Why Rogers should cut Don Cherry out of new TV deal

Ken Campbell
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Now that the blockbuster deal has been completed and the celebratory champagne has been consumed, the real work begins now for Canadian broadcasting giant Rogers. Like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben once said, with great power comes great responsibility. And it doesn’t get any more powerful or responsible than owning the Canadian broadcasting rights for hockey.

Rogers will undoubtedly have to up its game to approach the level of excellence that was displayed by TSN during its tenure as an NHL broadcaster. As reader Brandon Sparks said in an email to thn.com shortly after the deal was announced, Rogers might want to start with its set, “that looks like something you had a high school shop class set up 10 minutes before airing.”

But the changes Rogers will have to make when the deal kicks in beginning in the 2014-15 season will have to be more than cosmetic. If it is truly serious about making hockey its brand and creating something new, exciting and relevant, it would do well to have the good sense and courage to tell Don Cherry it’s time to retire and not renew his contract when it expires after this season.

As part of the 12-year, $5.2 billion deal Rogers signed with the NHL, Hockey Night in Canada will continue to be on the air for at least the next four seasons, but Rogers will assume all editorial control over the product, including which personalities will appear on air. That means Rogers will have full control over the fate of Cherry after this season. And when given the opportunity to give Cherry an unbridled endorsement and guarantee his future as a broadcaster, Rogers president Keith Pelley spoke volumes by being very non-committal.

That was a good move. If Rogers doesn’t intend on bringing Cherry aboard, the last thing it wanted to do on the day of the announcement was cause a you-know-what storm by announcing its intentions. And regardless of your views on Cherry – and those have been made very clear by this corner for years – he deserves the right to be told of his future in person and not in a news conference.

Cherry’s contract with HNIC runs out after this season and when the Stanley Cup wraps up in June, he will have reached his 80th birthday. He has enjoyed a long, wildly successful run on CBC, but it is time for that run to come to an end. In short, it is time.

Rogers probably isn’t all that concerned about Cherry’s long and well documented history of promoting controversy. If a taxpayer funded network such as the CBC – one whose mandate is to reflect the interests and sensibilities of all its citizens – didn’t have the courage to take Cherry off the air after some of his outrageous antics, a privately owned one isn’t going to do so if it thinks Cherry will be good for the brand.

And that’s where the rubber hits the road on this one. Cherry will not be good for the brand. Regardless of the emotional attachment people have had to HNIC and to Cherry over the years, the game is the product they come to watch every Saturday night. Yes, there will be the usual and predictable bleating from the pro-Cherry crowd, but the face of the game is changing. Fighting, while likely never to be totally eradicated, is becoming less of a factor. The game is growing by leaps and bounds, revenues are rising and the modern hockey fan is among the most tech-savvy and well educated of the four sports.

And those fans deserve someone between periods who can provide real insight, break real news and take people inside the game. What they don’t need are the rantings of Cherry. And there are many, many broadcasters in this country who would be qualified to replace Cherry in that role, many who could be both entertaining and informative. Take your pick.

Rogers will want to take its shiny new property and brand it as its own for the next 12 years. And that effort needs to start right away. Here’s hoping it gives Cherry the rest of this season to throw himself a farewell party, then allows him to ride off into the sunset.

Note: This article was edited to reflect that Spiderman’s Uncle Ben uttered the quote “with great power comes great responsibility,” not Superman’s dad. The Hockey News regrets the error.