I wasn’t in the Russian juniors dressing room a few nights ago before their third period against Canada, but I know what was said. “This game isn’t over. We know those guys [Canadian players]” a coach or some of their players would’ve blurted, even as this time, with a 6-1 lead, they all knew the gap was too wide to believe what they’d just said. Then when Canada’s goals started to pour in, for the Russians what would have felt like simple concern against another opponent, against Canada turned to full panic.
This is what Canadians love about Canadian players. We get cut, we lose teeth, we come back and scarcely miss a shift. This isn’t about ourselves; it’s about the team. We’re going to feel pain anyway; we might as well play. It’s the fight that’s in us. It’s those boards we put up around us when we created this game that gave us no place to escape; no choice but to suck it up. It’s the teeth-baring grin we show when we go into the corners and into that funnel to the net. And it’s an ethic that’s more important now than ever. To fans who “bleed” blue or orange or black, who feel more deeply about their team than they do about themselves, they need to know that the player with the multimillion-dollar contract who wears the same jersey feels the same.
And it’s why most Canadian fans love Don Cherry. If anyone doubts that affection, go to CBC’s next Hockey Day in Canada. I was with him three times, in Iqaluit, Shaunavon, Sask., and Whitehorse. No matter how many former stars are also there or who they are, the fans want to see one person – Cherry. No question. No contest. These fans love the dynamic between Cherry and his sidekick, Ron Maclean, on Coach’s Corner. Maclean is often described as Cherry’s perfect foil, but in fact, the reverse is true. Maclean is Cherry’s perfect set-up man. Cherry goes over-the-top; Maclean catches him and comes back with something that seems almost reasonable – and on it goes. But beneath the shtick of outrageous clothes and bluster is a funny, entertaining character who has something to say. No one survives more than 30 years at the centre of a storm with just shtick.
Whatever Cherry’s talking about, he’s really talking about Canada and Canadian spirit. When European players first began playing in the NHL in any numbers, he trashed them. They weren’t Canadian, not in nationality, not in spirit. Just because you wear the jersey of a hockey player, he said to them, doesn’t mean you’re a hockey player. Prove it. When they did, he wouldn’t see it because they weren’t Canadian. If they proved it a different way, not with their fists but on the scoreboard as Gretzky and Lemieux did, he wouldn’t see it either.
Week after week his message carries the same basic truth: in hockey, as in any of other side theme of life he goes off into – “Hey, you kids out there” – you’ve got to be willing to fight. Who can argue? And to Cherry if you accept that, you’ve got to accept that any kind of fight or fighting is right. You’ve got to stand up – meet shoulder with shoulder; fist with fist. That’s Canadian hockey; that’s Canadian spirit.
This is where the debate over head shots and fighting grows confused. Giving up head shots or fighting is not giving in to do-gooders who never played the game. It’s not giving in to Americans. It is not giving up something Canadian. It’s not even giving up Don Cherry; certainly not his spirit. But it is taking on Cherry or anyone else on hits to the head. The surprise is that Cherry and so many former players who are now commentators defend or minimize these hits – the race for the puck, the last-second shove that catapults an opponent into the end-boards and a completely unknowable fate; the cruise-by elbow or shoulder to an unsuspecting player. The hit such as the one Edmonton Oilers’ Andy Sutton put on the Carolina Hurricanes’ Alexei Ponikarovsky a few weeks ago. Sutton could see that Ponikarovsky couldn’t see him. His was no knee-jerk reflex. It was entirely premeditated. He had several feet to decide what to do and chose to drive Ponikarovsky’s head into the glass – because he could. But Sutton is a good guy. Good guys don’t do bad things, so bad things done by good guys can’t be bad.