These are cheap shots and always were. I doubt Cherry played this way. Is this fight? Is this standing up? Where’s the courage and toughness in this?
But really, Cherry is a distraction to this debate, just as fighting is. The risk of permanent injury for “hired gun” fighters may be significant, as we’ve seen with Bob Probert, Reggie Fleming and Derek Boogaard, but these fighters are few in number. The issue is about all the other players, and the scores of them who have suffered concussions out of what have become simple routine moments in a game. The question is how a fast, exciting, high-contact game can be played with less physical risk. The question is whether the “fight” of Canadian hockey can be sustained.
It can and it is all the time. “Fight” is not “fighting” or high-speed cheap shots. Fight is never giving up. Gretzky, Orr, Richard, Lemieux, Lafleur – they were great fighters. They fought with their head, hands, legs, will, and need to be the best, and rarely with their fists. Crosby too. The toughest players aren’t those who hit but those who are willing to be hit, to fight their way to the net, to fight expectation and disappointment to score the game-changing goal.
Give up fighting and you get more stick-swinging as some remember from the past? Who were the stick-swingers? How many? A handful; almost nobody – and certainly not these players. Fight is the playoffs, the Olympics and World Cup where fighting and head shots are rare because the stakes are so high and the distractions so consequential that there’s no place on the ice for goons. It’s where concussions are rare too.
“Fight” is fighting spirit. “Playing on the edge” is about physical risk, but about creative risk too. All this is Canadian hockey at its best.
After the 1972 Canada-Russia series, the skill gap between the Europeans, the Russians in particular, and Canadians seemed to grow. In the 1990s and early into this century, most of the NHL’s top scorers and trophy winners were European or American. That has changed in recent years. Canadians learned that more than fight was needed.
In soccer, England had its “1972 moment” in 1953 when Hungary came to Wembley and beat it 6-3. England won the World Cup in 1966, and since that time the skill level of its players has improved, but much less so than for those in the rest of the world. England keeps hoping that “English pluck” can make up the difference. It can’t.
We learned in Canada what England has never learned. We learned that to win: match them with skill; beat them with will.
The debate about head shots and fighting is not a debate about Canada, Canadian hockey or the Canadian spirit. It’s about giving up the fighting; keeping the fight.
Ken Dryden, a lawyer, author and former Member of Parliament, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly identified Ken Sutton of the New York Islanders as the player who hit Alexei Ponikarovsky. It should have read Andy Sutton of the Edmonton Oilers. This online version has been corrected.