By Jesse Robitaille
On today’s date in 2019, the once-celebrated hockey commentator Don Cherry was fired by Sportsnet two days after making controversial on-air comments directed towards immigrants.
Cherry, then 85, was fired following a nearly four-decade run on Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) after suggesting immigrants were dishonouring the country’s veterans by failing to wear poppies. As he often does, Cherry was soapboxing – beyond the scope of hockey – during his “Coach’s Corner” segment, a long-running tradition of the first intermission of HNIC.
“You people … 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,” said Cherry, who later refused to apologize, telling the Toronto Sun, “I know what I said and I meant it.”
Don Cherry’s rant on immigrants:
“You people… love our way of life, love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.”
Ron MacLean nodded and gave a thumbs up. pic.twitter.com/OXnIwV1n9T
— Rosa Hwang | 황지연 (@journorosa) November 10, 2019
On Nov. 10, a day after Cherry made his comments, Sportsnet President Bart Yabsley issued a statement.
“Sports brings people together—it unites us, not divides us. 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,” Yabsley wrote.
“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 over the past 40 years. We would like to thank Don for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting in Canada.”
Cherry was mostly unapologetic in his first post-termination interview with the Toronto Sun.
“I know what I said and I meant it,” he told the Sun for a report published a day after his firing. “Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honour our fallen soldiers. I speak the truth and I walk the walk. I have visited the bases of the troops, been to Afghanistan with our brave soldiers at Christmas, been to cemeteries of our fallen around the world and honoured our fallen troops on Coach’s Corner.”
He later told CBC News he considered his statements “a mistake.”
“But I think the big thing was that I should have said ‘everybody’—that was the big, big thing.”
The number of complaints submitted after Cherry’s on-air comments exceeded the technical processing capacity of the Canadian Broadcasting Standards Council (CBSC), a self-regulatory organization created by Canada’s private broadcasters.
The National Hockey League (NHL) issued a statement on Nov. 10, saying hockey “is at its best when it brings people together.”
“The comments made last night were offensive and contrary to the value we believe in.”
Many politicians, journalists and athletes also responded to Cherry’s comments.
In a tweet on Nov. 10, Jagmeet Singh, the federal New Democratic Party leader, highlighted the war-time efforts of his great-grandfather Hira Singh, who served in both world wars for the Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army.
Don, let me introduce you to “#youpeople”
My great grandfather, Hira Singh, who served in WW1 & WW2 under the British.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) November 10, 2019
Born in Kingston, Ont., but a resident of Mississauga, Cherry joined HNIC as a playoff analyst in 1980. He was “so popular that he was kept on as a colour commentator,” according to a 2019 report from CBC, which later created Coach’s Corner “as a vehicle to showcase Cherry.”
A DON CHERRY STAMP?
With that, it’s time to discuss the worthiness of living stamp subjects.
Of course, there’s no postage donning Cherry’s face, and it’s safe to say he’s one living Canadian whose philatelic commemoration is now entirely out of the question.
While a Cherry stamp seems far-fetched today, this wasn’t always the case.
In 2004, he cracked the top 10 in “The Greatest Canadian” competition by CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, which promoted Cherry’s brand for several decades before licensing the HNIC rights in 2014 to Rogers, which owns Sportsnet.
Not quite the “greatest,” Cherry ended up sandwiched between Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who placed eighth, and our 14th prime minister Lester B. Pearson, who was also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Excluding Cherry, the only other person in the top 10 who isn’t the subject of a Canadian stamp is David Suzuki.
And while Cherry never donned a stamp, one of his closest friends – and former players – is the subject of four issues.
In 2000, 2014 and 2017, Canada Post commemorated Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr on four stamps.
The first Orr stamp, from the five-year “NHL All-Stars” set, was issued in conjunction with the 50th NHL All-Star Game, held in Toronto. The stamp features an artistic action vignette of Orr emerging from a spotlighted ice surface.
The second issue, released in 2014 as part of Canada Post’s “Original Six” series, depicts a more realistic on-ice representation of a helmetless Orr. As an interesting aside, a Canada Post official presented Cherry with a framed edition of this stamp plus other collectibles during an HNIC segment.
Lastly, in 2017, Canada Post featured Orr on two stamps – one of which was designed like a hockey card – in its “Canadian Hockey Legends” set.
Lo and behold, Orr responded to Cherry’s 2019 firing during an interview with the Boston radio station WEEI.
“I know Grapes better than anybody,” said Orr. “He’s not a bigot and he’s not a racist. This guy is the most generous, caring guy that I know. What they’ve done to him up there is disgraceful, it really is. It’s a new world I guess. Freedom of speech doesn’t matter.”
About a year after the Cherry controversy, Orr became embroiled in trouble of his own after taking out a full-page ad in the Oct. 30, 2020-dated issue of the New Hampshire Union Leader, in which he endorsed the re-election bid of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“The attacks on our president have been unrelenting since the day he took office,” Orr wrote in his ad, which also features a large photograph of him and Trump giving the thumbs up. “Despite that, President Trump has delivered for all the American people, regardless of race, gender or station in life. That’s the kind of teammate I want.”
A Canadian Press report published on the same day as the ad also stated: “Trump’s tumultuous first term in office has been beset in recent months by high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, as well as protests in major American cities against racism and police brutality that have sometimes turned violent.”
A few days after the ad was published, Bill Kelly, the host of the Bill Kelly Show on Global News Radio 900 CHML, wrote about how the Trump endorsement from Orr and other high-profile athletes, including John Daly, Dennis Rodman and Mike Tyson, diminished his respect for those sports icons.
“The record shows that both are the greatest of all time in their sport and that cannot be denied, but their endorsement of a man who demeans women and minorities, admires dictators and lies to people who put their trust in him, diminishes and indelibly stains the character of both men and knocks them off the pedestal that many admirers, including me, had placed them on.”
LIVING PEOPLE AS STAMP SUBJECTS
The first living person other than a reigning monarch to appear on a Canadian stamp was pianist Oscar Peterson in 2005.
In the nearly decade and a half since the Peterson stamp was issued, many living Canadians have been honoured on the country’s postage. Before 2005, however, this approach was virtually unheard of.
There were two main reasons why.
The first reason was to avoid promoting individuals who were seeking personal aggrandizement—business owners, politicians or anyone with an apparent conflict of interest.
The second reason was to avoid honouring someone who might later embarrass Canada Post, Canada or Canadians in general (looking at you, Don).
Speaking with former Stamp Advisory Committee Chair Robert Waite in 2017, I was told the 12-person committee “had tight criteria,” with the potential honouree needing a “mature body of work … and they had to be vetted through either the Order of Canada process or the Governor Generals Award scheme. Both have robust vetting processes.”
You might have guessed Cherry never earned the Order of Canada or Governor Generals Award – and you’d be right – but now you can pretty well guarantee he’ll never be on a Canadian stamp either.