Commentary

Will Cherry conform to keep his job?

Updated: December 10, 2013, 9:29 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Don CherryJohn E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY SportsDon Cherry doesn't stick to discussing hockey. He'll venture into politics and other hot-button topics.

Yelps went up when the NHL announced recently that its new, exclusive Canadian broadcast rights deal includes media conglomerate Rogers Communications taking editorial control over the "Hockey Night in Canada" institution after a 61-year run on the CBC.

The country's hockey-crazed fans weren't just wondering whether Rogers would muck up the Saturday night game broadcasts that have been a bonding experience and destination viewing for generations. A headline in the Toronto Star treated the speculation about the now-uncertain future of the irascible star of the show these past 30-plus years as if he was some head of state:

"CBC's Don Cherry to address nation Saturday night."

And all because Cherry, the cage-rattling 79-year-old commentator for "Hockey Night in Canada" 's between-period feature called "Coach's Corner" -- a man who was once called a cross between Rush Limbaugh and John Madden -- had been ambushed by reporters at a Tuesday night promotional appearance just hours after the NHL's 12-year, $5.2 billion deal with Rogers Communications was announced Nov. 26. And for once, he was flummoxed.

"I have no idea what's going on," Cherry told reporters. "So I'm asking you guys -- do I have a job?"

Even now, the question of "Will Cherry be back?" -- or even "Should he be back?" -- remains unsettled. It's been fodder for a piping hot national debate.

Canadian hockey fans, the media, and players who have grown up watching Cherry have spent a lot of time parsing the remarks of everyone from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to Rogers Media president Keith Pelley to Scott Moore, Cherry's former boss at the CBC, who will shape Rogers' new coverage as president of broadcasting. Cherry's fans say it should help that Bettman called him "a great talent" and "a good friend," right? But Pelley has been characterized as everything from "noncommittal" to absolutely committed to splashing Cherry across every wireless, TV and digital platform Rogers has.

And Cherry? He declined to be interviewed for this story through a CBC spokesman, and hasn't publicly addressed the matter outside his Coach's Corner segment that he did, as promised, use as a pulpit last Saturday. He was wearing one of his typically loud custom-made suits, he'd clearly regained his bearings, and he didn't disappoint the two million or so viewers.

Staring straight into the camera and speaking directly to his new bosses, Cherry began his usual seven-minute segment with sidekick Ron MacLean by saying, "I know I'm good ... I know everybody watches. So all I'm saying is take it easy, don't try to ruin a good thing. Just leave us alone, and we'll be just as good next year." For Cherry admirers and critics alike, the experience of seeing such a combative man cornered like this is disorienting.

Vulnerability is not something often associated with this man who was once voted the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time, ahead of Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Graham Bell, in a 2004 CBC poll that drew 140,000 votes.

Cherry is a Canadian broadcasting icon in the same way that American legend Vin Scully is -- if, you know, Scully had a xenophobic Evil Twin. Cherry has been infamous over the years for railing against hockey players for sins such as wearing visors to protect their eyes, or refusing to drop their gloves to fight. The other day, he characterized a just-filed players' concussion lawsuit against the NHL as a "money grab."

He regularly makes sweeping generalizations about favorite targets like European players and Quebecois separatists, a hot-button political issue in Canada. He has been called an important part of "Hockey Night in Canada" 's iconic place in the country, and he has been derided as the loudmouth leader of a "Romper Room for Reactionaries" by Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, who wrote this devastating time-to-go column.

The praise and criticism are simultaneously true.

So how did Cherry -- who worked for a taxpayer-funded public television network, after all -- manage to last even this long?

"If I had to try to put 'Hockey Night in Canada' and Don Cherry into some sort of reference point for Americans, I'd say take what Monday Night Football is there and multiply it by three," Moore, speaking from his Rogers' network office, said in a phone interview. "That's the tradition. It defines Saturday night in Canada … and, this will date me, but he's our Howard Cosell. Except Don is more of a lightning rod than Howard ever was.

"The great thing about Don that makes him a challenge to manage is everyone in Canada, from my father to the prime minister to religious leaders to minor league hockey players -- all pay attention to what he says," Moore continued. "And one of the beauties of working with Don" -- here Moore laughs -- "is in broadcasting, you spend all your life searching for a personality people react to this strongly."

Everyone knows Cherry's run has to end sometime. But not a soul who knows him is surprised that even now -- eight weeks shy of his 80th birthday -- he has never publicly addressed when he might retire.

He has often said "Hockey is my life." Before he coached the Boston Bruins for five seasons in Bobby Orr's day and guided the team to the 1977 and '78 Stanley Cup finals (winning neither against hated Montreal), he was a brawling minor-league defenseman for 16 seasons.

He once calculated he moved his family 53 times during that span while playing in backwater rinks from Trois-Rivières to Spokane. But all it got him as a player, anyway, was a one-game NHL stint with the '54-'55 Bruins in which he didn't register a goal, a point or a penalty minute. So he knows something about taking blows, getting back up, ignoring the fact that a lot of people out there may not like him, and then soldiering on anyway, convictions in tow.

And he brought the same screw-you attitude to broadcasting after the Bruins canned him as head coach.

"I know exactly what I'm saying, so that when I'm fired, it won't be a slip of the tongue," Cherry once told ESPN's Scott Burnside. "Everything I want to say, I say."

Further clouding any predictions about Cherry's future is this: Although Rogers struck a sub-licensing deal with CBC that will allow "Hockey Night in Canada" to stay on the network through 2018, Rogers' staffers will take over producing the show. Pelley and Moore have both spoken of this as a golden chance to re-boot the way Canada's national sport has traditionally been covered, without going so far as to say that a holdover like Cherry is as old-school as it gets.

Moore does admit that back in his own CBC days when he oversaw "Hockey Night in Canada," he often had to go upstairs and defend Cherry to other network executives who loathed the many controversies Cherry sparked with his mouth.

"I'd have people there tell me in the most emotional terms, 'We have to fire Don Cherry!' and I had others tell me in the same heated terms: 'The CBC would be crazy to fire Don Cherry!' " Moore says with a laugh. "Don's fiercest critics tell me he's a scourge on the game, he shouldn't be on airwaves. But I've also had many of them call me separately and ask, 'Do you think you could get me an autograph from Don?' He's somewhat polarizing. Yet he's engaging."

That said, even Moore will not categorically say Cherry is such a titanic figure that Rogers will give him carte blanche to call his shots regarding how he wants to fit into the new firmament when Rogers takes all of Canada's NHL broadcasting next season. Moore strongly hints there's a place for Cherry going forward -- but Cherry may have to bend some to Rogers' wishes, too.

Can Cherry do that? Is he capable of taming his maverick streak out of necessity, or precisely because he realizes hockey has been his life? What will Rogers' execs decide about him, if anything, during the planning meetings they're holding?

Moore says only, "I've talked to Don. We've agreed we'll sit down and have a chat ... Don's had the same format for a very long time. He is man of habit. I remember when I came into CBC, I suggested a small tweak to the Coach's Corner format, a switch to shooting it with the standard two cameras. And Don fought me and fought me to keep shooting it with one camera straight on. He strongly believes having the audience see Ron's [MacLean's] reactions to him are as important as his proclamations.

"So there's going to be some discussion about A) does he want to continue on B) in what format and C) whether or not it's the right partnership for us," Moore continues. "And it's way too early to figure if that's the case. We already have a good idea of some of the tone changes we'd like to see. Hockey is a religion in this country. So we need to treat it with a certain amount of respect but, at the same time, not be frightened by tradition."

What will that mean for Cherry?

Stay tuned.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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