A week ago, if the name Don Cherry was familiar to most Americans, it was probably due to his ludicrous suits or his love of bull terriers. Man, a lot can change in a week.
For those of you not up on your ancient Canadian sports commentators, Don Cherry was synonymous with hockey’s marquee televised event, Hockey Night in Canada. Cherry was an institution
on his first intermission segment, Coaches Corner, where the ex-Bruins bench leader would pontificate to the masses about the values of old-time hockey. Virtues like determination, hard work, and sacrifice were the foundation of Cherry’s rants which could be seen on every NHL Saturday for more than 30 years. Then he went on one rant too many.
Cherry chastised some Canadians for not wearing the traditional poppies that honor service members during Canada’s Remembrance Day. To quote,
“You people ... that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey,” Cherry said. “At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life, that you enjoy in Canada.”
As an outside observer of Cherry and one who’s own lifetime fits within his Coach’s Corner career, I was generally amused by his antics. Don Cherry was a preacher of sorts for a section of devotes who knelt at the altar of hockey, and as a southern fan, who perhaps unconsciously, felt separate from the “true” game up north, he was a beacon of “real hockey.”
As a fan who literally grew up around a group of minor league players, I shared Cherry’s love of the code of enforcement. The rule of enforcers was a vital part of the game.
As a fan of the beauty of teamwork, I shared Cherry’s admiration for players willing to sacrifice for the benefit of their teammates; especially if their offering was made in teeth.
As a fan of loud and garish clothing, I envied Cherry’s wardrobe. My closet will not be complete until I too own a suit covered in mustaches.
The thing about beacons though is that they are supposed to guide you onto a better path. It’s hard to argue that Don Cherry has been doing much guiding in recent years. For starters, the game as he knows it no longer exists. The Dead Puck Area is no more. Forwards don’t have to be big bruisers to make a difference on the score sheet. A defenseman must now rely on their skates, not their size to effectively shut down opposing teams. And enforcers, perhaps the most recognizable part of the game to most casual fans, are extinct on the sport’s biggest stage. This all has been lost on Cherry, who’s favorite pastime for the last decade has been calling players soft, due to this modern style of play.
Not only has Cherry’s on-ice IQ been found wanting, so has his awareness of the nation he lives in. Going after “soft” players “who play the wrong way” has always been a go-to for Don Cherry. But looking back on it, most of the players who Cherry put into that box didn’t have his background. Cherry has long taken umbrage with a number of Quebec-born players. To him, they didn’t play the game right. When players from Sweden and Finland came into the league, they didn’t play the game right either. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russian players joined… you get the drift.
There’s an innocent phrase in the south that women from a certain generation can wield with devastating precision. If you ever have anyone over the age of 40 say to you “Bless Your Heart,” you messed up something awful. “You people” is the bless your heart of bigotry. There has always been a “You people” attitude to Don Cherry. There’s no need to say the world immigrants, those familiar knew exactly to whom Cherry was referring. The reason this was the time for Cherry to go was simple. Even his biases had been exposed by the passage of time.
In a way, it’s quite sad. Last week, a man in his 80’s said something that old men tend to say. It’s the kind of statement that would’ve only garnered eye rolls from the kids at a holiday party because no one wanted to call Grandpa on it. But this wasn’t a family gathering. It was live, primetime national television.
Don Cherry sees nothing wrong with his comments, because to him, there was nothing wrong. No one had ever told him differently. Now they have. Nothing, not an ever-diversifying Canada, not a changing NHL, not even getting fired will change Don Cherry’s opinion of what he thinks is right. That is a fact that we have to accept. But we don’t have to accept his opinions as facts. Hockey and Canada are both better off now finally understanding the difference.