Don Cherry

Major League Baseball isn’t the only sport getting negative publicity for incidents of racial insensitivity. Hockey, a wonderful game of speed and action that has also had its problems over the years with diversity and inclusion, had an ugly incident last weekend with a prominent commentator voicing remarks that were at best divisive, and at worse racist and xenophobic.

Former Boston Bruins head coach and longtime Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry has long been known for making acerbic, right-wing comments that border on reactionary, and being outspoken. But last week he hit a new low in public commentary with comments regarding the alleged shortcomings of recent immigrants to Canada, particularly those who’ve come to Toronto and his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario. According to Cherry, immigrants are not recognizing Canada’s version of Veterans Day, known as Remembrance Day, which is also observed on November 11.

“You people, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can a spend a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said during a “Coach’s Corner” segment that aired on Sportsnet. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.” Cherry at 85 has often voiced hardcore conservative political comments within his broadcasts, though they’ve usually been more about how today’s game isn’t tough enough, and modern athletes are overpaid and spoiled compared to those in his day.

This has been the first time though that his comments have tipped over into territory that’s distasteful and derogatory, to say nothing of mean-spirited and quite possibly racist and xenophobic. First, unless he personally walked the streets of every major Canadian city and  surveyed all the immigrants there’s no way he could rationally make any accurate statement regarding who was and wasn’t wearing poppies in tribute.

Secondly, he has no way of knowing the percentage of Canadian immigrants who are also veterans. Third, those comments have zero to do with hockey or sports, and were uttered at random out of nowhere. There was no context or foundation for them, let alone any reason for him to spontaneously make them during a game broadcast.

Not surprisingly, Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley was quick to offer a public apology, making it the next day (Sunday). “Don’s discriminatory comments are offensive and they do not represent our values and what we stand for as a network,” Yabsley said. “We have spoken with Don about the severity of this issue and we sincerely apologize for these divisive remarks.” Cherry perhaps wisely, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Canadian Press. His comments were also ripped by Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie, who called Cherry’s remarks “despicable.” “We’re proud of diverse cultural heritage and we’ll always stand up for it,” she said on Twitter. “New immigrants enrich our country for the better. We’re all Canadians and wear our poppies proudly.”

This comes on the heels of an announcement last Wednesday from USA Hockey that it is increasing the penalty for racial or derogatory slurs from a game misconduct to a match penalty. The match penalty is much harsher because it carries a five-minute penalty, ejection from the game and suspension from further participation until the player’s league has held a hearing to review the matter.

“We haven’t seen an uptick, but I’ve said one instance is too many,” Jim Smith, USA Hockey president, told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m just trying to say this has no place in our game. With everything that is going on in society, when a kid walks into an ice rink, he or she should be free from outside noise.” 

The rule applies to all U.S.-based leagues, including the United States Hockey League, the country’s top junior league and a strong feeder system for college hockey and the NHL.

Given the attitude expressed publicly by Cherry, perhaps the folks running USA Hockey are trying to prevent any other possible incidents from occurring and also giving warning to commentators and announcers that they won’t tolerate racist language and actions. Whatever the case, it’s good to see the folks that run the sport not sitting still when others express bigoted sentiments. Everyone has the right to their opinions, but leagues should make it clear they don’t endorse or embrace them.