I'm constantly in awe about how a curmudgeonly relic like Cherry can have so much gravitas in 2009; but then again, I'm an American hockey fan.
For Canadian fans, he's an institution whose xenophobic Archie Bunker-lite persona is balanced with a genuine championing of hockey's grand traditions. With that in mind, I'm not stunned that we received over a dozen emails about Cherry's comments over the weekend. It's like Rush Limbaugh and the conservative movement: Just when you think the guy is on the margins, suddenly he's the torchbearer again.
The torch Cherry grabbed this weekend was that of Sidney Crosby and other players who are critical -- publically or privately -- of Ovechkin's enthusiastic displays after goals or victories.
While the hell Cherry's catching for his views is warranted, here's the thing: Once you get past the cultural bias and subtle racism in the presentation of his argument, there's actually some validity to what Cherry actually said on "Hockey Night In Canada" about the biggest star in the NHL.
First, in case you haven't seen them yet, Cherry's comments on Ovechkin:
"Look at this! This is what we want our hockey players to act with?" asks Cherry, as a group of dark-skinned soccer players dance in a circle on the pitch. OK, maybe "subtle" racism was being too generous ...
But we know that the xenophobia and Euro-bashing is all part of the curmudgeonly act for Cherry, and the Ovechkin bashing fits right into that. His general argument is "don't be a fun foreigner, act like a robotic Canadian." That's actually one of the primary reasons Alexander Radulov isn't playing in the NHL anymore -- his on-ice enthusiasm as a young player for the Nashville Predators was frowned upon and criticized, and that only increased his alienation on the team.
Beyond the cultural bias, it's also a generational disconnect between young NHL players that are going to bring an element of theater to a sport that needs it, and a codger whose arguments against it are so out-of-date that they would be better spoken by an animatronic figure in some Hockey Hall of Fame Carousel of Progress ride. (You can even give Robot Cherry different Technicolor sport coats to mark the passage of time.)
Also, you'd need a combination of the Golden Gate, the Verrazano and the Sault Ste. Marie International to bridge the logical gap between Ovechkin's celebrations and Sean Avery's antics that Cherry attempts to make.
Naturally, the Caps hit back. From Coach Bruce Boudreau to Capitals Insider:
"I love Don Cherry," Boudreau said. "But I think he was a little over the top yesterday on Alex."
"At the first part, I thought he was going to be criticizing [Pittsburgh captain] Crosby, the first 30 seconds of his thing. Then he criticized Alex for celebrating too much. I was hoping they would throw it back and show Crosby jumping at the glass the last couple of games he scored a goal in. As much as I really like the guy, he was wrong."
Boudreau added: "He's a friend of mine. He's an idol of mine. I love what Don Cherry has stood for, for 30 years. I just think even the smartest people in the world are wrong sometimes."
"Don Cherry?" Ovechkin said. "What I can say? He's a funny guy, old guy. He likes old-fashioned hockey, so he don't like probably my celebrations. He said a lot of stuff about [Atlanta all-star Ilya] Kovalchuk and me, so he ...I don't know. I don't want to talk about him. He's not interesting to me. He can say whatever he want. I don't care about him."
When I asked Ovechkin if he was angry about Cherry's comments, he added: "I just laughed when I saw his suits. He's funny. In hockey we need someone like that, someone who thinks I'm celebrating like soccer player. Maybe Canadians don't have soccer teams. Maybe he's jealous of Russia."
One of the more pointed rebukes came from the Capitals media relations staff. From Nate Ewell on their blog Welcome To the Show:
Cherry is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it raises a good question: do we have to listen to it? Specifically, for those of us in the U.S., should NHL Network subject us to this garbage on a league-owned network?
Don't get me wrong, I fell in love with Hockey Night in Canada when I had the chance to watch for four years in Michigan. I wish Jim Hughson could follow me around and describe my every move for a day.
And there's room for criticism on NHL properties; you'll see it on NHL.com and hear it on NHL Live and On the Fly. But Cherry's xenophobic, misguided and frankly wrong comments have no place on a league-owned network.
Fair enough ... but were they completely wrong?
The celebration stuff was, for sure. But what about this Cherry comment:
"He's got a free ride. He runs at guys ..."
In fairness, Ovechkin is second on the Capitals in PIM (66). But Cherry's point is a fair one: Ovechkin leaves his feet on hits and there are times when a charge for another player is a highlight-reel check for Ovechkin. He gets superstar treatment. It's not wrong, it's not right ... but Cherry's on the mark here.
He's also right that someone's bound to take a liberty with Ovechkin because of the way he plays the game. Having spoken to a few conference rivals off the record, Crosby's not necessarily in the minority on the whole "overboard celebration" thing. Yes, it's born out of jealously; no, none of these guys wanted to say it publicly. But the feeling is there, and one Ovechkin highlight celebration on the wrong day could be dangerous for him.
(Assuming someone could catch him ... and assuming Ovechkin wouldn't knock his assailant down first.)
Again: Cherry is being a closed-minded good 'ole boy when it comes to Ovechkin's enthusiasm. But he's also being a realist: Just like a running back who showboats in the end zone knows he's going to have to hit the hole against the defense on the next series, Ovechkin knows his leaps into the glass and fingers in the air are going to play on the minds of opponents. But he's a big boy, and can take care of himself if he's ever faced with repercussions.
Oh, and let's not forget the obvious undercurrent to this whole discussion: What, exactly, will be the NHL's punishment for the first player who takes a post-goal celebration cheap shot on Ovechkin? Because if Ovechkin is saved from penalties because of his celebrity, the penalties handed out to those who do him harm will be enhanced because of that celebrity as well.
- Don Cherry