Is Don Cherry a right-wing extremist?

Long time hockey commentator Don Cherry has not shied away from spouting racist and anti-immigrant feelings.

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 11, 2019.

First things first. I am a lifelong hockey fan. As a teen and beyond I would watch Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) almost religiously. I was an Ottawa Senators partial season ticket holder and followed Team Canada at the Olympics and the World Championships, going so far as to travel to Prague to watch them live in 2015. I also play hockey three times a week as a middling goaltender.

For me hockey is as Canadian as maple syrup and saying sorry too much. It is one sport we claim as our own and the early Saturday morning rituals at the local arena are seared into many our memories. So many companies have used hockey as a way to brand themselves as Canadian: Tim Horton’s comes to mind immediately. Yep, hockey is an important part of who we are.

Sportsnet apologizes for Don Cherry rant on immigrants (Sports Illustrated)

That being said, is Don Cherry also who we are?

The former minor-leaguer and coach of the Boston Bruins has been a part of HNIC for as long as just about any of us can remember. Whether it was for his garish suits or his down-to-earth promotion of ‘rock-em-sock-em’ hockey, I imagine there are few Canadians who do not recognise him. Hell, he was even voted #7 in a ‘top 100 Canadians’ list a few years back.

All this despite the fact he may well be a right wing extremist.

Following disparaging remarks he made recently regarding immigrants and the wearing of a poppy on Remembrance Day, Sportsnet decided to cut Mr. Cherry from its broadcast team. For its part CBC, where Mr. Cherry reigned for decades with his inter-period Coach’s Corner, stated:  “Don Cherry’s remarks on Saturday night were divisive, discriminatory and offensive, and we respect Sportsnet’s decision that this is the right time for Don to step down.” 

Whether you see Mr. Cherry as a buffoon or a hard-nosed patriot there are some disquieting things he has said over the years which point to extreme right views.

Here is a sample:

  • 2004: he went on a rant about visors in the NHL, which prompted the commentator to say the protective gear was worn by wimps and usually sported by “Europeans and French guys.”
  • 2010: During the inauguration of Toronto mayor Rob Ford he called bicycle riders “pinkos” and celebrated Ford’s election with the phrase “put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.”
  • 2018: Citing cold weather during winter, he wondered if Ron MacLean’s “left-wing pinko friends” could explain their concerns over rising global temperatures while Toronto was experiencing a midwinter cold snap.
  • 2019: “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. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

Anti-immigrant, anti-French, anti-climate change, anti-environment.

At a minimum it would appear that Mr. Cherry is a small-c conservative (maybe a big-C one too). There is of course nothing wrong in that. Some of his views are somewhat more problematic.

There is nothing I can discern in all the remarks Mr. Cherry has made that one could demonstrate have led another person to engage in violence. Hence it would be inaccurate to call him a violent extremist. It is still an outstanding question, however, whether he is a right wing extremist. A lot of his positions are quite similar to those held by people who have taken further actions to express their views.

A lot of his positions are quite similar to those held by people who have taken further actions to express their views.

Furthermore, Mr. Cherry is a Canadian icon. He has a following and thus can inspire others with what he does and says. That should force him to be careful with his words for fear that someone will be galvanised by them to go from extreme thought to extreme action. It is not enough to maintain that he personally does not condone violence if his words could encourage it.

At the end of the day Don Cherry is probably just an old racist. That he has stooped to ridiculing others is a sad state of affairs for someone many of us once liked to listen to (including me). He should have known better.

Phil Gurski is the President of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. His latest book When Religion Kills is now available from Lynne Rienner.

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