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Don Cherry whiffs on critical Ovechkin 'Hockey Night' rant

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Maybe Don Cherry is more cunning than we're about to give him credit for being.

Maybe he knows that Alexander Ovechkin's preplanned "hot stick" celebration this week after his 50th goal, when combined with Cherry's infamous rant against Ovechkin's unbridled enthusiasm on the ice, has created at worst a sizable backlash against and at best a hot-button debate about the Washington Capitals star.

Maybe Cherry already knows he's winning this fight, because he certainly didn't improve his standing in last night's commentary.

His CBC's "Coach's Corner" rant on Ovechkin wasn't a roundhouse knockout blow; it was a semi-serious jab that missed its mark, both cosmetically and rhetorically.

From the CBC last night:

A few reactions:

• The first part of Cherry's argument was built around the feelings of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which is like asking for a sympathetic prayer for AIG:

"How would you like to be playing for Tampa? They've gone through a nightmare season, it's in their building, they're being beat 5-1 and you score on a rookie goalie. I mean, how do you think McKenna feels about this?"

Who cares? Tampa didn't even care, until after the game in interviews. Would Ovechkin's celebration be more palatable if he had done it in the corner of Joe Louis Arena near Chris Osgood or up in Boston with Tim Thomas in the crease? (Although we imagine Thomas would be the one goalie who wouldn't have been in the crease for long.)

It was a stupefying opening statement from Cherry: "You can't do stuff like that and not make people feel bad." Might as well just stop skating the Cup in road arenas, too, as long as we're considering hurt feelings around the NHL.

As we said before: Taunting is in the eye of the beholder. Ovechkin wasn't taunting; he was self-promoting. Some might not see the difference between the two, but there's a stark one: intent of the player. Ovechkin's prime directive was not to make the Lightning players reach for an additional pour as they drink the pain away after the game.

• Cherry then used the reaction of the Capitals players as something evidentiary: "Watch what your teammate does when you score the 50 and start that nonsense."

He points to Capitals defenseman Mike Green keeping his distance. Ron MacLean correctly points out that they "had a plan." And if Green was outraged to the point of embarrassment, perhaps working harder to kill the plan in its infancy would have been a better indication of that indignation. From the clip, it looks like he's just letting Alex be Alex.

As far as Coach Bruce Boudreau's giving Ovechkin a talking-to being proof that Alex was in the wrong: What was he supposed to do? Encourage him? Turn the Capitals into hockey's answer to BASE-ketball?

• Cherry's money line: "They're not laughing with you, they're laughing at you, Alex." At this point in Cherry's career as a hockey pundit, could there be a more ironic argument he could make?

• Cherry on Ovechkin's celebrations: "Have a little class and do it right." OK, but what is "right?" Cherry starts the rant with a video of Eric Nystrom of the Calgary Flames exhibiting a natural celebratory reaction to scoring a goal. When he isn't engaging in prop comedy, Ovechkin does the same thing, although more emphatically, and Cherry absolutely killed him for it a few weeks back.

If Ovechkin can't celebrate spontaneously and he can't celebrate in a calculated way, what is the Don Cherry "classy" and "right" way to party down after a goal? Put on a loud jacket and give the thumbs-up? Hum a few bars from "O Canada"?

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• Finally, when the nebulous topic of "selling tickets" came up, Cherry said: "You think the people from Tampa came to see an act like that?"

It's a moot point, because unless Tampa is populated with "Minority Report" pre-cogs, no one saw this "hot stick" celebration coming. The real question is: How many people from Tampa will come to see an act like that now that they've seen it?

Feelings about the premeditated nature of the celebration aside, there is no question that, even in the midst of March Madness, the Ovechkin story broke through to the mainstream. While the backlash was palpable, there were also more than a few "I'm not a hockey fan, and I thought it was cool" responses among the 3,100 comments on our initial post about it. The "hot stick" thing may not fit the tastes of hockey traditionalists; but what if those traditions need to change in order to help grow the sport?

We've spilled a lot of ink on this story over the last few days, but just to be clear: Ovechkin's typical enthusiasm after goals is great for hockey. Premeditated celebrations? That enters a grey area, especially in light of old school guys like Cherry already labeling a superstar like Ovechkin as clownish. Stuff like "hot stick" may be good for the mainstream in the short-term; but that's only because no one else has done it yet. It could become overkill or distracting faster than you can say T.O. And how quickly would the good old boys of the NHL slap a two-minute minor for excessive celebration on its no-fun League?

Cherry's first rant had its virtue: Ovechkin is opening himself up to retribution, on and off the ice, with his exuberant celebrations (and, as Cherry noted, some questionable hits). But he's a big boy, he can handle the heat and in no way should that threat of retaliation curb his enthusiasm.

This rant last night? Benign, contradictory and toothless. Stunning when you consider how much fodder a planned, over-the-top celebration like Ovechkin's could provide an pundit like Cherry. Maybe our expectations were too high.

Or, as we said at the top: Maybe the point had already been proven. But Ovechkin called Cherry out this week: "He's going to be mad for sure. I love it. I can't wait till he says something about me. Old coaches, old system, you know?"

And Cherry, at least last night, didn't answer in a satisfactory way.

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