The Red Deer Rebels sport Don Cherry style jerseys last season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Opinion: WHL can’t avoid fallout of Don Cherry firing

The fallout from Don Cherry’s firing at Hockey Night in Canada has stretched far and wide and has come in all shapes and forms.

You can’t go far without finding someone who has an opinion on the issue and as time rolls on, it’s beginning to reverberate deeper than that.

The WHL will even see some fallout from the comments.

One way or another, the league and its partners will have to decide how to move forward.

Over the past three years, the WHL has participated in a campaign called “WHL Suits Up with Don Cherry to Promote Organ Donation.”

It’s a great cause, raising almost half a million dollars for research of kidney disease in Canada.

Teams sported jerseys that represented the familiar flamboyant suits that Cherry regularly rocked on Hockey Night in Canada. They were signed and auctioned off. They handed out bobbleheads. It was a great initiative.

This year, the WHL was set to “spark nostalgia” in hockey fans by celebrating the history of Hockey Night in Canada.

Before we get into the meat of that, whether you think he was right or wrong, Don Cherry is a Canadian icon. His rants on Coach’s Corner, while growing more and more tired with age, hit the heart of this nation every Saturday for the past 37 years. He was voted the seventh greatest Canadian in 2004.

As a kid, I would wait patiently for the weekend to see what Don had to say about particular issues. I would tremble with excitement about the idea of getting one of his VHS Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em movies for Christmas.

Don stood up for Canada at a time when the country was still trying to find its identity — when it was the little brother to the United States, always too polite, afraid to be too patriotic or voice loudly any strong-willed opinion. Cherry wore his heart on his sleeve and said what he thought, right or wrong — the consequences be damned.

Canada needed him back then and maybe we don’t so much anymore. His voice had grown tired and weary, both figuratively and literally.

These days, he mispronounced almost every other word, mixed up sentences, confusing subjects and his message was falling on deaf ears a lot of weeks.

What he said the other night was wrong and even if he didn’t admit it at the time, he has done so now in multiple TV interviews.

You may not think so, because scores of people drove to Facebook and signed petitions to defend him.

But the 85-year-old man who uttered the words wished he said something different. What he wished he said is that everyone should wear a poppy, which would rank somewhere outside the top 50 controversial things he’s ever said.

In fact, that’s a pretty straight forward and inclusive statement.

Just so we’re clear, that’s not what he said. He said, “I live in Mississauga, nobody wears a poppy – very few people wear a poppy. Downtown Toronto, forget it. Nobody wears a poppy. You go to the small cities — the rows on rows, you people — you come here or whatever it is, you love our way of life; you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple bucks for a poppy.”

Those are the words he used.

Beyond you people, the two places he singled out, Mississauga and Toronto, have a large population of visible minorities. It’s not hard to see what he meant, even if he claims to have not meant it.

I’m not here to tell you whether you should be offended or not by those words, but he baselessly and unfairly singled out a group of people. That’s not right. There are consequences for saying things like that on national TV, mistakenly or not.

Which brings us full circle to what I really wanted to get to.

In the wake of what Cherry said, can the show for the WHL really go on like nothing happened? Can 17 teams really wear Cherry related jerseys in January and have his name plastered all over WHL arenas?

RE/MAX, the title sponsor of the event said it is in discussions with the league and the charities involved with how to move forward.

As a business decision for them, the optics would not be great if they decided to hold the games anyway.

Either way, it seems, the WHL will risk isolating fans with their decision. It’s a precarious position.

In a press release last year, a quote from Cherry hit on what was called the Logan Boulet Effect. The effect saw organ donation cards signed by hundreds of thousands of people after hearing Boulet’s story. He was killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash but his organs were donated and ended up saving the lives of six people.

Why not make Boulet the face of the event? Have teams wear versions of Humboldt Broncos-style jerseys? What better way for the event to stay on track and raise money for the same cause, simply with a different name that is also recognizable across the country.

Many will still pine for the Cherry-style jersey and it’s understandable. They’re unique and for many, they symbolize a piece of their childhood. A deeper connection to hockey than even the ice itself.

But this country was united by the Broncos bus crash and hockey fans were drawn to it for a variety of reasons. If the WHL were to follow this idea, hockey fans can look at those Humboldt-style jerseys and remember how powerful those emotions were across Canada after the crash.

Boulet can be that symbol we can all get behind for a good reason. We can use this moment as a tip of the cap to Cherry, as even he recognized Boulet as a powerful symbol to unite us all.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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