NHL players, politicians weigh in on end of Cherry's run on HNIC

Max Domi wasn't about to offer his opinion on Sportsnet's decision to cut ties with Don Cherry, but the Montreal Canadiens forward was quick to express his 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. That's all really we can say unfortunately nowadays."

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Sportsnet sacked Cherry on Monday, two days after many felt he was critical of immigrants for not wearing poppies on his "Coach's Corner" segment on "Hockey Night in Canada." Cherry has insisted he was not referring to immigrants and was focusing on all Canadians.

Since the segment aired, Cherry has been a hot topic at arenas across the NHL.

Domi got to know Cherry when his dad, Tie, played in the NHL. Cherry's grandson, Del, also was a close friend of Max's as a kid.

Cherry regularly has voiced his support for tough players like Tie Domi, who is third on the NHL's career penalty minutes list.

"He was a family friend of mine and someone I looked up to," Max Domi said. "I will always look up to him. He's an unbelievable guy and what he's done for this sport is remarkable."

Domi declined comment when asked if he agreed with Sportsnet's decision, instead choosing to focus on Cherry's legacy when talking to reporters.

"Like I said, it's unfortunate how everything unfolded," Domi said. "But 85 years old, that's a heck of a career. He'll always be remembered as one of the faces of sport."

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.

"It's just going to be completely different. You grow up watching 'Hockey Night in Canada,' especially being from 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 of Cherry than the two Habs forwards.

"He's a bit of a clown," the premier 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 at some point he'll say anything. 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, the feeling was one of disappointment — both with Cherry's words on Saturday and the rough finish for a nearly 40-year run on HNIC.

"Disappointing on many fronts — obviously the comments, but certainly the way his tenure ended," Leafs captain John Tavares said. "I think he's meant a lot to the game and provided a lot. 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 has a unique perspective after being drafted first overall by the Ontario Hockey League's Mississauga IceDogs when Cherry was a part-owner in 1999. With the team at the bottom of the standings, Spezza requested a trade and was eventually dealt to Windsor.

Spezza said he was a big fan of "Coach's Corner" growing up.

"It's sad. 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," Spezza said. "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."

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. You've got to be accepting of everyone. 'Hockey Is For Everyone' is one of our slogans with the NHL, and that's really true. That sort of stuff is unacceptable."

The story also was a talking point 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 for Cherry 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."

— With files from Alexis Belanger-Champagne and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal and Joshua Clipperton in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.

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