As a former NHL player and guest on Coach's Corner, Terry Ryan is having a hard time reconciling the hurtful comments made by Don Cherry publically, with the man he knows as a mentor and hockey icon privately.
"I do think it needs context. I'm not agreeing with what he said, " Ryan says.
"I don't agree with what he said, but he's not a monster."
Cherry came under fire for comments made during a Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada on Nov. 9 which many felt were critical of immigrants for not wearing Remembrance Day poppies.
The commentator — also known by the nickname Grapes — was fired by Sportsnet, with the broadcaster calling Cherry's remarks "divisive."
While Cherry would later say he regrets his choice of words — using the phrase "you people," rather than saying "everyone" — Ryan wished Cherry had apologized sooner.
"Most of us are in the middle and we're hurt," Ryan said.
"This is a legend. This is someone that we love. A lot of us grew up taking Don Cherry at his word and loving him. He's Canada. He's part of our Canadian being."
Ryan said a memory that came to mind amid the controversy was back in one of his first game in Montreal for the Canadiens, when Cherry took him aside for a chat.
As a locker room "oddball" and jokester, Ryan said he was known for trying to make his teammates laugh in an effort to unite them as a team.
Ryan remembers Cherry telling him to use those traits for good.
"Don Cherry called me aside after and said our game is going through a change … there's a lot more minorities in the game than there ever has been, there's a lot more Europeans than there has been, there's guys on your team that don't know English that well," Ryan said.
"He said you need to be there for them and hockey is becoming more united as time goes by."
The Cherry he met in that context, Ryan said, doesn't fit with the vilified person he's seeing on social media.
"He's always been a sweet man to me."
"He sees things from a different side of the fence a lot. The context of this is, he's a sweet guy, he's really nice to me and invited me into his home before, and I've never seen this monster that a lot of people think he is."
'He's been living in a box'
In an interview with CBC's Here & Now, Ryan emphasized that he in no way agrees with Cherry's comments, but he questions the severity of the backlash and whether it's a helpful approach to a necessary conversation.
Ryan said social media platforms like Twitter give anyone an opinion, especially on controversial topics such as the Cherry firing, but the context is sometimes lost.
"That's fair enough, but opinions, you would hope, would come from [those] educated in the profession," Ryan said.
"Don, he's 85 years old. For 20 or 30 years he's been unchecked, he's been living in a box."
When the Coach's Corner segment aired, Ryan said his immediate question was why it passed muster in the first place.
"I've been in those studios, I've been on Hockey Night in Canada, and the first thing that popped into my head was, that's the only part that I know of that's tape delayed — because the rest of it is a live game," Ryan said.
"He said it — it came out of his mouth — but there's a lot of things that people aren't talking about again as part of the healthy conversation."
Ryan is also coming to the defence of friend and Coach's Corner co-host Ron MacLean who has also been taking fire online for not acting in the moment to shut Cherry down or refute his comments.
Ryan believes if MacLean stepped in at that moment, the segment might have gotten worse.
"They were going into a segment right after about Grapes and the veterans and it was a very sentimental, very emotional piece, and Ron knew that," Ryan said.
"Ron's got a thing in his ear and he's trying to listen to what to do and he's got 20 seconds, 15, 10, he can't really issue a rebuttal at the time, he can't really bring up something that goes against the very fabric of what Don's saying — and it would have started something. … It might have gotten worse right before that next segment."
Ryan said he hopes the conversation will continue in a constructive fashion, rather than in extreme online comments.
"I just think we need to have the healthy conversation," he said, adding he himself will be continuing the conversation on his podcast, Third Man In.