Why Don Cherry’s rant about NHL player birthplaces was subtly prejudiced nonsense

Don Cherry's rant regarding the dearth of Ontario-born players on the Toronto Maple Leafs' roster had some impeccable timing. The following morning, Patrick Burke would unveil his wonderful, new 'You Can Play' campaign, and its simple but progressive central message:

"If you can play, you can play."

To my mind, it just wasn't the right time for Cherry to be instigating a controversy surrounding how an inconsequential, unnchangeable aspect of a player's identity makes him more or less deserving of a spot on a hockey team.

Of course, there is no right time. But that's what Cherry did: Railing on Brian Burke's seeming penchant for American-born players and comparing it to the makeup of some of the league's best teams, suggesting that Ontarian-lessness was standing between them and the playoffs.

Now I'd just like to tell ya … there's more people that come from Ontario hockey, players come from Ontario than any other place in the world … Vancouver has four. Pittsburgh has six. St. Louis. Beautiful team. Surprise team. Nine! Last year, Boston had seven from Ontario, this year they have nine. Chicago won it in 2010 and they had seven.

"Every team in the National Hockey League has a guy from Ontario except one. GUESS WHO IT IS?! IT'S ONTARIO'S TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS. Now, if you want American college guys. If you want Americans, you got the team. It's the only organization in the world, in Canada, that cheers when Canada loses. It's an absolute shame. There's 40,000 kids in the GTHL. … This guy has none!

This is worse than nonsense -- it's subtly prejudiced nonsense.

Where a player is from should have no bearing on whether or not he (or she, dammit) should be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Only skill should.

In fact, that's exactly the issue in Toronto. It's not that Brian Burke is taking Americans at the expense of other, better, local guys -- he's just playing the best players he has. On Tuesday, Daniel Wagner pointed out that the Leafs actually have 15 Ontario-born players in their system. They're simply not good enough to be playing for the big club right now.

That's pretty much what the "You Can Play" campaign is about, isn't it? Sure, it takes aim at homophobia, but its point is far more universal: who you are is secondary to what you can do, and where you're from is as immaterial as who you choose to love.

Unfortunately, few saw the connection between Cherry's rant and the anti-homophobia campaign. It's understandable. Homophobia, like racism, is one of those social issues that people usually seem to target in a vacuum, as though it's a standalone issue and not simply a subcategory of basic prejudice.

But we're not going to successfully end one kind of xenophobia unless we take aim at all of them, and that includes the littler one suggesting that one's birthplace speaks to value. It's foolishness.

Foolish assumptions surrounding player assessment come and go in the NHL. For instance, the distrust of European players is beginning to die down, although I can still vividly remember the people claiming you couldn't win a Stanley Cup with a European captain, when really it just hadn't happened yet.

Nowadays, with 2 of the last 4 Stanley Cup champions boasting Euro captains, this xenophobic supposition seems about as simple-minded as suggesting you can't win the Stanley Cup with a black power-play quarterback. Sorry, P.K. Subban. It's never been done, so it stands to reason that it won't ever be done.

Meanwhile, Niklas Kronwall's best hit may be the one he laid on the timeworn "Soft Euros" stereotype. He's the league's best open-ice checker. He's also a Swede. And sure, he doesn't fight, so you might claim he doesn't boast traditional toughness, but Zdeno Chara is the game's best fighter. You could claim Chara is only a good fighter because he's so big, but then we're delving into a pound-for-pound discussion, and it seems pretty foolish to make such a specific argument in defence of a broad generalization.

The Ontario issue and the Euro debate may seem different on the surface, but the underlying conceit -- a fear of the foreign element -- is at the heart of both. Hockey fans want the assurance that their local team isn't about to be taken over by the other.

Furthermore, they're especially resistant to this idea when the team isn't winning, a point Ellen Etchingham makes in her beautiful defence of Don Cherry:

Now, maybe it's because I'm an American and don't have a horse in the Canadian-regional-rivalries race, or maybe it's because I'm a Habs fan and therefore accustomed to hockey commentators with a surplus of local pride, but I don't think there's anything wrong with Cherry's point. He would feel more connected to the Leafs, as a fan (and he calls himself a fan in the segment), if they had some players from Ontario. The province certainly generates enough players, and it's not as though Burke's mining of the American player pool has improved the team significantly. It would be one thing to have no local boys because the team was so assiduously optimized as to get the best possible return at every position and consequently sitting at the very top of the League. If they're sacrificing local identity in the name of kicking ass, fine. But sacrificing local identity and sucking? I wouldn't be pleased with that on my team, and I can understand why Cherry isn't pleased with it on his. He may be overestimating the extent to which other Leafs' fans share his regionalism. He may be putting emotional concerns ahead of on-ice skills. His ideas might, in practice, make for bad team management. They might be bad analysis. But they're not invalid opinions.

But I can only disagree here. Cherry's opinions (and I believe he speaks for many) may not be invalid, but they're unhelpful. Making exceptions for prejudice simply slows down its already too-slow eradication. The longer Cherry or anyone is excused or congratulated for making broad, sweeping appeals to "regionalism" without check, the longer we'll spend spinning our heels in a post-regional world.

Yes, we're done with regionalism, or at least we should be. We should be done with viewing people as outsiders and treating people like aliens. The world has shrunk. In 2012, the hockey players that make up your team right now are the locals. They're not just paid to play for the city's team. They're paid to live in the city. They're paid to be one of you.

Sure, some players assimilate better than others, and some have offseason homes elsewhere, but during hockey season, the players come to you. They shop at your grocery stores. They walk your streets. Their kids go to your schools. They're the people in your neighbourhood.

Here's an experiment. Let's say the National Hockey League mandated that teams could only employ players that were from their province or state, or, more specifically, born in their province.

First of all, this would expunge all European hockey players from the league immediately, as well as Canadian players like Dany Heatley, who was born in Germany, or Robyn Regehr, who was born in Brazil, or Calgary Flames prospect Akim Aliu, who born in Nigeria, lived in the Ukraine until he was 12, and then moved to Ontario.

Thing is, these guys would all identify themselves as Canadian. But they'd be banned from playing for their respective hometown teams because of their birth certificates.

So let's make an amendment. What if the players had to live here for a year before they were signed? Then teams would work around that rule by importing players a year early and sitting on them until they reached eligibility, whether or not they were allowed to. But eventually players would complain about having to miss a year of development, and the waiting period would be shortened or eradicated.

Eventually, we would probably see a rule that players simply had to call a certain place home when they signed, but then teams would just move players to town before they signed rather than just after. You'd effectively have what you have now: guys from all over the world playing for the local team.

Thus, it doesn't matter where a player was born.

Now, anyone who's followed my writing for the past year and a half knows that there's a major departure here from what I wrote in September of 2010, when I took a look at what I perceived as the intentional blackification of the Atlanta Thrashers and I defended it.

It made sense. The Thrashers were an organization struggling to get through to their fanbase, a large segment of which was Atlanta's black middle class. At the time, I felt that giving the team some urban flavour was a creative approach to selling the game in such a uniquely challenging market.

And yet here I am decrying the call by Don Cherry and others to Ontarify the Leafs. There would appear to be a contradiction there.

But there's a difference. It's simply a matter of who's asking.

From the business and marketing side of things, it makes sense to bring in players with whom the fanbase will connect, especially since you're not just trying to win a Stanley Cup, you're trying to sell a product. Familiarity ranks just below sex in terms of what sells.

Atlanta wasn't the only team to do it. Minnesota does it beautifully, drafting and acquiring Minnesota natives, much to the glee of the fanbase. But it's worth noting that they do it when it makes sense. Their recent Tom Gilbert for Nick Schultz trade didn't just bring in a Minnesota native -- it brought in the puck-mover they desperately needed.

Montreal tries to do it too, but that poor franchise is constantly torn between dissonant cries to return to their winning ways and beseeching to stock up on Francophones at all costs.

But, speaking of Montreal, when the fans are the ones clamoring for it, it goes from being a cheap marketing ploy to a base demand to satisfy local ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Make my team more like me at the expense of difference!

I closed that article on the Atlanta Thrashers by pointing out that, while I liked the move from a business standpoint, I didn't like it from a personal standpoint. It was and remains an appeal to a nasty, outdated way of thinking:

[...] while I don't blame ownership for pandering to a fanbase's unease with otherness and foreignness (they have to do what will sell tickets), I do blame these fanbases in Canada, where hockey is already established. Our teams are forced to consider and carefully manage the foreign element when building their rosters because of our mean-spirited nationalism and ethnocentrism, and that is unacceptable.

You can't fault the franchise for doing what it takes to sell tickets, but that doesn't make it any less shameless. And the moment the fans start calling for this shamelessness, we're going backwards.

The moment the locals start demanding that teams cater to their fear of the other -- that they insist teams recruit based on ethnicity, birthplace, language, or anything other than whether or not they can play -- they're just propagating a prejudice that hockey needs to outgrow.