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The Globe and Mail

Don Cherry: Just call him the enforcer of free speech

Canada's greatest showman, Don Cherry, has been making big news this week.

During the Coach's Corner premiere on Thursday, the irascible fixture of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada came on like gangbusters, expressing – loudly and with snarling conviction – his personal views about hockey violence.

These views, not surprisingly, rarely jibe with anyone but hardcore fans.

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Many have asked that he be fired: This is not news to Cherry.

He has "lived with the sharks" before, he explains in a recent memoir.

And, considering the fallout from last week's segment, aired during the Leafs home opener against the Habs, it would appear that the former Boston coach is watching the black fins circle once again.

While the CBC has formally removed themselves from his views, spokesman Chuck Thompson said Cherry's job is not at risk and supported his right to his opinion. Isn't he entitled to his opinion?

His targets on Thursday were three former hockey enforcers he decried as "pukes"; he also railed mildly against Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's head of the new Department of Player Safety.

Cherry has since apologized for saying "pukes" because of kids watching the show. He was referring to Jim Thomson, Chris Nilan (featured in the new documentary, The Last Gladiators) and Stu Grimson, who recently spoke out about the tragic deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien – enforcers themselves – linking their various, fatal addictions to the game.

Cherry's beef? These players are "hypocrites" and "turncoats," who made careers of being fighters and who are now using these deaths as platforms to discourage players from "mak[ing]the same living [they]did."

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His comments have aroused anger and outright hatred among viewers sickened by his "verbal bullying" (this was posted on the CBC site); others dismiss him as a "boorish" proponent of the violence believed to be killing the sport.

Close watchers of the game, of the culture itself, should be on guard. Leaving aside the very real danger of cheap shots, of sneaky, deadly play (which Cherry has deplored for decades), there is the matter of hockey being over-policed from within, and the matter of censorious viewers who actually believe Cherry should lose his job for doing his job.

Should we have everyone we find distasteful fired, toward creating a politically and emotionally correct utopia? Do you want to live in this utopia, and be told you are a "verbal bully" for being passionate, original, dissenting?

Watch Shanahan's video, explaining Rule 48.1 (illegal hits to the head,) and his plans to implement supplementary penalties against players making these hits, or shoving "defenseless" players into the boards.

After speaking laboriously and at length about a new model of hockey conduct (that is difficult to comprehend, and one assumes, harder to practice in the heat of a game), he says, slowly and without any discernible affect, "As the game evolves, we hope to always maintain its physical nature, while making the game as safe as possible for our players, and exciting for our fans."

Cherry has not seen the video, he barked on air. It may be well-intended, but it will create bigger problems, he feels. He showed clips of obviously disoriented players trying to miss each other near the boards, bellowing that very few would want to "pay 175 bucks to see this!"

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Then he showed a series of genuinely dirty, faux-accidental hits, adding sardonic comments like "Oops!" and "Oh this is ridiculous! I didn't even see him!"

This display, ultimately, constitutes Cherry's deepest philosophy about hockey.

An avowed fan of the "tough" game, he is also, at heart, a coach, who is constantly barking at "kids!" in the audience to stay safe.

When stricter rules and more complex equipment are introduced, when enforcers are penalized as instigators for protecting the marquee players (no one could have got close to superstar Sidney Crosby, who is recovering from concussion, 10 years ago), players become increasingly devious.

They slash and trip and – oops! – smash into each other, causing worse injuries, by Cherry's sound estimation, than hard, clean blows, and the occasional fist fight ever did.

Luckily, with Cherry, we still have the best enforcer in the game: Fearless, and rough, he's a self-professed "player's guy."

Truly, the last gladiator.

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