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Replacing Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada shouldn’t be a question of who, but what

With the breadth of on-air talent at Hockey Night in Canada, there's the opportunity to fill the first-intermission time slot once occupied by Don Cherry and Coach's Corner with more insightful, informative coverage and analysis.

For the first time in more than three decades, Canadian hockey fans will crowd around the television not to hear what Don Cherry has to say, but instead to see who it is filling the airtime that once belonged to Coach’s Corner.

Following the controversy surrounding Cherry’s comments during Saturday’s Coach’s Corner, remarks deemed “offensive” by Sportsnet and the NHL, Sportsnet announced in a statement that it “has been decided that it is the right time for (Cherry) to immediately step down.” And rest assured, as the clock ticks towards the unveiling of the new first-intermission segment, there will be no shortage of names bandied about as Cherry’s potential successor. Brian Burke, believed by the some to be the heir apparent, will have his supporters. In fact, colleague Ken Campbell made that very suggestion early Monday, prior to Sportsnet’s announcement that Cherry was out. Others will suggest a return-to-air for Nick Kypreos, and names such as Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury will undoubtedly crop up.

But perhaps the right way to tackle the question of Cherry’s successor isn’t by asking who, but rather what, will fill the airtime.

For the past several years, one of the best segments, and without question one of the most informative, in all of hockey broadcasting has been Hockey Night in Canada’s Headlines. Led by Ron MacLean, the longtime in-studio host and Cherry’s Coach’s Corner sidekick, reporters Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston have used the second-intermission to offer insight into the pressing topics and deliver updates on the NHL’s major stories. More often than not, what is discussed and divulged on Headlines is what drives discussion throughout the hockey world in the days that follow.

Further, Friedman, in particular, has become one of the sports most knowledgable insiders, his clout matched only by TSN trio Bob McKenzie, Pierre LeBrun and Darren Dreger. Filling the first intermission with an expansion of Friedman’s excellent weekly 31 Thoughts column, which has birthed a podcast of the same name and has been parodied ad nauseum by the blogosphere, would provide an added level of insight to the broadcast which doesn’t presently exist. Doubling down on the honest-to-goodness informative instead of broad-strokes analysis puts more meat on the bone for the viewer.

There also exists an opportunity, as well, for more storytelling. For years, Hockey Night In Canada has used its considerable resources to pull together well-reported and well-produced pieces on some of the game’s greats, often going beyond the scoresheet to inform viewers about the players as people. In the travels throughout country as part of Hometown Hockey, too, Sportsnet has carved out a space for illuminating and insightful human-interest stories from all corners of the country. Surely few will bristle at the idea of giving more on-air real estate to such features. Likewise, in an age when fans hunger for more behind the scenes sit-downs, the several minutes freed up seems ripe to be filled by the likes of Christine Simpson, whose interviews with players and executives are often must-see.

But beyond the expansion of pre-existing segments, is there not another way for Sportsnet to harness its power to offer something that no other broadcast either can or has in the past? During broadcasts, Sportsnet has trotted out tracking data courtesy of Sportlogiq. One wonders if there isn’t a way to translate that data and appeal to the modern crowd, using hard evidence to inform the viewer about what we’re seeing on the ice instead of the eye-test analysis that can so often be disproven. The way we discuss the game and the way we analyze it has changed, and there must be a way to better reflect that.

Admittedly, it would be foolish to believe that the end of Coach’s Corner brings with it the end of the in-game talking-head segments the likes of which Cherry popularized. But, again, maybe it’s not so much the who as it is the what. In submitting that Burke was right for the job, Campbell highlighted the very thing that separates the longtime NHL executive from his potential predecessor.

By the end of his run, Cherry was nearly 40 years removed from the last time he stepped foot behind a big-league bench and he hadn’t been intimately involved with any organization since his run as coach and director of player personnel with the Mississauga IceDogs in the early-aughts. Burke, by contrast, was the Calgary Flames’ president of hockey operations through the end of the 2017-18 season, a senior advisor with Team USA’s World Cup team in 2016, a GM as recently as the 2011-12 season and has an intimate knowledge of the league’s inner-workings – not to mention a vast network of connections – from his time working in the league’s head office. What Burke brings to a Coach’s Corner-esque segment that Cherry did and could not is highlighted no better than by Burke’s insight into the ongoing saga between the Winnipeg Jets and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

It’s unlikely we’ll know who or what will replace Cherry by this Saturday, just as it’s unlikely that whatever airs in place of Coach’s Corner this Saturday will become a permanent fixture of the now-vacated first-intermission time slot. Ultimately, this isn’t a decision that will take one week or one month. It’s entirely possible that it won’t be one that’s made by the time Hockey Night in Canada signs off for the final time this season. But when Sportsnet does settle on its solution, what fills the airtime should be as important, if not more, than who.

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