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Sportsnet and Labatt did the right thing cutting ties with Don Cherry

Sportsnet and Labatt could have been steadfast in their support of Don Cherry and thought about the bottom line. But they didn’t and for that they should be applauded.

If not for Ralph Mellanby, Don Cherry’s television career almost certainly would have been derailed not long after it started. Not only was Mellanby, the legendary former producer of Hockey Night in Canada, most responsible for conceiving Coach’s Corner and getting Cherry on the air, he also saved Cherry from getting fired a number of times.

Mellanby recalled a tennis match he had in Ottawa with former CBC president Pierre Juneau in the late 1980s when Juneau was threatening to fire Cherry for something he had said on air. “(Hockey Night) only had three major sponsors – Imperial Oil, Ford and Molson,” Mellanby recalled. “And they were also the biggest sponsors on CBC. I said, ‘They won’t be mad that you let go of Don, but if he goes, I go. And if I go, there are going to be a lot of people upset at Molson, Imperial Oil and Ford.’ And Pierre Juneau said after our tennis match, ‘I hear you loud and clear.’ Money talks, right?”

It certainly does, and that’s precisely what kept Cherry on the television airwaves for so many years. Prior to his firing Monday for an anti-immigrant rant on Saturday night, Cherry had always been able to justify his behavior by pointing out that he was the star of the show, driving ratings and giving Canada’s national broadcaster revenue streams that filled the coffers for a lot more programming than hockey. That’s why it was interesting to see what Labatt, which is the title sponsor of Coach’s Corner through Budweiser Canada, had to say about all this. It’s not known how much pressure the brewery put on Sportsnet to dismiss Cherry, but its statement in an email to in the aftermath of the firing was telling.

“The comments made Saturday on Coach’s Corner were clearly inappropriate and divisive, and in no way reflect Budweiser’s views,” wrote Todd Allen, vice-president of marketing for Labatt Breweries of Canada. “As a sponsor of the broadcast, we immediately expressed our concerns and respect the decision which was made by Sportsnet today.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a good segment of HNIC’s viewership, many of them part of the skatey-punchy crowd, who will never allow another drop of Budweiser to taint their lips again. Which makes the Labatt decision all the more impressive. Good on them for doing the right thing. Good on Sportsnet for doing the same. By standing up to the schoolyard bully, they had the courage to do something nobody has for three decades. Both Labatt and Sportsnet had a choice. They could have been steadfast in their support of Cherry and looked warily at what this might do to their bottom line, particularly in the short-term. But they didn’t and for that they should be applauded. They stood up for tolerance and inclusion over the cash grab that comes with divisiveness.

For his part, Mellanby thinks the Cherry firing was “ridiculous,” and that he should have been reprimanded and made to apologize for the words coming out in a way they weren’t intended. There’s no evidence one way or another that Cherry would have actually done that. But when you go as far as Cherry did on Saturday night, you’re going to lose allies. Allies such as Ralph Mellanby, who went to bat for Cherry time and again. “He got in trouble a couple of times,” Mellanby said, “but I had enough power and enough authority, but also enough guts to say, ‘Wait a minute, look at all the good things he does.’ I had to follow my instincts and I defended him.”

Perhaps because HNIC is now under the purview of Sportsnet, and not the CBC, Cherry’s defenders were nowhere to be found this time. It’s hard to defend the indefensible, particularly when what Cherry did on Saturday was not an isolated incident or a one-off transgression, but rather a pattern of behavior that has repeated itself time and again over the past three decades.

When Mellanby hired Cherry back in the 1980s, Cherry’s mandate was to provide insightful, irreverent and entertaining commentary on the hockey world from the perspective of a coach. And when Cherry sticks to hockey and to telling stories about his days in the minor leagues and coaching in the NHL, he’s engaging, funny and compelling. But then came the Rock ’Em, Sock Em’ videos, the star status and the cult following that made Cherry into a television superstar. People hung on his every word and Cherry, a master at creating and perpetuating his brand, knew exactly how much power he wielded and how to appeal to his constituency. Then came the crazy suits, the outrageous comments and the sideshow.

You can never know with someone of Cherry’s appeal, but this sure looks like the end of him having a regular gig. For that, many of us, but not all of us, can be grateful. It’s too early to tell where Hockey Night is going to go with this segment in the long-term – this writer has suggested Brian Burke as a great replacement – but a complete reboot of the franchise might be a good thing, too.

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