I have a metaphorical glass case in my house with a sign that says “Break glass in case of lockout.” It’s filled with stacks of VHS tapes and DVD boxes: I have a fairly extensive collection of hockey movies, shows, and highlights waiting to be busted out when I need to scratch my hockey itch. From classics like Youngblood and Slapshot to more obscure titles like Hockey Mom and Hockey Night, I have plenty of options in case the lack of NHL hockey gets me down.
I even have the first season of CBC’s not-very-good Making the Cut and the complete series of the 70′s Peter Puck animated shorts. And I have a stack of Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em VHS tapes. Last night, I needed some hockey. So I popped in the original Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em from 1989.
I did so with a purpose, however. One of the criticisms that has been levelled at Cherry is that he promotes a hardnosed, physical style of hockey because he profits from it, rather than because he actually thinks it’s good for the game. So I turned to the original Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em to see how much of this was true. How many of the hits and bodychecks would be considered dangerous and illegal by today’s standards? How many of the hits that Cherry celebrates are potential concussion-inducing, career-ending checks?
I grew up watching these videos. Without cable TV, they, along with Hockey Night In Canada and hockey cards, were my main window into the NHL. When I saw a game live, it was the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCJHL, where one larger fellow always bought a large pop, busted out the bottom of the cup after he drank it, and used it as a megaphone for the rest of the night, bellowing “Hit ‘em!” at the teenagers on the ice.
When I originally watched the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos, it was with a certain amount of innocence. Hitting – even dangerous, violent hitting – was just part of the game and I never saw or heard about any of the consequences. I was curious to see what my reaction would be now that the dangers of concussions have been drilled into my head and the increase in calls, fines, and suspensions for dangerous hits.
I knew I was in for a good time when the video warned me at the beginning that “ANY PUBLIC PREFORMANCE (sic)…IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.” At the very end, I was informed that “THIS TAPE CAN BE PUCHASED (sic) WHERE EVER (sic) QUALITY SPECIAL PRODUCTS ARE SOLD.” I have a suspicion that the copy writer had a concussion at the time.
It didn’t take long to spot the first borderline hit: in the opening credits, a Whaler gets his hands and stick up into the face of a Canadiens player who has his head down. It’s mostly obscured by the title, so it’s hard to see exactly how bad it was.
Cherry smartly leaves the hitting and fighting to the end, starting with goals, saves, and bloopers; while he leads with goalies getting run over, they’re mostly accidental collisions. There is one moment that made me cringe early on: Pete Peeters, then with the Washington Capitals, takes a shot to his mask, knocking him out cold. Cherry whimsically comments, “Peeters is okay, he played the next game…I think.”
There’s plenty of good stuff to get to that satiated my desire for NHL hockey, fortunately. I was reminded of how outright incredible Patrick Roy really was and that Denis Savard has to be the smoothest skater in the history of the NHL. But my favourite part has to be the horror show that was the Canucks’ jerseys in the 80′s. I’m not going to lie: I love the Flying V and I love the yellow jersey. I desperately want the Canucks to bring the V back as a third jersey, just because of how appalling it would look in HD.
I also adore how the music for the bulk of the video is Banarama’s “Venus.” Totally thematically appropriate.
It wouldn’t be Cherry without some subtle racism/ethnocentrism thrown in. At one point he jokes that Brian Hayward “sends [Hakan] Loob back to Finland” with one of his saves. It’s not just that Cherry mistakenly identified the Swedish Loob as Finnish, it’s that he added “Hooray!” on to the end. Worse still is the start of the bloopers section, where he shows the infamous moment when a live chicken was thrown onto the ice at the LA Forum. Cherry jokes that the chicken “looks like a new Swedish draft pick.” Oh dear.
Finally, to the hits. The title card for the section is titled “Hit List” and features a picture of the borderline dirty hit that was in the opening credits. That’s not a good sign.
By my count, there are 56 total hits in the “Hit List.” 16 of them are, by my judgement, illegal, dangerous, or borderline hits. There’s another hit that, while legal, results in a player going face first into the boards and another that isn’t even a hit, just another goalie getting knocked out by a puck hitting him in the mask.
Seven of the hits are to the head, including one cross check where the ref can be seen immediately putting his arm up for a penalty on the play. The hit that was featured in the opening credits and the title card gets shown twice from different angles. There are a couple knee-on-knee hits and one slewfoot while going into the boards, which is surprising given how much Cherry rants about slewfoots now. One of the last hits in the package sees Dale Hunter run Joe Nieuwendyk face first into the stanchion and it looks far more intentional than when Zdeno Chara did the same to Max Pacioretty.
Of the 16 I mentioned, at least three would (or should) be automatic suspensions in today’s NHL, including Hunter’s hit on Nieuwendyk, with a few other more questionable cases. There is a direct hit to the head where Wendel Clark leaves his feet and leaves his opponent unconscious on the ice. In the current climate, Clark would have been vilified for that hit. The other hit that likely would garner a suspension is the most blatant of the two knee-on-knee hits in the video.
In defence of Cherry, it was obviously a different time with different standards. The current NHL has become increasingly sensitive (though in some cases not sensitive enough) to dangerous hits and the risk of concussions. But it’s definitely true that Cherry celebrates the type of hits that are now seen as dangerous, including hits to the head and boarding.
If the lockout continues much longer, I’ll have a chance to watch a lot more of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em series to see if that holds up over time.