When we chart the changing tides of Canadian culture in the 21st century, a key moment will be whenever it was Don Cherry went from national hero to a widely lampooned figure of fun.
Cherry hasn’t changed in any way to cause this shift. His TV shtick remains exactly as you remember it from 20 years ago – wedged shoulder-to-shoulder with Ron MacLean like they’re riding the school bus together; the Godfather collars; shouting for no good reason; worked up to a frothing lather over a bad neutral-zone transition.
Cherry was and is your slightly deranged uncle going bananas at Christmas dinner because someone mentioned they’re thinking of selling St. Finian’s and converting it to condos. That was the charm. For some of us, it still is.
But everything people used to like about Cherry – his grumpiness, his Manichean view of the NHL, his delight in violence – now counts against him. In keeping with the times, a lot of people are routinely offended by the fact that Cherry takes offence. His offence is so alarming that he ought to be shouted down whenever he tries it with equal or greater vigour.
Over the weekend, Cherry committed his latest sin against decency by taking on the high jinks of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Hurricanes are a formerly dead-end team playing in a currently dead-end hockey town. Rather than wallow in this dead-endedness, they’ve appended a vaudeville act to the end of games.
After home wins, Carolina players come out and do something between an end-zone celebration and Disney on Ice. One time they were bowling pins and a helmet knocked them all down. Another time they played baseball with their sticks. An arenawide Viking clap makes it interactive.
Is this fun? I suppose so. I mean, once the game is over, I’d prefer they lower ropes from the roof so I could rappel into the parking lot before the rest of the crowd gets off the stairs. You stay and clap. I’ll get on a subway car that isn’t packed to the gills. Win/win.
Cherry doesn’t think it’s fun. He thinks it’s an affront to the dignity of your opponents, yourselves and the holy sanctity of the game. But worse than that.
“These guys, to me, are jerks,” Cherry said. “This is a joke. [A simpering tone] Young men expressing themselves for the joy of winning … [sudden shift to high dudgeon] You don’t do this thing in men’s professional hockey … What are these guys, jerks or something? And I’ll tell you one thing, if they do this in the playoffs, making fun of the other team … .”
MacLean, performing his role as Cherry’s minder as well as his sideman, jumped in at this point to prevent full meltdown.
At the end, Cherry returned to his jerk thesis – “a bunch of jerks” – giving the Carolina Hurricanes a gift from the gods of merchandising. They’re already making T-shirts.
Everyone else leapt in to shower Cherry with virtual produce. As usual nowadays, the thrust of the comments boiled down to, ‘Check out this old fogey’ and a lot of snickering.
Cherry gets paid a lot of money to be polarizing. After winning the NHL TV rights, Rogers Inc. tried slowly nudging him out of the frame and was forced to think better of it. I’m sure he can take whatever comes his way. That doesn’t make it any less dispiriting.
The routine shouting down of Don Cherry has taken on the queasy tone of a schoolyard mob trapping a teacher behind the portables, and then giving him the boots.
I suppose Christopher Nolan was right – you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Cherry is hale and hearty at 85.
The problem is that there is now only one way to think about hockey while out in public. That, like Cherry’s commentaries, it is at its core a paleolithic pastime unsuited to progressive society.
Unable to reconcile the brutality of the sport with modern values, we have instead decided that it will be okay if we never talk about violence, except to wring our hands about it.
Equally unable to square hockey’s old-timey, macho ethos with those same values (e.g. ask a player in front of the microphones what he thinks about Carolina’s bowling routine, then ask that same player the same question over a quiet beer. I suspect you’ll get different answers), people just don’t want to hear it.
But because he is too old a dog to care about new tricks, Cherry keeps telling us anyway.
I don’t often find myself agreeing with him, but I still find Cherry delightful. His clearly genuine fury at the stupidest little thing and complete lack of filter is a lovely contrast from the way some other pundits treat hockey – like a cult they’re constantly worried they’ll be kicked out of.
I’m glad the Carolina Hurricanes and their fans are enjoying themselves. I’m also glad Cherry ripped them for it. The two things together create the end goal of professional sports – entertainment.
It’s also nice to know that in some places dinosaurs still wander the Earth, and that in those places the contrary view is tolerated. That someone still believes guys punching the hell out of each other was the right way to do it, that Canadians should think of hockey as a national inheritance, and that we ought to jealously guard our traditions.
You needn’t agree with any of it. That’s the whole point of watching sports – so that you can argue about it later.
But Don Cherry’s opinion is, for me, even more valid now because he has seen the tide shift and remains unchanged. Though his standing in the court of popular opinion has diminished, he’s still a king as far as I’m concerned.