In Defense of Don Cherry

The most interesting man in the hockey world.

I found it at the very bottom of the box, nestled among 80s romantic comedies featuring leading ladies with poofy poodlish hair and nature documentaries on the migratory habits of large mammals. It was a VHS tape, cover faded and worn edges taped, both much-used and long-forgotten.

“Holy shit, look what I found!” I am authentically delighted, although I do need to learn more about the majestic caribou.

“What?”

“Rock ‘em Sock ‘em FOUR.”

“Four? That’s really old.” He flips the tape in his hands. “I can’t remember if I’ve seen this one.”

“I haven’t.”

“Sure. Go for it.”

It takes a surprisingly long time to get the VCR going. Once upon a time, as young children, we were both experts in this technology, but the skills have faded. “Wait wait, it needs to be rewound. Where’s the rewind button? Should it make that noise? Does that mean it’s working?” But with our powers combined we finally get it going, and the picture pops up on the screen, a little hazy, flickering lines along the bottom.

Oh my God, I think, he’s so young.

***

I missed the rise of Don Cherry. His broadcast career is longer than my entire life, and the bulk of his most notorious and controversial statements were made long before I had so much as heard of the CBC or hockey. By the time I came to the sport in 2005, he was already an old man, proudly archaic and even more proudly bizarre. His persona had curdled a bit, from a natural flamboyance to an almost maniacal eccentricity: suits louder than the shrieks of harpies and bluster windier than a typhoon off the South China Sea. I remember distinctly the first time I saw him screaming out of my TV on a Saturday evening- he was wearing something in a particularly affronting shade of red and intoning commandments like Moses come down from the mountain, exhorting the Israelites to keep their heads up. It was the strangest thing I had ever seen in Canadian culture, and yes I am familiar with both late-period Kids in the Hall and the works of Guy Maddin.

But while I was certainly shocked and most definitely perplexed by him, I didn’t find Don Cherry offensive, and I still don’t. I don’t often agree with him and frequently don’t even understand him, but he doesn’t bother me. In fact, I respect the guy. Like him, even, although whether it’s the man himself or the phenomenon I couldn’t quite say.

***

The single biggest valid criticism of Don Cherry is what people sometimes call his ‘racism’, although it’s not so much racism (it’s not discrimination based on phenotype) as a sort of self-righteous ethnocentrism. Cherry believes that the hockey he likes (which he identifies as Anglo-Canadian hockey) is the Platonic ideal of the sport and all other forms (which he identifies variously as French-Canadian or European) are contaminations. It’s a blinkered view, given that if anything the on-ice trend in his lifetime has been towards the Canadization of the international game rather than vice-versa, but it’s also extremely common for hockey people of his generation. Somehow, in mid-century Canada, everyone believed that the European game and the North American game were irreconcilable poles reflective of deep cultural differences that would never be wholly surmounted. Watch old documentaries on the ’72 Summit Series and see how intense everyone’s hockey ethnocentrism was, and how deep it still runs for many of the long-retired participants (Hi, Phil Esposito!). Even Dryden, writing in 1980, could not conceive that the NHL would eventually evolve to incorporate European players and techniques. He was not as anxious as Cherry to condemn foreign versions of the game, but he still considered them anathema to the Canadian way of playing. What is shocking about Cherry’s hockey ethnocentrism is not that it’s uniquely offensive, it’s that it’s thirty years out of date.

***

The other major criticism, the one that gets somewhat less hearty condemnation but I think perhaps rankles even more deeply with his audience, is his regionalism. Regionalism is not the same thing as racism or ethnocentrism, although in some cases (such as that of the American South) the two have walked closely together. But generally, regionalism is built on a pride and affection for one’s homeplace that invests deeply in signifiers of local specificity- accent and verbal tics, food and etiquette, customs and traditions. The line between favoring local things and discriminating against outside ones is fine indeed, but it is there. Without regionalism, languages would die off and entire arts vanish, and we would slowly melt into a single, enormous global Anglophone metropole. If we value the ‘multi’ part of multiculturalism, there must be an allowance for regionalist values as the thing that keeps one place distinct from another.

Don Cherry is a flaming hockey regionalist in a region that, paradoxically, isn’t terribly comfortable with regionalism. He may be the world’s only loud and proud Ontarian. And last Saturday, it was this regionalism that was on display when he used Coach’s Corner to launch into a long, intense rant about the lack of local players on the Maple Leafs.

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.

Step back and look at the entire segment, beginning to end: The pictures he shows at the beginning of himself at GTHL games, where he goes often to mingle with the kids and is, by all accounts, a patient and encouraging presence; the pictures at the end of the poor hockey-playing child from Tavistock who died in a car accident. His calling out of Burke and the Leafs isn’t hockey analysis. It’s an expression of devotion to his region and the community in it and what he believes (again, perhaps inaccurately but sincerely) that community needs. He’s a fan. He calls himself a fan. He’s a product of this time and place and he loves it so deep and so strong that he can’t control it, and rather than finding that offensive, I find it touching. It is the way people should feel about their teams. His commentary is unabashedly personal and, for all his machismo, intensely emotional. His commitments are genuine, his loyalties true.

***

And I realized, then, why I like Don Cherry: He is the only hockey personality on television who never lies. There is so much hockey on television, so many men in suits trying to tell us what to believe about the game, and they are almost all professionally lying. There’s the carefully colorless color commentators, who work from franchise-provided fact sheets to present canned narratives in the a fresh-sounding way. There’s the game recappers who narrate highlight in lively tones concealing a total lack of opinion or insight. There’s the local media, who invariably play to the team according to the emotional register traditional in their city (fawning sycophancy in some markets, vicious criticism in others). The insiders, with their mysterious sources who allow them to say only certain things on pain of access-death; the sports networks with their ginned-up rumors and pointless teach-the-controversy panel debates. And the worst of the worst are the NHL personalities themselves, the players who’ve been bullied by years of training into bland clichés so blatantly false they can’t even make eye contact while they’re saying them; the GMs with their completely made-up explanations and insincere evasions. Brian Burke, he’s a big personality and he’s got some strong opinions but I very much doubt the man has ever strung together two completely honest words when speaking about hockey in public. Some of them lie by commission, staring you right in the eye and daring you to call them on it; others by omission, with those knowing glances that whisper I cannot speak all that I know. The state of hockey speech on TV is so poor, so riddled with snark and bullshit, that I have given up hope of ever hearing anyone actually tell it like it is. Don Cherry, at least, tells it like he believes it is. In the absence of truth, the best we can hope for is honesty, and Don Cherry may well be the last honest man in television hockey commentary.

***

They say that they’re trying to take him off the air. Again. Probably someone is always trying to take him off the air- you can piss off a lot of people in thirty years of stubborn ethnocentrism, noisy regionalism, and blunt honesty. But soon now, they’re going to succeed. He’s grown old, his speech increasingly rattles with false starts and half-finishes, and some nights it takes him more time to get to the point than to make it. His showmanship still carries the segment, but the end is in sight. Eventually the broadcast quality will do what years of protest letters couldn’t: force Don Cherry into retirement.

Some people will hail his absence as a great victory for progressive hockey commentary, and it might be. But it will also be a great loss for hockey community. Coach’s Corner is the most widely, intensely discussed program in the sport. Every week, dozens of columnists and bloggers spend thousands of words analyzing, criticizing, lauding and mocking Cherry’s latest rant. It is the only thing we all consistently talk about. As much as it might shame some of us to admit it, he inspires us. He pushes our buttons. He gets us going. He’s not just a part of hockey discourse, he’s one of the key drivers of it.

Don Cherry is an authentic phenomenon, a wholly original creature. There is nothing else like him, not even like a pale shadow of him. If he goes (when he goes), who else could fill those shoes? What else could the CBC give that time to who would command the attention that Cherry does, who would generate that level of interest, who could provoke that intensity of debate? The similar men in similar suits who politely banter over the issues of the day on the other HNIC segments, they’re (mostly) smart guys and good analysts, but they’re decorous insiders and they hedge their bets. When it comes to us-the-fans, they’re in our world but not of it. They’ve got one foot somewhere else, in the network of friendships, loyalties, and secrets that defines the NHL good old boy’s club. No one from that insider culture will ever be able to step into Cherry’s position. When he goes, his place goes with him. And we will all be poorer for it.

***

We sat there on the floor, faces white in the reflected glow of the TV.

“OH SHIT. Look at that. He, like, jumped into that. With an elbow.”

“How many games you think that’d get today?”

“At least ten, rest of the season maybe. It looked like attempted murder.”

The hits in Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em 4 are ridiculous, huge in a way no hit has been in years and years, skates in the air, shoulders into heads, straight-up tackles. Things no one could get away with now. Things no one would even attempt to justify now. This was hockey. It isn’t anymore.

Don Cherry is a product of a Canadian hockey culture that is rapidly fading into the past, and in many ways is gone already. He was born in 1934, when Howie Morenz was still alive and the New York Americans were still a team. He has seen more of the history of the sport than pretty much anyone still in the game today. He is the history of the sport.

I wrote on Monday about the importance of change in the game, and how we should not consider ourselves beholden to the customs of the past as we go about adapting hockey to the modern world. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean that the past is worthless. Too much conservatism leads to stagnation, but too much abrupt transformation leads to alienation. We need our past, we need the sense of continuity that comes from memory and nostalgia. The dialogue that takes place every week between Don Cherry and the coterie of young writers who argue with him is essential to the vitality of modern hockey. We need both parts, the traditionalism and the revisionism. Disagree with Don Cherry, by all means, please, take him to task for all his outdated assumptions and impractical notions. But don’t silence him. He is the past, yes, but there are worse things than having the past call out to you from your television ten minutes a week, reminding you to keep your head up and your stick on the ice.

Comments (42)

  1. brilliant essay. well done.

  2. Your article leaves me speechless but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. It didn’t turn me into a Cherry fan but I think that I will be able to view him in a different, more accepting light in future.

  3. I loved this essay. Being from New Brunswick, I once lived in Ontario for a while, and my youngest daughter was born there. The line “the world’s only loud and proud Ontarian” line resonated in a way that made my entire body laugh. It should be considered pretty great that a place that has almost nothing to be comfortably proud about has somebody who is proud of his home province for her hockey players.

  4. Back in my day, I relied on true North Americans to fill the Hawks roster. None of the sissy-pants French-Canadiens or Europeans. That’s why I was the last owner to send full-time scouts to Europe. Seriously, who wants a team full of Karpotsevs, Krivokrasovs, and Zhamnovs? My boy Rocky’s done well with the occasional Swede and dat Horsa guy, but generally speaking, we need more Canadian farmboy-types in the league.

  5. Another post that makes me think, “I know someone else that would really enjoy reading this. I should them the link.” Interesting subjects, great writing.

  6. “pointless teach-the-controversy panel debates”

    By God you are a great writer. James Duthie, read this and retire in shame, you weasel.

  7. You are the type of person Cherry would hate. WTF, ethnocentrics? You are in the same category as Rosie DiManno, Blatchford, etc. …..ALL INCONSEQUENTIAL.

    Just let the man speak without overanalyzing everything he says.

  8. Well written, but I respectfully disagree with you. The use of the word Anglo in Anglo-Canadian hockey, does that not imply a hint of racism? You can label it ethnocentrism is you want, but to me it is still wrong. Cherry could still appreciate Canadian talent, as I do, without being derogatory towards hockey players from other parts of the world. What I feel you have removed from your analysis of Cherry is the position of authority that he holds as a public figure. A national public figure. I mean, think about Quebec. How many people from Quebec have this strong feeling of regionalism you describe? Most of them. And any time it comes out in the national media, they are portrayed as anti-national (at best). Why can Cherry do it? Because he’s talking about Ontario? Because he’s Don Cherry? Sure, I can brag to all my friends about being from BC, and that’s fine, but I’m also not a public figure on a national broadcast. You say that he was not making a hockey analysis, but an expression of devotion to his region. Well what is his job exactly? Because I’m pretty sure it’s hockey analysis.

    I’m not saying that Don Cherry should be fired. I’m a bit of a softy for tradition, and I do see Coach’s Corner as an institution. But Don Cherry should absolutely be put under pressure to modernise some of his outdated and ethnocentric views. We all have to grow up some day.

    • “But Don Cherry should absolutely be put under pressure to modernise some of his outdated and ethnocentric views.”

      And many high profile people do pressure him to modernize his views every Saturday night. Cherry doesn’t “get away” with voicing his controversial opinion anymore than French separatists do.

      So what exactly is your point?

    • because Canada is mostly Anglo.. The French lost the territories to the English and Quebec has been propped up for most of it’s existence through the munificence of the Angloprovinces (mainly Ontario). Quebec as a political entity is anti-national, for the most part; throughout most of it’s history. That’s just a fact. The losers don’t define the nation, the winners do. Last time I checked, the winners were the British and Scots. God save the fucking Queen.

    • English/Anglo is not a race. French/Frano is not a race. Canadian, American, European are not races. Don Cherry is not a racist.

      As well, I find it quaint that you are asking for a 78 year old to “get with the times” or “grow up”. Seriously, think about that for a second and then go hug your grandparents and tell them to leave their outdated views behind, if you can.

      • Mclea, my point is not that Don Cherry “gets away” with voicing his controversial opinions, and French separatists don’t. In fact, I didn’t talk about French separatists at all. You have demonstrated my point very well. People from Quebec who are proud to be from Quebec are painted as these evil French separatists, whereas Don Cherry, who is proud to be from Ontario, is painted as a good old Canadian, for making the same type of remarks. I’m just looking for an explanation. How can one be acceptable and the other not?

        Phil, your tone is unnecessarily condescending – but that aside – I’m afraid I don’t see much difference between racism and ethnocentrism. Quite frankly, I don’t think either is defensible. As far as my grandparents, your right they did have some preconceived notions that simply wouldn’t fly in today’s society. So why does Don’s? My grandparents weren’t airing their opinions on a national broadcast.

        • why don’t we just jump straight to Hitler and fulfill Godwin’s law :)

          also… race and ethnicity are not the same thing…

        • “People from Quebec who are proud to be from Quebec are painted as these evil French separatists, whereas Don Cherry, who is proud to be from Ontario, is painted as a good old Canadian, for making the same type of remarks.”

          A significant another people take serious issue with Don Cherry’s opinions. I don’t see why you believe there’s a consensus approval of his musings. There most certainly isn’t. You’re creating a contrast that doesn’t exist in reality.

          • another should read “number of”. Thanks auto correct.

          • But it is in contrast to the point of this article, which is what I am responding to in the first place.

  9. Don Cherry is the one link between the hockey glory of my childhood and the current state of today’s game.
    I’m American; grew up across the St. Lawrence River from Cherry’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario and from as early as I can recall I have treated his words as The Gospel. Don Cherry represents the heart on your sleeve, persevere at all costs and never give up attitude that made hockey the only sport in the world for me. Everything else is just a game, hockey is the only sport.
    I agree with Ellen (as I find myself often doing) that when he is gone from the limelight of Coach’s Corner the entire hockey world will miss Don Cherry. He reminds me in roughly 7 minutes each Saturday night why I fell in love with this sport in the first place.

  10. Good to hear someone defend Cherry for a change. Come on people I know the man is loud crazy and very controversial. But half the time he’s right. He doesn’t ask you to agree with him. He’s hilarious, entertaining, honest, and if you don’t like watching him, then don’t. I for one will miss the day that he finally retires/gets forced to leave. There is NOTHING more entertaining than Rock’em’Sock’em 1-10. Watch any of those and tell me that one of today’s hits is dirty. Now THOSE were REAL men

  11. Brilliant piece of writing!

  12. …I will never understand how anyone could consider your writing style unmarketable.

    This was a wonderful piece.

  13. “I remember distinctly the first time I saw him screaming out of my TV on a Saturday evening- he was wearing something in a particularly affronting shade of red and intoning commandments like Moses come down from the mountain, exhorting the Israelites to keep their heads up.”

    This is a fantastically written sentence, the simile was golden.

    As always great job. I have had a soft spot for Don since I was a young kid and that’s not about to change anytime soon.

  14. As a prairie boy, I am generally used to agreeing with Cherry on everything. That is, until last Saturday, when he disregarded my fellow praries boys Dion, Joffrey and Luke as not being good enough for his (and mine, I might add) Leafs. I was dumbfounded.

    I needed this article to see that he may not be putting the prairie boys down, but just putting the Ontario boys first. I’m okay with that. I should have seen it coming by the way he has always venerated Kingston boys.

    And you are right, we need him on TV for as long as he can stand it!

  15. Very well said – Brilliant work

  16. Seriously, with the amount of people that hate this guy, it is hard to argue that he is some kind of authority figure. His views are refuted by dozens of media outlets every week, so it’s not like he gets the podium to himself. I also agree with the ‘respect your elders’ sentiment. Disagree and respect.
    My grandfather grew up on the Manitoba ponds and lived and breathed hockey, bequething his love to me. His view is that Cherry has always promoted violence in hockey, and he is not a fan. I kept that in mind and learned from Cherry too. The point is that these are legitimate opinions, not just dinosaur views that should be swept under the rug, and it’s not fair to attribute them all to age. I want to hear from any ex-pro, and any older fan. Thank god we don’t muzzle our seniors in the way that some of you are suggesting.

  17. I never fail to read your pieces immediately when I see them post. Great stuff, every time.

    I think you would enjoy George Plimpton’s hockey book, “Empty Net.” It’s the usual Plimpton amateur-among-pros thing, only his of skill is even more pronounced in goal.

    Plimpton was allowed to try his hand with the Cherry-era Bruins, and was utterly inept of course. But Cherry didn’t give him a hard time at all. Instead, he comes across in the story as tolerant and helpful; kind, even. Unexpected, given his TV persona–although he has great stories, just as you’d expect.

    You also have great stories, and every one of them was the best read i had all day, the day it posted. Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough.

  18. “… only his _lack of_ skill …”

    sigh.

  19. Great post/essay/mini book

  20. Your defense of Cherry’s intolerant views is weak. And your logic in distinguishing racism from “self-righteous ethnocentrism” is the same one used by white supremist groups who claim that they have nothing against other races, they just “know” that their own is superior. (When has ethnocentrism ever been a good thing anyway?)

    People don’t realize the double-standard they hold when it comes to “regionalism.” It’s one thing to be excited about the hometown boy coming back to play for the team he grew up loving, but people use that sentiment to justify attitudes of exclusivity or discrimination. As a Canucks fan, I loved that Cliff Ronning was from Burnaby and that Hammer is a BC boy, but I love that Kesler, Burrows and the Sedins (etc..) have adopted Vancouver as home.
    I also love that Canadian boy Steve Nash is a two time MVP because Phoenix did not let a “regionalist” sentiment prevent them from giving him the place on the team that he earned through hard work and talent.

    The point: if my love of the hometown or BC boy leads to excitement whey they succeed in this market OR another one- and if we believe they deserve the chance to thrive and be respected in either one, then my own perspective better afford players from outside the market the same respect with an attitude of acceptance.

    That’s where Cherry has at times gotten at wrong…and where your defense of Cherry falls apart. You just have to consider the application of his reasoning in other arenas of life and profession to see that.

  21. Blew me away. I totally agree.

  22. This was a truly amazing article. I loved every minute I spent reading it. If you’re not being paid to lay your words onto paper, then you should be. Great job! As a first time reader of this blog, I look forward to more.

  23. “The state of hockey speech on TV is so poor, so riddled with snark and bullshit, that I have given up hope of ever hearing anyone actually tell it like it is.”

    -me too. Loved the essay…waiting for a book.

  24. can i get a TL:DR version?

  25. Great piece, Ellen. You almost had me reconsider my thoughts on Cherry.

    I agree that Cherry may be a link to the past, but I won’t be sad to see him go. Having been raised in a French-Canadian household, he never spoke to me and I often felt like I wasn’t a part of “his” hockey. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who felt this way.

  26. In my opinion it’s simple. Last week we heard the anguish of a true blue Leafs fan. If there can’t be wins, let us at least have another Wendel Clark or Doug Gilmour, a true grit Leaf, a hometown boy. Something to cheer about when we aren’t actually winning…

  27. Extremely well-written and well-said. I couldn’t agree more on all accounts.

  28. As always, well done E.

    If somebody said, “get me 2,500 words on why Grapes needs to stay,” I would have laughed in his/her face. Your writing has a depth and sophistication about it untouched by many in the hockey writing community.

    In this post the discontinuity (i.e. many paragraph breaks, transitions between anecdote and exposition, etc.) set the piece off nicely. Indeed, it reflects the conflicted way – I imagine – one would respond to the question: “Why do you think Cherry is important?” Of course, you offer us both sides of the argument and we feel satisfied.

    Bravo!

  29. Ellen Etchingham’s defense of Cherry is problematic in at least two related ways. First, “Burke’s mining of the American player pool” was intended precisely to garner a team that is ” assiduously optimized … at every position”. This is, with perhaps a very occasional exception (the Atlanta case noted above), the aim of every GM. Unfortunately for the Leafs and 23 other teams, it doesn’t work out that way. And in assessing why it didn’t work out that way this year, Burke will not say ‘the American strategy didn’t work, let’s try an Ontario strategy’; rather, he’ll say, for example, ‘we need to get better at center; who is the best center available?’ This is the point of the main post, namely, if you can play you can play.

    Second, ‘local identity’ is a red herring here. It is simply not a factor in a GM’s team building. The team was designed to kick ass, though it hasn’t achieved this. Etchingham’s suggested course of action in this situation then seems to be this: replace a team of strangers that sucks with a team of locals that sucks. And this would make you happy? Or Cherry? The only good course of action here is surely this: replace a team of ‘strangers’ that sucks with a team that doesn’t suck.

    • Oops. I wrote this after reading the Puck Daddy blog, hence the reference to Atlanta in the first bit. And to state explicitly the second problem, implicit in the second paragraph: Etchingham leaves herself no viable course of action – certainly not one that anyone in charge of a team would take.

  30. Sometime the Leafs since Gilmore and Sundin years have been so boring, on some weekends I only watch Cherry’s show. IMO I am from Ontario and Toronto needs Ontario players, players walk away from Toronto in other sports. Nobody says anything when people say Montreal needs french players. I am a big Leafs fan and I am happy to have someone like Cherry representing the Leafs, even though he doesnt work for them.

  31. Burke can’t even get free agents to come here he should of been fired with the coach

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