'It's just hurtful': Don Cherry's comments shake Edmonton hockey community

Mohammed Hussain is a proud hockey dad to his three kids.

He’s also a first-generation Canadian. 

“I never had a chance to experience hockey … I am extremely happy and fortunate that my kids have the opportunity to enjoy it,” he said in an interview Monday.

He and his family always tune in to watch the Edmonton Oilers play, and he said he’s been watching commentator Don Cherry ever since he arrived in Canada 25 years ago. 

On Saturday night during Coach’s Corner, Cherry made comments that prompted Sportsnet to cut ties with him on Monday afternoon.

Hockey commentator Don Cherry is shown in Toronto in Feburary 2011. Sportsnet and the Coach’s Corner star cut ties on Monday following his controversial remarks made on Saturday. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

“You people … you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said Saturday night. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

Coach’s Corner and Hockey Night in Canada are broadcast on CBC in a sub-licensing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.

Hussain said the comments were shocking and offensive.

Mohammed Hussain plays hockey with his kids in the driveway of his Edmonton home. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

“Frankly, as a person of colour I’m just tired, Just tired of people otherizing us,” he said. “In a few breaths, someone like Don Cherry just essentially alienates us. It’s just hurtful,” he said. 

At the rink over the weekend, Cherry’s comments came up at the rink over the weekend in discussions with other parents. Hussain said there was a shared sentiment that Cherry needs to walk away.

But he does worry that Cherry’s comments could seed prejudice: though he does wear a poppy, he could lose it or put on a different coat and forget to switch it over.

“Am I going to show up to a hockey rink and everyone’s going to look at me different now because I’m a person of colour and I may or may not have a poppy?” he said. “Now, all of the sudden, I’m not appreciating veterans. His comments do a disservice to the sport that he loves.” 

He also said Cherry’s comments are also disrespectful and erase the sacrifice of many people of colour who served and died in the First and Second World Wars.

‘Divisive remarks’

Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley issued a statement Monday, stating that Cherry’s “divisive remarks” do not represent the network’s values.

He also thanked Cherry for his contributions to hockey and sports broadcasting.

Cutting ties with Cherry was the right move, according to Lali Toor, founder of Edmonton-based Apna Hockey. The organization, now in four cities across Canada, works to promote hockey in South Asian communities, offering camps and identifying role models for all young players who come from minority groups. 

Apna Hockey founder Lali Toor says Sportsnet made the right call in severing ties with Don Cherry after his anti-immigrant comments. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

“It’s unacceptable to have a national platform like that, and to be saying the rhetoric that he was saying,” Toor said.

“My biggest fear is the reinforcement. There’s a lot of people who watch Hockey Night in Canada, watch Coaches Corner, and they might have the same views as Don Cherry.”

Growing up playing hockey, Toor said he was often the only South Asian player on his teams, and that Edmonton has come a long way in becoming more welcoming of diversity. 

“For him to say that, it really hurts minorities. Hockey is a sport that should unite people, and yet the words he’s used to divide people …divide our country. It’s not acceptable,” he said. 

Toor said it’s going to take more work, all the way from the NHL down to the community level to make social change stick. 

“How do we make hockey more diverse? How do we sustain that diversity?” he said.   

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