Grapes stepped out of his lane and into the doo-doo

Published Nov. 13, 2019

No matter on which side of the fence you reside when it comes to the incredibly polarizing cashiering of commentator Don Cherry by Sportsnet, i.e. Hockey Night In Canada, one thing should be clear: Grapes has only himself to blame.

Freedom of speech doesn’t equate to the freedom from the consequences of said speech. And Cherry, who got the ziggy for wandering out of his hockey lane and ranting about immigrants under the guise of Canadian patriotism, pushed his agenda too far on the air last Saturday. No one told him to do it.

Cherry’s has been the Mouth That Roared on HNIC for decades, doing his between-periods “Coach’s Corner.” And those unfiltered types almost invariably stray from their primary purpose, only to step into doo-doo in the process.

Comparison to ‘Jimmy the Greek’

Sometimes the moment is unguarded and outside the studio, as was the case with Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, whose offhand comments about black athletes during a TV interview at a Washington, D.C. restaurant in January 1988 got him fired by CBS.

But in Cherry’s case, the remarks tumbled out of Grapes’ mouth like a gumball from a dispenser, in the studio, in familiar territory for him. To wit:

“I live in Mississauga [Ontario]. Very few people wear the poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears the poppy. … Now you go to the small cities. You people … that come here, whatever it is — 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 for that.”

The key words in Cherry’s spiel were “You people,” because Grapes was referring to immigrants. But beyond that, the framework of his diatribe was that, in Don Cherry’s world, there’s only one way to show patriotism: by wearing the poppy. To not do so is, by extrapolation, to be unpatriotic.

There’s nothing wrong with Cherry’s passion and support for Canada’s military veterans, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And, it being on the virtual eve of Remembrance Day, one can argue that it was topical.

But not really. Because it wasn’t about hockey.

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‘Hockey Grapes’ = no harm, no foul

Don Cherry didn’t stay in his lane. He strayed, and into the doo-doo he stepped.

Cherry, love him or hate him, has been entertaining hockey fans for nearly 40 years on HNIC and with his short-lived TV show in the 1980s, “Don Cherry’s Grapevine.” His boisterous, loudmouth persona plays well with hockey enthusiasts. His frequent fawning over his three favorite players—Bobby Orr, Doug (Dougie) Gilmour and Steve (Stevie) Yzerman—became legendary.

Even Cherry’s unbridled disdain (since softened slightly) for players not from North America was winked at. While a form of hockey xenophobia, there was no real harm done. So Don Cherry hates European players—so what? As more players dotted NHL rosters who weren’t from Canada or the United States, it was obvious to everyone (except maybe Cherry himself) that Grapes’ vitriol was nothing more than a losing battle and made him look rather silly. But it was all in good fun.

Cherry liked a good on-ice scrap. So what? He took the perhaps antiquated stance that the more fighting there was in the game, the less stick work there was. No harm, no foul.

He didn’t like players who wore face shields. So what? Everyone knows that among professional athletes, hockey players are among the last you could accuse of being less than manly. That was just Grapes being Grapes.

His repartee on the air with his foil, Ronnie MacLean, gave Canada maybe the country’s best entertainment duo since Wayne and Shuster were at their peak in the 1950s and ’60s. MacLean was Cherry’s straight man. Loudmouth boobs always like to have quiet, unassuming folks around them. MacLean sat right next to Cherry but yet he was barely there. Still, you couldn’t imagine Don Cherry on camera by himself; he needed someone to function as a sounding board. MacLean filled that role perfectly, if quietly at times.

‘Non-hockey Grapes’ = potential danger

Cherry is 85 and it’s amazing, frankly, that it took him this long to step into the doo-doo. But therein lies the lesson: If Grapes had only stuck to hockey, he’d be on the air this Saturday night, on schedule.

This isn’t to say that sports commentators can’t mention, at all, anything that isn’t directly related to their respective areas of expertise. But Cherry didn’t know when to stop. He could have paid his respects to his beloved country and its warriors without going out of his way to berate those who don’t “wear the poppy.”

With nothing to lose now, Cherry has doubled down on his remarks. Those who thought that Grapes would curl into a ball, apologize and beg for his job back, have probably never watched 30 seconds of any randomly selected “Coach’s Corner” segment. The closest Cherry has come to offering a mea culpa was in saying that he maybe should have “used different words.”

He shouldn’t have used different words. He should have not ventured into the territory to begin with.

To talk in hockey terms as they do with goalies who let in a soft goal, perhaps Grapes would like to “have that one back.” Maybe even he of the big mouth wishes that he had exercised some degree of self-restraint.

As for the polarization, the support for Cherry is palpable. Social media has mostly rallied around Grapes. He’s saying what Canadians are thinking, his supporters insist. Maybe. But maybe not all Canadians. Maybe not even the majority of Canadians.

Those same supporters have started online movements to petition for Cherry’s reinstatement. They wonder what the big kerfuffle is all about. Cherry’s critics wonder why his supporters can’t understand the kerfuffle.

But one thing remains. Don Cherry would still be employed if he only chose to not stray too far from hockey. He stepped into the doo-doo and once you do that, you can’t unstep from it. And the clean up is messy and smelly.