Let me frank right off the bat and allow that I am an unabashed Don Cherry fan. He, more than anyone, understands what hockey means to people in Canada. Let me capture that for just a moment.
Hockey is a game of total commitment. As the saying goes, you leave it all out there on the ice. You go in, play your 45 seconds as hard as you can, then let someone else take over. You play hurt. You sacrifice yourself for the team. It’s a hard, difficult, sometimes violent sport that sometimes rewards you with the silverware and where everyone’s career ends the same way.
It’s Bobby Baun scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal on a broken leg. It’s a concussed Maurice Richard facing down goalie Jim Henry – himself playing with a broken nose – to score the series winner. It’s Bobby Orr flying through the air to score a Cup-winner in overtime. It’s Paul Henderson and Phil Esposito getting up off the mat to face down the Soviets in 1972.
I love baseball – always have, always will – but it’s hockey that’s in my blood, hockey that defines my ethos as a Canadian, and hockey that defines for me what it means to play the game. You play hard, you play hurt, and you leave it all on the ice. I hope that that’s what they’ll say about me when I’m done, and I know that that’s what they’ll say about Canada.
That’s what Don Cherry understands, and what has made him over 37 years in the game one of the most powerful voices not only for hockey but for Canada as a whole.
Don Cherry was also conservative to the core. At 85 years old, coming of age up in the 1950s, he could hardly be anything else. The 50s were a gritty decade, but also a beautiful decade, an era rife with suspicion and mistrust, but effused with the heady fruits of victory in a hard-fought world war and ongoing conflicts to hold the communists in check.
As society changed, and as hockey changed, through the 70s and 80s and even now into the late 2010s, it was pretty easy to see this image of Canada and the victories won by our parents beginning to fade. Cherry, the hockey commentator, could see it in the stone-cold emotionlessness of the Soviets, the smooth-skating but non-contact mode of the Swedes, the tic-tac-toe tactics of the Czechs. None of this was real hockey, and to the extent that this was influencing the game, it was diluting hockey, and with it, diluting what it means to be Canadian.
That’s why he railed against the use of face-masks. It’s not that he wanted hockey players to lose an eye, but that he felt it encouraged cheap shots and attacks with sticks, rather than the direct confrontation you would see in the old days. That’s why he promoted fighting and rock-em sock-em hockey. He felt you should face the opposition directly instead of doing something behind his back. In Don Cherry’s world – and, for that matter, in mine – you respect your opponent, you respect the game, and you respect the outcome.
Now despite Don Cherry’s best intentions, hockey has changed, and it has mostly changed for the better. After all, it’s no longer acceptable to celebrate a sport that requires its participants to beat each other senseless, nor should it be. I remember after the lockout one year the NHL came back with a renewed emphasis on speed and skill and respect for the players and for the game and it was (for a time) a lot better, showing it could be done, and I guess, eventually would be done.
The same, maybe, could be said of Canada. We’re evolving into a faster and more skillful version of ourselves, which means that some of the grit from previous eras is lost. For many of us, getting along in the world is no longer a matter of staring down our opponents with steely-eyed determination, but instead, of finding ways of living with them.
This is also true internally. It brings to mind some of the Don Cherry tropes of the past – opposition to the RCMP wearing turbans, opposition to women in the dressing rooms, dismissal of women generally, attacks on left-wing pinkos, criticism of David Suzuki, and of course, criticism of Russian hockey players. He railed against the metric system, offered to bring back the last for domestic abusers, criticized Canada’s decision to stay out of Iraq. He complained about “some French guy” carrying the national flag at the Olympics, attacked Bloc Quebecois members removing Canadian flags, criticized multiculturalism and even railed against ballet.
But none of that is who we are. I’m not sure it was ever who we are, not even in the 1950s. It’s a vision of Canada that has become smaller and smaller over time, even as we as a nation have embraced the wider world to become faster, more skillful, and indeed, stronger. I love Don Cherry, I love how he understands what hockey means to us, but I could never love a the small narrow-minded vision of Canada he has come to embrace over the years.
And, at a certain point, his sort of rhetoric becomes dangerous. Look at what’s happening in the United States, where the faltering privilege of the white and powerful is leading to a backlash that threatens American democracy itself. Look at the United Kingdom, a nation that is tearing itself apart over the question of whether outsiders can be allowed to challenge their status quo of a society based on elitism and privilege. We have to be smarter than that.
Don Cherry’s comment usually appear with ellipses in the news media, but let’s quote his remarks in full:
You know, I was talking to a veteran, I said “I’m not going to run the poppy thing any more, because what’s the sense, I live in Mississauga, nobody wears… very few people wear a poppy, downtown Toronto, forget it, downtown Toronto, nobody wears the poppy, and I’m not going to…” and he says, “Wait a minute. How about running it for the people that buy them?” Now you go to the small cities, and you know, those… you know, the rows on rows… you people love, you know, they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys pay the biggest price.
In explaining his remarks, Cherry says he meant “everyone” by “you people”, and that he didn’t think the remarks were that bad. But they were that bad, as not only his history, but the full version of the quote makes clear.
Cherry is clearly talking about immigrants – people who “come here” and enjoy “our way of life”. But more, he specifically references Mississauga and downtown Toronto, two regions known for large populations of visible minorities. Maybe he just meant immigrants in general, but the clear statement here is one that references people not like us.
But it’s Don Cherry, and by “not like us” he probably includes Europeans and pinkos and environmentalists and feminists and the French and all the rest of them. Which means he is not a racist Properly So-Called (so Bobby Orr is probably right), because he has grounds in addition to race for his attacks. But that was never the question. The question is whether this view of Canada – narrow, exclusionary, elitist, belligerent, militaristic – is one deserves a platform any more.
And – of course – it does not. It’s not about whether Don Cheery is a bad person, or about whether he deserves to be fired, or about freedom of speech. No, it’s about whether we, as a nation, are willing to continue to allow ourselves to be defined in such terms. And – peripherally – it’s about whether we are willing to allow hockey to be defined in such terms. And we’re not. Because they’re not what’s best about us. They’re not what’s best about hockey. They’re what’s worst.
You see, Don Cherry really did capture the best of us, which is why we love him so. You play hard, you play hurt, and you leave it all on the ice. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve thought about that, and thought about a Doug Gilmour playing through enough pain to make a grown man cry, and pulled up my socks, and carried on. Because this does define what it means to be Canadian. We’re not afraid of hard work, we’re not afraid of sacrifice, and we’re willing to commit everything.
But, like the game, we’re so much more than that. Everybody‘s on the team, including the newcomers. People contribute in different ways, drawing on their different strengths. We don’t need enforcers any more. We’re smart, we’re fast, we’re skillful. We can play with the best in the world, because we’ve drawn from the best in the world. We not only face adversity, we learn from adversity.
So while Don Cherry has our thanks and our love, it’s time to move on. There’s a whole new hockey game out there, it’s beautiful, and it’s time to let it in.