Journalism makes strange bedfellows. Don Cherry's polemic Saturday on Coach's Corner about Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke allegedly attempting to have him fired is one of those moments.
Cherry has the right to expect editorial freedom from the league that he covers. As much as we've disagreed with him, we support Cherry if a team executive tries to have him fired for taking positions contrary to the party line at the Air Canada Centre. Yes, strange bedfellows.
So long as he's accurate, Cherry's entitled to make a public show of his opinions, no matter how he's dressed, no matter how over the top his delivery. (It's up to CBC, not Cherry, to provide balance in its coverage.)
Trying to intimidate the press is nothing new for Burke. He has attempted, successfully at times, to silence his critics in media positions by going to their bosses with his complaints. We're waiting for the moment when his new employers at Rogers and Bell must choose between Burke and one of their radio, TV or print employees who've irritated the Maple Leafs' GM. For now, the friction point is between Burke and CBC, partners in the NHL national broadcast rights in Canada.
Which leads us to the other issue raised by Cherry's bombast: What's an acceptable level of criticism from a host broadcaster?
Cherry tailored the facts on Saturday about Burke trying to have him fired. It's not simply the Maple Leafs who are carrying a grudge over his flamboyant and persistent criticisms of the NHL and its product. When CBC executives made a pilgrimage to the NHL board of governors, they were rudely greeted by criticism of Cherry and MacLean from the Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks, whose complaints about biased coverage and editorial failings have been voiced on other occasions.
The league, too, has been less than enthusiastic about Cherry's demeaning of the new rules, discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, and the refereeing. Commissioner Gary Bettman appears to be boycotting Hockey Night in Canada after several contentious interviews with MacLean. Some of this is predictable, of course. As the expression goes, journalism's goal is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But it is becoming clear that CBC may pay a price for countenancing the Ron 'n' Don agenda of old-time values. NHL officials would not comment publicly on whether the pair would be an impediment to CBC retaining all or some of the next national TV rights package in Canada, which begin in 2014. But the sentiment in the league office seems to be, can anyone imagine the NFL's broadcast partners being as constantly critical of the game, its officials, clubs, league and, particularly, the commissioner as Cherry/MacLean have been?
This became toxic this year when Cherry mocked the league's disciplinary department and referees. While it doesn't want to censor its broadcaster, the league does feel it could stand a little love once in a while from the stars of its Canadian partner.
Jeffrey Orridge, CBC vice-president of sports properties, told Usual Suspects that CBC would not publicly discuss the issue of whether Cherry/MacLean could cost them HNIC. But we have learned that HNIC and CBC employees are concerned that the personal agenda of the Coach's Corner pair is jeopardizing the future of the show on CBC.
There is a feeling that Cherry/MacLean dominate editorial content on the show, and the content is no longer acceptable to a league that wants to emphasize speed and skill at the expense of grittiness and fighting. Some feel that Cherry, facing retirement, is looking to go out on his shield by picking a fight with the suits of the league for the soul of the sport.
The 77-year-old Cherry says he is on an annual contract with CBC. MacLean has two more years on his deal. Some think it's time they moved on. Removing either or both this summer from HNIC would be a tricky public relations move for CBC, which is already under fire from both political and broadcast critics. For a corporation facing financial challenges in the next year, the advertising revenues from HNIC are crucial. Losing them, a disaster.
Can CBC retain both HNIC's revenues and Cherry/MacLean? We may be about to find out.