I left Toronto early, and parked across the road from the arena. I stayed in my car to read, and soon began to watch. People walked by me in twos or fives, it seemed – a husband and wife; a family – almost all in blue jeans, almost no one alone. They crossed the road and, the arena not yet opened, joined a line that already extended along the length of the building, ran across its parking lot, and was beginning to snake down a sidewalk on Roger Neilson Way. It was cold; the snow whipped horizontally across the open spaces. The ceremonial service for Stompin’ Tom Connors at the Peterborough Memorial Centre was still more than three hours away.
Nearly an hour later, as I walked toward the arena, a woman in her late 50s approached me. She was from Edmonton, she said. She had flown overnight; her brother, who was with her, had picked her up in Toronto. I met two guys, also in their late 50s, from Vancouver. They had done the same and were going back the next day. They could have spent their money going to Mexico, one of them said, but those memories and stories would last only a few weeks. Besides, he said, this would be the last Stompin’ Tom concert they’d ever see.
During the concert, when a town name was mentioned, from one darkened part of the arena or another there would be a cheer. That was their town; they had come. Tillsonburg, Sudbury, Huntsville, even Skinners Pond itself. From mines and fields, bars and hockey rinks they had come. More cheers. From love and life gone bad; above all, from a gritty, unabashed pride in Canada. They had all come.
It was, as Stompin’ Tom’s family and friends wanted, a celebration – of Tom, his life, and Canada.
I had seen this crowd before, in Iqaluit, Whitehorse and Shaunavon, Sask. It was when CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada and Don Cherry were there. The excitement was over the top, through the roof, unimaginable. The great Hockey Night in Canada had come to their town. Their kids were being showcased; their stories were being told across the country. They mattered. Former NHL stars were in their midst, wandering their streets and arenas as if they were locals themselves. But it wouldn’t have mattered more if the Great One himself had been there. Nothing was really anything until Don Cherry arrived.
The people loved him. They cheered, they whistled. They laughed at his clothes and bluster. They nodded agreement at his lessons and homilies. They burst with pride at anything and everything Canadian he evoked. He is a hugely controversial figure. All those things he says about European players, women, and the French. His “rock ’em sock ’em” message in a time of concussions and change, that intimidates and overwhelms any other HNIC message, that discourages other ways of playing, that allows other countries to advance faster than Canada has. All this may be mostly true. But all this is missing their point.
Don Cherry is about being full-out, no holding back. He’s about loving, hating; loyalty, friendship, teamship. He’s about heart-on-your-sleeve, tattoo-on-your-backside patriotism. He’s about saying, doing – wearing – whatever he wants. He’s about noticing the little guy that no one else notices. He’s about thumbing his nose at smart-dressing bosses – CBC, NHL. He’s the lunch-pail star who doesn’t look like a star or talk like a star. He’s the star his fans would want to be. And to them he’s not just about hockey. He might be all wrong about hockey. It’s all this other stuff. That’s why they love him. That is their point.
Tom and Don can be polarizing figures. They are what they are.There is no arm’s-length irony about them. They bear-hug everything. Good-bad, black-white, nuance is for the convictionless. And in their straight-between-the-eyes patriotism, they have come to monopolize so many of the symbols of Canada – the land, hard work, hockey, winter, arenas, bars, the military – leaving little room for those who feel just as strongly but who express their feelings differently. Many have come to resent them for this. In resenting them, they dismiss Tom and Don as simplistic and out of touch. In turn, Tom and Don have seen their critics as smug and soft.
Yet, a few decades ago, when Canadian hockey and Canadian music were being abandoned by many as too rough and unsophisticated, Tom and Don were reminding people about – were in their faces about – an essence that is Canada and Canadian that needs always to be expressed.
Stompin’ Tom Connors and Don Cherry met only a few times, not often enough to be friends. But Don was a fan of Tom’s; and Tom was a fan of Don’s. And Tom’s fans – those 5,000 Canadians in that rink in Peterborough – are Don’s fans; Don’s fans are Tom’s fans.
Even to those who think differently, Tom and Don matter.