If Don Cherry could have the moment back, he says he would have chosen his words more carefully.
The veteran sportscaster — who lost his job with Sportsnet on Monday for his remarks about immigrants not wearing poppies — says his dismissal all came down to poor phrasing.
During the Coach’s Corner segment on Saturday, Cherry said of immigrants: “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.”
On Tuesday, Cherry told CBC, “I think using the two words ‘you people,’ I think that had to do it,” referring to his dismissal.
Cherry added that his many good deeds — he mentioned helping Montreal Canadiens forward Max Domi with the launch of his book on growing up with diabetes — are being overshadowed by his word choice.
“Not a word was said about that, but you used two words and that’s where it goes,” said Cherry.
In retrospect, he said he sees how he could have made his point differently.
“I think it was a mistake,” he said. But I think the big thing was that I should have said ‘everybody’ — that was the big, big thing.”
Players across the NHL reacted to Cherry’s remarks on Tuesday.
Domi wouldn’t say if he agreed with Sportsnet’s decision, but was quick to express admiration for a man he calls a family friend.
“I love Don Cherry. I always have, always will,” Domi said on Tuesday after the Habs’ morning skate. “He’s a big reason why most of us play hockey. We grew up looking up to a guy like that, watching Coach’s Corner and stuff. It’s unfortunate what happened, it’s sad. He’s a big part of hockey.”
Domi got to know Cherry when his dad, Tie, played in the NHL. Cherry regularly has voiced his support for tough players like Tie, who is third on the NHL’s career penalty minutes list.
Fellow Canadiens forward Nick Cousins acknowledged the news about Cherry caught him off guard.
“I was pretty surprised they fired him,” Cousins said. “But obviously you make those comments, it kind of puts them in a tough spot.”
Things will be “completely different,” now, he said.
“You grow up watching Hockey Night in Canada … every Saturday night he’s on there and he’s always got a pretty strong opinion on things. Sometimes he crosses the line. Obviously, he crossed the line there a couple nights ago. That’s what happens nowadays. So it’s tough to see.”
Quebec Premier Francois Legault was far more critical — Cherry is “a bit of a clown,” he said in an interview on Quebec City radio station FM 98.9.
“Effectively, I’ve often seen him dumping on francophones. Now he’s doing it against immigrants … I think he shocks people for the sake of being shocking, for the pleasure of shocking.
“It was about time someone put him in his place, so I think it’s a very good decision from Sportsnet,” Legault added. “I’ll be able to start watching hockey again in English.”
In the Toronto Maple Leafs’ locker room, meanwhile, the feeling was disappointment, both with Cherry’s words on Saturday and the rough finish for a nearly 40-year run on HNIC.
“I think he’s meant a lot to the game and provided a lot,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “[It’s] obviously disappointing, what happened and the result. I think everyone would wish something like this didn’t happen and didn’t come to these types of circumstances.”
Leafs centre Jason Spezza said he was a big fan of Coach’s Corner growing up.
“I’m not one to weigh into it too much, but what makes Canada great is the equality we have and how diverse our culture is,” said Spezza, who was drafted first overall by the Mississauga IceDogs when Cherry was a part-owner of the Ontario Hockey League team in 1999.
“You don’t like anything discriminatory that offends anyone, but Don is an icon. You don’t like to see things end that way. He was someone that was part of hockey for a long time,” he said.
Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman had similar thoughts.
“He’s a legend in the hockey world,” Hyman said. “He’s been around hockey forever. I grew up watching him on TV. It was cool when he talked about me playing for the first time. That was awesome. But at the end of the day, you can’t say stuff like that today.”
The story also was a hot topic in Boston, where Cherry used to coach the Bruins. Current Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was critical of Cherry’s comments.
“Hockey versus politics, I try to stay away from that. I don’t agree with what he said,” Cassidy said. “I love the fact he was a great coach for the Bruins years ago, love the way the team played. But that’s just not the way I think.”
Meanwhile, a longtime friend, lawyer and business partner of Cherry’s says the native of Kingston, Ont., is “disappointed on a lot of fronts.”
“He’s disappointed that some people he counted on — friends and allies in the media — turned on him at a time of need, and didn’t give him support and in fact went out of their way to distance themselves from him,” said Trevor Whiffen, a former general manager of the IceDogs and now the governor of the OHL’s London Knights.
“Don is an extremely loyal person. Anybody that values loyalty expects loyalty. Don is always disappointed when those around him don’t reciprocate.”