Don Cherry’s people

This week, two disclaimers: I’m a regular contributor to CBC Radio One here in Cape Breton; and I own 29 of the 30 volumes of Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Hockey.

They were all Christmas gifts. The only time my parents didn’t get me a copy of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em was in 1992, as I recovered from pre-Christmas eye surgery. But they renewed the tradition the following year and eventually passed it on to Cathy.

Every Christmas, and every time I watched Hockey Night In Canada, I knew exactly who – and what – I was getting.

I knew this was the guy who mocked Europeans and Francophones every Saturday night from his nationally televised pulpit. I knew this was the only Canadian sports commentator endorsing fighting in professional hockey. I knew this was the loudmouth who, when described by a national women’s rights group as a misogynist, replied: “Does that mean I like massages?”

And yet I still loved getting Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos every December, largely because I appreciated Don’s humour and passion for the game – but mainly because, in these carefully-produced packages, Grapes stuck to hockey, I even agreed with some of his NHL opinions, especially his insistence that “touch-icing” is a danger to players of any age.

So, I never put a “No Rock’ Em Sock ‘Em” sign on my Christmas stocking, and I kept watching “Coach’s Corner.” Even on nights when Don was in full bluster, barely restrained by long-suffering HNIC host Ron MacLean, he usually kept hockey at the forefront. I even carried a grudging admiration for his ability to keep this up well into his ‘80s.

I wasn’t alone.

As a nation, we collectively looked the other way in 1998, when Don (and Ron, for that matter) insisted that the saddest thing about a violent Ontario Hockey League incident that resulted in a lifetime ban for Windsor Spitfires forward Jeff Kugel was that it had “given fighting a bad name.” We shrugged when Don blasted visor-wearing French hockey players and called Sidney Crosby a “hot dog.”

We bought his videos. We welcomed his celebrity endorsements, including early-‘90s aftershave commercials that played up his distaste for Russians and Swedes. We invited him to give speeches to Pee Wee players at their year-end banquets. We loudly cheered whenever he dropped the puck at games across the country. The CBC even made two (yes, two) TV-biopics of him within the past decade.

And we kept him on the air, year after year. We watched Rick Mercer, never one to lower his antennae for fearmongering and xenophobia, go suit-shopping with Grapes in 2008. We actually cared about whether “Coach’s Corner” would continue after Rogers-owned Sportsnet took control of Hockey Night In Canada from CBC in 2014.

We figured a guy that cared so much about our veterans and our soldiers, and a fellow who broke down in sobs on his first live radio broadcast following the 1997 death of his wife Rose, couldn’t be all bad.

And then he insisted that “you people that come here, you love our way of life, our milk and honey” when chastising a perceived lack of poppy-wearers in the Greater Toronto Area.

Suddenly, Grapes learned that he had finally run out of friends in high places. Less than 24 hours before letting him go, Sportsnet issued a statement decrying Don’s remarks; Ron MacLean publicly apologized for not responding to his long-time partner’s “discriminatory” comments. Even the Royal Canadian Legion, while thanking Don for his support of their members and their campaigns, issued a statement washing its hands of his disastrous on-air meltdown.

And as Rogers now seeks a way to hold onto the ad revenue poured into “Coach’s Corner” for years, I feel like we as Canadians all fall under the category of “you people” that Don routinely used as a stick to beat anyone with whom he disagreed.

Many of us reviled him, but he remained a prominent, beloved celebrity for decades. And because Don came off as a largely comic figure and a circus sideshow to “real” broadcasters (sports or otherwise), I considered him essentially harmless and let him go on his merry way.

That, unfortunately, may have played as big a role in the “milk and honey” mess as Don’s big mouth and backward beliefs. It’s one thing to castigate Grapes on social media today, but perhaps we should have done so decades ago, before he got the chance to influence a generation of Canadians now angrily defending the right to be racist.

Like it or not, we’re all complicit in this and we’re all Don Cherry’s “people” right now. I hope we remember this the next time we’re tempted to tolerate, and even elevate, hate speech cleverly disguised as Canadiana.