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.