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Cherry's special status makes it hard to re-brand HNIC with him, marketers suggest

Then Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry screams in Montreal on May 10, 1979. THE CANADIAN PRESS/files

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Then Boston Bruins coach Don Cherry screams in Montreal on May 10, 1979. THE CANADIAN PRESS/files

TORONTO - Don Cherry's status as an icon of Canadian TV hockey may prove to be his downfall as the groundbreaking deal between Rogers Communications and CBC ushers in a new era of "Hockey Night in Canada," marketing experts said.

The 12-year, $5.2-billion agreement announced this week gives Rogers national rights to all NHL games and will see the beloved broadcast shift to the telecommunication giant's multiple platforms, including City and Sportsnet.

Such a radical transformation—from must-see "appointment" viewing to "hockey a la carte"—could call for a shake-up when it comes to on-air talent, including the man many consider the face of "Hockey Night in Canada," said David Kincaid, managing partner and CEO of the Toronto-based Level 5 Strategy Group.

No company invests billions of dollars in a brand only to leave it as it is, said Kincaid, who helped Labatt Breweries wrest sponsorship rights to the NHL from Molson-Coors in the 1990s.

"If they want to say it's the fresh new face of hockey, available across all these different mediums and all this different type of integrated content, if a certain personality is seen as an on-air television commentator, it's off strategy," he said.

"If the equity of their brand is only television, and you're creating content to go across multiple platforms, I kind of want a new spokesperson that travels across all the platforms or a whole range of spokespeople."

Cherry's place in Canada's new TV hockey landscape remains unclear but Rogers denies it is distancing itself from the notoriously outspoken sportscaster.

"I'm a big fan of Don Cherry; I've worked with him and have a great respect for him," Scott Moore, broadcast president for Rogers Media, said in an email.

"I've already spoken to him, in fact. I look forward to sitting down with him to discuss if he wants to be part of the new arrangement."

While it's too early to nail down who will headline the flagship Saturday night show, Moore said CBC and Sportsnet have "some of the best talent in the business" and he looks forward to bringing the two teams together.

Cherry has so far held off weighing in on the deal or his possible involvement, saying he's been left out of any behind-the-scenes discussions and doesn't know "what's going on."

He is expected to address the matter in his Coach's Corner segment Saturday.

In an interview with CBC on Thursday, however, the high-profile hockey commentator brushed off rumours predicting his retirement.

"They've been saying that for 30 years," he said. "I know I'm No. 1 and Coach's Corner is No. 1 and what are you going to do?"

That Cherry was kept in the dark regarding the show he's largely defined for a generation of Canadians suggests his time in the spotlight may be running out, said Edgar Baum, general manager of Brand Finance.

"The abruptness of how this happened was a surprise. It appears to me on the surface... that they don't wish to continue with Don," he said.

"Maybe something's going to get negotiated or... maybe they would like to discontinue that era and find somebody new," he said.

"It's up to Rogers to figure out how they want to create that identity, but I definitely think an icon of Canadian hockey broadcasting may be seeing his last season."

Whether the company can oust a fan favourite without alienating viewers hinges on how it orchestrates the transition—and who it puts forth in his place, Baum said.

"I would definitely be looking for a larger-than-life personality to be able to replace Don if that's what Rogers chooses to do," he said.

"Because I'll be frank, if there's just some guy who speaks in a monotone about how the first period went... I probably wouldn't be tuning in as much."

Having Cherry endorse and mould his successor would also help viewers adjust to the change, Baum said.

When push comes to shove, however, the "Hockey Night in Canada" brand trumps Cherry's personal cachet, Kincaid argued.

"Would Canadians be sad to see the icon disappear? I can pretty well bet your bottom dollar to that," he said.

"Would they have long-lasting rejection of the 'Hockey Night in Canada' brand if he wasn't there five years later? I don't think so."

Both marketers agreed Rogers should be planning for a post-Cherry program in any case, noting the 79-year-old sportscaster will likely retire in the next few years.

Cherry joined "Hockey Night in Canada'' full-time in 1981 and CBC started the "Coach's Corner'' segment shortly after his arrival.

A sub-licensing agreement with CBC allows the public broadcaster to continue airing "Hockey Night in Canada'' on Saturday nights for four years, while TVA in Quebec earned all of the Canadian French-language multi-media rights.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version wrongly said Cherry was 80-years-old He is 79.

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