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Jets face never-ending challenges in trying season

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WINNIPEG – However great or small the divide in the Winnipeg Jets’ locker room – and every team has at least a few hairline fractures – the turmoil of the last two months has the power to fix it. Or turn it into the Grand Canyon.

Centre Bryan Little’s severe vertigo and perforated ear drum, punctured by teammate Nikolaj Ehlers’ slapshot in Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils, is the most horrifying incident to challenge the focus of Winnipeg players.

But it’s not the most impactful because the biggest wallop of the NHL season so far was the stunning exit of top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien before training camp, a literal and figurative leviathan who finished last season healthy (according to the team) and reported to this one injured (according to the player) and whose professional future will now be determined by the most expensive lawyers the league and its players association can muster.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported this week that Byfuglien also had issues last season with the dressing-room divide, which led captain Blake Wheeler to alter his leadership style.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

At about the same time Byfuglien was leaving for the Minnesota woods, then-unsigned and unhappy sniper Patrik Laine complained in Europe about his long-standing deployment on the Jets’ second line, telling a Finnish reporter: “With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. There are top lines and then there is our line.”

Across the Atlantic, Wheeler responded to reporters: “He’s a young kid that’s certainly had a lot of success in three years (but) he’s definitely not doing it by himself, I can guarantee you that.”

Eventually, Laine signed for two years at $6.75 million, briefly was granted his wish of skating on the first line, and now plays in front of a defence featuring guys named Pionk (Neal), Poolman (Tucker) and Bitetto (Anthony), supplemented by waiver pickups Carl Dahlstrom and Luca Sbisa.

In his second day with the Jets, Sbisa accidentally injured Laine, who immediately left practice and missed two games, although Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice insisted Laine’s medical condition was pre-existing. Top defenceman Josh Morrissey also missed games after colliding during the pre-game warmup with teammate Bitetto.

Amid this drama, the Jets have started 8-7-1. Their 114-point season feels a lot longer ago than two years.

“You have no idea,” Wheeler said Thursday when asked about the challenge of staying positive. “It’s a new challenge, seemingly, every day. Very unique situations in every way, shape and form.

“I was having dinner with Sbisa last night and it was kind of what we were talking about — everything we’ve been through, even pretty much within every single game. You stay in it long enough and you just fight long enough.”

The St. Louis Blues, who went from last in the NHL on Jan. 3 to Stanley Cup champions on June 12, have become a Jets’ rallying cry.

“At the end of the year, the battle-tested teams are the teams that end up winning,” Wheeler said. “That’s kind of where I ultimately get to every day: we’re in the fight. This team hasn’t given up at all for one single day.”

Little was due to be released from hospital on Thursday, but his absence from the Jets is indefinite.

Maurice said Little’s ear required “25 to 30” stitches.

“The traumatic part’s over and then you see where you’re at and you go from there,” the coach said after the Jets practised. “He’s in good spirits. One side of his head’s bigger than the other. But he’s good.”

For the Jets this season, the traumatic part never seems to be over.

“It’s been a great challenge,” Maurice said. “The theme running through this so far — and it’s what I tell myself every day — when a Bryan Little goes down, because this version of an event that you didn’t predict would happen happens, if you handle it right, it turns out to be better for your team. So, we’re kind of grinding through some games.

“Every bad thing that happens truly is an opportunity for you to get a benefit. You just may not see the benefit this week or you may not feel it tonight behind the bench. But there’s a potential benefit here, if you handle it right, and that’s how we’re moving every day.”

Maurice has always been loathe to split first-liners Mark Scheifele and Wheeler, who wield influence and like to play with each other.

But when the Vancouver Canucks visit Winnipeg on Friday, Wheeler will be centring Ehlers and Jack Roslovic on the second line, while Scheifele is flanked by Laine and Kyle Connor on the top unit.

Maurice agreed that adversity has the power to pull his team together.

“I think we’ve had a great room from the start,” he said. “The work level was outstanding in training camp and then we’ve done some things (for) team building to get together. I’m going to say yes.

“You’ll never know until you’re hanging around every day and even the coach (doesn’t know for sure). I don’t have a stall in the room but you can tell on the bench, and that’s part of why we’ve been able to come back in games and battle back. They’re playing for each other and they’re staying in the fight.”

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Sportsnet faces challenges after Don Cherry departure

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Sportsnet brass made the call to end Don Cherry’s nearly four-decade run on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner after his rant over the weekend. Their next big decision may be even tougher.

With his bombast, insight, experience and over-the-top delivery, Cherry created an institution with his appearances on the popular Saturday evening segment.

Love him or hate him, he’s hard to replace. Therein lies the challenge for Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley, Rogers Media president Jordan Banks and other company powerbrokers.

Oh to be a fly on the wall in the Rogers boardroom this week. Do they continue with the segment or rebrand for the future? If Cherry is replaced, who gets the nod? And should a successor move in right away or down the road?

Consistently a ratings hit, the first intermission this Saturday night will be appointment viewing.

Don Cherry sparked online backlash on Saturday night for his comments about immigrants not wanting to wear poppies ahead of Remembrance Day. 0:50

“It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what they do and I wouldn’t be surprised if they just let it slide for a while and put something else in there,” said David Shoalts, a former Globe and Mail sports reporter and author of Hockey Fight in Canada: The Big Media Face Off Over the NHL.

“It’s not as difficult as it would have been for them, because under Rogers they did cut [the segment] to five minutes. At the CBC, he had come to take up the whole first intermission, so that would have been a big problem.”

A spokesman said Sportsnet is “still considering options” for the first intermission segment and that company executives would not be doing interviews at this time. Segment co-host Ron MacLean did not immediately return a telephone message.

There were rumblings the network was considering moving on from Cherry during the off-season, but the 85-year-old wasn’t included in the recent wave of big-name on-air departures.

However, it’s likely Sportsnet already had ideas for the segment’s future post-Cherry.

A complete Coach’s Corner reboot is possible or there could be a shuffling of other segments. Extended highlight packages could help fill the gap. The segment could be dropped altogether, although that’s unlikely given its history and showcase status.

Cherry made comments on Hockey Night in Canada regarding new Toronto citizens not wearing poppies. 1:04

The network may choose to recognize the massive impact Cherry had as a commentator, but it would be tricky to balance that with his rather ignominious exit.

A career overview could buy some time since the seat might be a little too hot for an immediate replacement. Of course, it’s possible the page gets completely turned and Cherry’s name is not mentioned at all.

Just like when he was on the air, there will be no shortage of critics and plaudits.

Several candidates would be qualified to replace Cherry. Former hockey executive and current Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke is the early betting favourite.

Burke is a 3-2 pick to replace Cherry this Saturday and a 5-4 pick to fill the role next season, according to odds released Tuesday by SportsBettingDime.com. Sportsnet hockey commentators Kelly Hrudey, Colby Armstrong and Craig Simpson were listed among the other early favourites.

HNIC was a longtime CBC Saturday night staple, but the show and its games moved to Sportsnet when Rogers landed a 12-year, $5.2-billion US national broadcast rights deal with the NHL that began in 2014. Coach’s Corner and HNIC are still broadcast on CBC in a sub-licencing deal with Rogers Media, which owns Sportsnet.

Former CBC Sports host and current Not The Public Broadcaster podcaster Bruce Dowbiggin weighs in on Sportsnet’s decision to cut ties with the controversial longtime Hockey Night in Canada commentator. 8:51

Sportsnet apologized Sunday for Cherry’s comments about his belief that new immigrants don’t wear poppies, and in turn, don’t support veterans.

On Monday, Cherry was shown the door. In a statement, Yabsley said the comments were “divisive.”

Cherry prefaced his on-air remarks Saturday night with the phrase, ‘You people’ — drawing criticism from all quarters – but denied in interviews after his departure that he was singling out visible minorities. He has not publicly apologized for his comments.

“If I had to do it over again, I probably would have said ‘Everybody,”‘ Cherry said Tuesday in an interview on Sirius XM Canada’s “Canada Talks” channel. “But I didn’t and there’s no sense of whining about it and I paid the price.”

Given his long tenure, how — or if — his departure is addressed this weekend will be fascinating, as will MacLean’s thoughts. The veteran HNIC anchor apologized last Sunday.

“I had a good time,” Cherry said. “I’m 85 years old and I’m still having a good time. As I have always said, ‘I’m glad I’m going out on my shield. I’m not going out with a whimper.”‘

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Don Cherry defends Hockey Night in Canada comments but says he would have ‘used different words’

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Don Cherry says he won’t apologize for his divisive comments about new immigrants not wearing poppies, but the former co-host of “Coach’s Corner” says if he could do it again, he would have chosen different words.

“I think the closest I’ll come to apologizing is I wish I had used different words,” Cherry told Global News.

“I should have said everybody. If I had to do it over again, I would have said everybody.”

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Cherry, 85, was fired from the Hockey Night in Canada segment by Sportsnet Monday, following televised comments Saturday night in which he singled out “you people that come here” in Toronto and Mississauga, where he lives, for not wearing poppies, implying they don’t support Canada’s soldiers.

“You people that come here… whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy,” he said on Saturday.

In an interview with Global News, Cherry refused to back down from his comments and said that everyone should wear a poppy to honour Canada’s fallen soldiers.

“I do believe to this day that everybody in Canada should have a poppy on, out of honour and respect of the fallen soldiers that have fallen in the Second World War, Korea and the whole deal,” Cherry said.

“Those people who gave their lives, at least we can buy a poppy.”

Pressed on whether his comments were racist, Cherry said his comments weren’t directed at minorities, and that what he said applies to anyone.

“It could have been Irish, it could have been Scottish, it could have been anybody,” he said, adding that the “silent majority” supported him.

“It was picked up the way it was picked up.”

Cherry said he was planning to apologize on this week’s upcoming Hockey Night in Canada, but was never given the chance.

“I was ready to apologize,” Cherry said. “I was gonna put out a tweet, or whatever they do, saying I was wrong and I think it could have smoothed over pretty good. But that’s the way they wanted it and that’s the way it goes.”

Global News has contacted Sportsnet about whether Cherry would have apologized, but they said they had nothing further to add.

Cherry, a former player and NHL coach, had worked as a broadcaster for more than 37 years on Hockey Night in Canada, drawing attention for a number of controversial statements including calling progressives “left-wing pinkos,” describing Quebecers as “whiners,” and making derogatory comments about European hockey players.

Sportsnet president Bart Yabsley said in a statement Monday that it was “the right time for him to immediately step down.”

“During the broadcast, he made divisive remarks that do not represent our values or what we stand for,” Yabsley said.

Coach’s Corner co-host Ron MacLean also apologized Sunday for Cherry’s remarks. During Cherry’s rant, MacLean could be seen nodding and giving a thumbs-up.

‘We were wrong:’ Ron MacLean apologizes for Don Cherry’s comments on Hockey Night in Canada

MacLean issued a televised apology that Cherry’s remarks were “hurtful, discriminatory” and that he wished he had responded differently on air.

“Don Cherry made remarks which were hurtful, discriminatory, which were flat out wrong,” MacLean said. “I owe you an apology, too. I sat there, did not catch it, did not respond.

“Last night was a really great lesson to Don and me. We were wrong, and I sincerely apologize. I wanted to thank you for calling me and Don on that last night.”

Cherry told Global News that he was “disappointed” in his co-host Ron MacLean, but that the two were still friends.

“He buried me. I was very disappointed the way he handled [it],” Cherry said. “I don’t want to condemn him but I was very disappointed.”

Cherry’s remarks were roundly criticized by politicians across Canada including Toronto Mayor John Tory and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. The National Hockey League also weighed in, saying the comments “made last night were offensive and contrary to the values we believe in.”

Steven Purewal, a historian on the contribution of Indian soldiers during the First World War, told Global News on Monday it was wrong for Cherry to suggest immigrants don’t support Canadian veterans, noting the broadcaster has no way of knowing who’s an immigrant and who was born in Canada.

“It endorses a stereotype that the immigrant is somehow unpatriotic, is thankless about the sacrifices it took to build the country,” he said.

“What we need to be telling Canadians is that many, many diverse communities fought in the Great War and the Second World War. Without their contributions, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we have today.”

Meanwhile, some have been calling for the hockey host’s return. A Change.org petition called ‘Bring Back Don Cherry!’ has amassed over 108,000 signatures.

As for the long-time hockey pundit, Cherry said he is still processing being fired.

“I don’t think it’s hit yet,” he said. “It will be a little different Saturday when I sit down and watch where I was for 38 years.”

“I have no idea and I don’t think Ron Maclean has any idea what they’re going to run after the first period… It’ll be watched that’s for sure because everybody will want to see what goes on at the end of the first period.”

— With a file from Sean Boyton

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Brian Burke considered favourite to replace Don Cherry

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The Canadian Press


Published Tuesday, November 12, 2019 10:56AM EST


Last Updated Tuesday, November 12, 2019 11:09AM EST

TORONTO – Former NHL executive Brian Burke is listed as the heavy favourite to be Don Cherry‘s successor on “Hockey Night in Canada” on one sports betting site.

SportsBettingDime.com has released odds on candidates to replace Cherry after the commentator was sacked by Sportsnet yesterday for a rant about immigrants not wearing poppies on his “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke, who currently works as an analyst at Sportsnet, is listed as the 3-2 favourite (must bet $2 to win $3) to appear on Cherry‘s longtime “Coach’s Corner” segment on Saturday.

Burke is the 5-4 pick to be the full-time replacement next season.

Sportsnet has not said whether it plans to keep the “Coach’s Corner” segment, which has been a first-intermission staple on HNIC.

Sportsnet hockey commentators Kelly Hrudey, Colby Armstrong and Craig Simpson are among the other betting favourites for Cherry’s job.

The site also is taking odds on what Cherry does next, with working for another media organization the favourite.

If he goes into politics, the odds consider Cherry’s most likely destination to be under Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Conservative party.

Cherry is listed as a 2,000-1 pick to join the NDP.

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

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