NHL could force Cherry, MacLean off Hockey Night

Don Cherry could be a thing of the past on Hockey Night in Canada in the not-too-distant future,...

Don Cherry could be a thing of the past on Hockey Night in Canada in the not-too-distant future, Columnist Steve Simmons says.

Steve Simmons, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:54 AM ET

Over the past 31 years, in a business in which 15 minutes of fame is often all you get, Don Cherry has probably lost count of the number of times somebody wanted him fired.

If it wasn’t his own bosses or the more cerebral and dainty CBC upper management types, it was politicians in Quebec, or upset hockey executives, or angry European players, or Brian Burke, or somebody he tripped over who just didn’t like his inventive use of language.

But soon, his own people at CBC Sports may be faced with a most difficult decision. Soon, as negotiations to renew Hockey Night In Canada’s contract with the National Hockey League commence, a determination on the future of Cherry and the ever-popular Coach’s Corner segment will have to be made.

It may, in fact, be forced.

When Burke went behind Cherry’s back and made it clear to his NHL brethren that he no longer wanted Cherry on the large Hockey Night stage he found he had surprising support for the concept. He wasn’t alone in wanting the outspoken Cherry silenced. There is a sense within the NHL that Hockey Night, and in particular host Ron MacLean and Cherry, are too combative, too critical, too agenda driven for the NHL’s liking.

If this is the league’s signature program, they, like some of their friends at CBC, would prefer it to be more vanilla. Less spice.

So here’s the CBC dilemma: Cherry remains its ratings grabber. Large as the game may be, he still commands attention far beyond the game itself and long after Saturday night is over. It’s six days after game night and his anti-Burke rant is still a trending topic of conversation.

Who else can do that?

Anyone?

So what happens if the NHL, as part of their negotiating with the CBC, demands the only way they go further with CBC is without Cherry?

And that becomes the opening salvo in negotiations?

Would the CBC support their difficult meal ticket?

Or would they push Cherry out — as has been attempted but never successfully — against his and probably their better wishes?

For the record, Cherry works on year to year contracts. He has not talked about retirement in any way. He is certainly not young for a television commentator. He turned 78 last month. He doesn’t look or sound his age, but his age will certainly factor in negotiations that will be competitive.

By the time the Hockey Night contract is up, Cherry will be 80. But a year prior to that, the negotiations would have to begin on a new deal. And those negotiations, from the NHL end, are almost certain to start, according to sources, with the request of Cherry’s absence from the broadcasts.

The industry betting is, if Cherry goes, host MacLean would follow along right with him. Not that he would be forced out. It’s just this: Cherry, at this point in his life, has no interest in giving up his pulpit. MacLean, others say, would actually welcome getting his Saturday night’s back. He is relatively young, in his mid 50s, and his interests have spread in recent years. He may be happier to walk away.

But the gamble remains for the CBC. What kind of show would they have without MacLean and Cherry? Would they be taking an enormous risk in paying more for a homogenized version of its predecessor — with the NHL quite possibly choosing hosts and dictating tone of the program.

Knowing Cherry, he wants to go out on his own terms after this many years of throwing darts and having just as many thrown back at him. He has lived life in the catbird’s seat, outlasted an entire industry from his chair, and while you can question his politics, his views, his old school values, and his choice of wardrobe, you can’t question his popularity. But in this case.

There is a rather odd twist in all of this: With two seasons left on the Hockey Night deal, we are basically guaranteed two more years of Cherry and MacLean. And that’s probably it. At the same time, should life with the Maple Leafs continue on its curious path it may not be just Cherry on the way out, but his loudest critic, Burke, who will be at the end of his contract. A triple takeout — Cherry, MacLean and Burke — is not out of the realm of possibility.

But there are all kinds of salvos to be fired between now and then.


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