, but the truth is the line finally moved beneath him, far enough that he couldn’t get away with it anymore. For all the reasons laid out by Sunaya Sapurji, this was finally the moment where it had to end.

I said as much on Monday. Except I didn’t really. When it came to actually write the words – Don Cherry should be fired – I ducked and dodged. I’ve watched the guy for almost his entire run, and counted myself as a fan for most of it, and being a Cherry guy has always meant knowing when to avert your eyes. So instead, I wrote that it was going to be a tough call, and I was glad I didn’t have to make it.

They made it, and Cherry is gone. At 85 years old and midway through what was probably going to be his final season, he finally went too far.

There are going to be a ton of people, fans and media alike, who are thrilled at the news, because it’s what they’ve wanted for years, maybe decades. There will be others who never really watched Cherry and don’t understand why he ever mattered, but will weigh in anyways because these days that’s what you have to do.

I don’t fall into either category. I grew up watching Cherry, both on “Coach’s Corner” and through his various other outlets. I owned all the tapes. I listened to the radio segments and watched him interview people at his bar. He was the cornerstone of how I came to view the game. Something would happen – a big game, a fight, a trade – and my first instinct would be “I wonder what Grapes is going to say about this.” And then we’d all crowd around the TV and shush each other when it was time to find out.

Sometimes, I’d nod along, or cheer him on. Other times, I’d shake my head, or worse. Occasionally, I’d know it was one of those times to avert my eyes. You get good at it after a while if you let yourself. You might not even realize you’re doing it.

As the years went by, the shake-your-head moments came more frequently. Even the biggest Cherry fan would admit that he’s been coasting on shtick for years. The costumes got sillier, the takes more rambling, the mispronunciations more embarrassing. Occasionally he’d say something especially dumb, and you’d have to figure out if you could come up with a reason why he should still have his platform. It got harder and harder as the years went by. Plenty of one-time fans stopped bothering.

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