October 12, 2011
As a 20-something Canadian West Coaster, I have little reason to be a Don Cherry fan.
Fellow citizens claim he was once a bastion of hockey wisdom, but for most of my adult life, he's been rambling semi-coherently, prattling on about former Toronto Maple Leafs (regardless of whether or not the Leafs are even playing), and saying offensive things regularly.
In short, I'm not so into Don Cherry. Problem is, I'm in the minority in Canada, where this man -- this loud, prejudiced, out-of-touch man -- is viewed as one of our greatest personalities.
That in mind, what surprises me about Cherry's most recent controversy is that, this time around, it feels as though the Canadian majority is opposed to him. Granted, the host of Coach's Corner claimed that former tough guys who are concerned for the mental and physical health of their hockey brethren were hypocritical pukes, but he's made thoughtless personal attacks of this sort before. In most prior instances, he's been let off the hook with little more than a finger-wag.
Not so this time around, where even the CBC, who pays Cherry an undisclosed fortune, felt compelled to distance themselves from their flagship personality:
Kirstine Stewart, the CBC's executive vice-president of English services, says Cherry's comments reflect his own personal opinion.
"While we support his right to voice that opinion, we do not share his position," Stewart said in the statement.
"Player safety is a top priority for CBC, and we support the initiatives of the NHL and others in keeping players safe on and off the ice."
This is a network that employs Cherry precisely because he says controversial garbage exactly like last Thursday's ill-conceived rant. If he was on the payroll for any other reason, then explain why, exactly, Mike Milbury is often touted as a potential replacement once Cherry retires? Milbury has nothing in common with Cherry apart from his penchant for dinosaur thinking and overloud buffoonery, hence, that's what the network wants.
So why, then, is last Thursday's rant the one causing Cherry's staunchest supporters to keep their distance? Why this, and not the steady stream of blather, prejudice, or jingoism that came before?
Because, for once, Don Cherry finds himself at odds with the Canadian identity he's helped to shape.
If you don't understand how truly important hockey is to Canadians, consider that this is a country whose Cold War with Russia was an eight-game hockey series in 1972. In effect, hockey is as linked to the Canadian identity as democracy is to the American. If the NHL were to eschew the Canadian style, warped by the influence of sinister Europeans and pacifists, it would affect who we are as a nation.
(As an example of how much higher hockey is esteemed than politics in Canada, consider that, after word leaked that prime minister Stephen Harper had requested fourteen tickets to the Winnipeg Jets opener and was only given two, people got upset that the prime minister was getting free Jets tickets at all. Harper — again, the prime minister -- had to come out and declare that a) he had only requested four tickets, not fourteen and b) he planned to pay for them out of pocket. When it comes to hockey tickets, especially for a game that garnered the national fanfare of the Obama inauguration, not even the nation's leader gets to jump the queue.)
Don Cherry has long stood as the link between hockey and Canadianness, passionately defending the two as though they were the same thing, tying his love for the former to his pride in the latter in a way that Canadians, self-effacing sorts by nature, typically don't.
Sure, he's a little over-the-top about it. Sure, his views regarding Europeans are ethnocentric — and if Russian skin was a different hue, people might have observed that the views are downright prejudiced too — but it's always been hard to speak out against a man who actively works to preserve the national identity, especially in a country that's never been quite sure what that is.
If it wasn't already apparent that Cherry's seeming invincibility was the result of our insecurities as a nation, consider the way he stuffs his segments full of support for the Canadian military. Admirable as it is, it's also a subtle way of reminding people that Cherry, like the fallen soldiers, is doing the tough job of defending this country. It's a subliminal pairing that gives him carte blanche to say what he wants, because any time you feel compelled to voice an objection, the man is sharing the screen with a Canadian war hero.
The only way to disturb this delicate balance was for Cherry to put himself on the wrong side of the Canadian identity — the wrong side of the Canadian fallen. That's where Thursday's tirade has placed him.
The passing of Wade Belak(notes), Rick Rypien(notes) and Derek Boogaard(notes) over the summer seemed, to many, like the early signs of an epidemic. The causal link between the three deaths is tenuous, but all were Canadian tough guys that struggled with depression. That can't be overlooked. Couple this with Bob Probert's brain, Sidney Crosby's(notes) concussion and the multitude of head injuries affecting other Canadian hockey players as a result of the physical game, and you have a problem so serious it's causing Canadians to have second thoughts about just what -- and whom -- they're supporting.
Suddenly, Canadian hockey is killing Canadians.
The cognitive dissonance here is astounding.
As a result, if we were once overly concerned with protecting Canadian hockey, our focus has now shifted to protecting Canadian hockey players. But Cherry's hasn't; rather, he went after them. As Stu Grimson said on Off the Record last Friday, that's not exactly what the country needs right now:
"If he wants to be part of the debate, I don't think name-calling and singling folks out as 'pukes' and 'hypocrites' is really a helpful way to drive the discussion.
Canadian hockey fans have tolerated Cherry's personal attacks on foreign-born players for years because they've been sold to us as little more than evidence of his patriotism. Now, however, he's turned on Canada's own when they're most in need of attention, and there's no way to sell that as national pride. It may be Don Cherry's undoing. Grimson believes so:
"Despite the fact that Don's credibility is ... I don't know if he had a great deal of credibility, any he did have certainly eroded today, that's at least my view."
Cherry's schtick isn't designed to navigate the NHL's new grey area, and if he can't adjust, Canada won't tolerate him much longer.
Worse, if he continues to tout toughness without acknowledging where it appears to have gotten us, and without tact or empathy, Canadians will begin to see him as part of the problem.