Bettman declines to weigh in on Cherry, says MacLean "spoke from the heart"

TORONTO — Given the seismic events on "Hockey Night in Canada" in recent days, Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley's scheduled appearance on a roundtable Monday looked like a great get for the Primetime sports management conference.

The last "Coach's Corner" segment and Don Cherry's departure were still hot talking points among the sports media executives on the panel even though Yabsley was not in attendance.

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"For those of you who were hoping to see Bart here, I can tell you from experience I went through something similar at the CBC with the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme song — I think I hid in my condo for a week," former Sportsnet president Scott Moore told the packed conference room.

"You get everything from the Twitter lynch mobs coming after you to death threats. So for Bart to have been here today, it would have been all anybody wanted to talk about, and I think that would have been unfair to him and unfair to the conference."

A schedule conflict was the reason for Yabsley's absence, a Sportsnet spokesperson said via email.

Cherry's firing and its ramifications have dominated the Canadian news cycle since his departure was announced.

The 85-year-old broadcaster made comments on "Coach's Corner" on Nov. 9 that many felt were critical of immigrants for not wearing Remembrance Day poppies. Cherry used the phrase, 'You people,' during the segment but later denied that he was singling out visible minorities.

Yabsley issued a statement the next day apologizing for Cherry's "divisive remarks" and MacLean apologized on the air that evening. Cherry, who did not apologize, was fired Nov. 11.

MacLean opened the first intermission segment last Saturday night — the first since Cherry was let go — by speaking alone on camera for nearly five minutes.

MacLean talked at length about his close relationship with Cherry during his monologue but said he had to choose "principle over friendship," adding "Coach's Corner is no more."

Moore, also a former CBC executive, appeared on a panel with Bell Media's Shawn Redmond, the vice-president of Discovery Networks and TSN, CBC Sports & Olympics executive director Chris Wilson and moderator Christine Simpson of Sportsnet.

Moore declined to discuss specifics on Cherry's departure.

"I think the events of the last 10 days or so have been really unfortunate for Don and for Rogers," he said. "It's not the way anybody wanted for Don's career to come to an end.

"He has been the most influential hockey commentating voice in Canada for the last 40 years."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman did not weigh in on the developments during a keynote interview appearance at the conference. However, he was asked about Cherry during a brief availability with reporters afterwards.

"I believe the CBC has had a number of statements, we've had a number of statements, Don has spoken and I'm not going to start another news cycle," Bettman said.

HNIC was a longtime CBC Saturday night staple, but the show and its games moved to Sportsnet in 2014 after Rogers agreed to a lucrative, long-term rights deal with the NHL.

"Coach's Corner" and HNIC are still broadcast on CBC in a sub-licensing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.

"Ron obviously made his feelings clear and spoke from the heart," Bettman added.

MacLean was the subject of some initial criticism for not calling Cherry out on his comments and offering a thumbs-up gesture. His monologue drew mixed reviews online, with some applauding him for providing an honest, candid take on the situation while critics felt he could have gone further.

Moore, now the CEO of athlete empowerment brand Uninterrupted Canada, felt MacLean had "been caught in the crossfire," adding that it would be "totally unfair" for him to take any of the blame.

"In a live environment, for him to have even noticed that something was awry — and it was not incredibly obvious to everyone at the time — for him to have noticed it while he's getting spoken to in his ear, while he's having to worry about getting to a videotape, while he's trying to get to a commercial, that would have been impressive enough for him to notice it," Moore said.

"So for people to say that Ron should have solved this problem, they are naive about the process and are being unfair to Ron," Moore added. "So I just think it's been a tough week for all involved."

Cherry joined HNIC in 1980 as a playoff analyst and was so popular that he was kept on as a colour commentator.

CBC later created "Coach's Corner" as a vehicle to showcase Cherry, with MacLean eventually replacing Dave Hodge as co-host.

Sportsnet is exploring new format options for the first intermission, a spokesperson said.

A Postmedia report on Monday said that Cherry was starting a new podcast, with the first episode scheduled for release Tuesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2019.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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