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The Globe and Mail

Cherry has had an immense impact on hockey

Some day when they open Don Cherry’s head, all they’ll find is pits.

If the mail at the home office is any barometer, most people see the media as outsiders or worse (leeches) when it comes to the sports we cover. Whether it's Don Cherry or Usual Suspects, most readers seem to believe we're a League of Most Annoying Gentlemen who blow hot air and make oversized statements. Cherry, in particular, comes in for criticism as a clown, agitator and more.

Yet it's hard to overstate his impact on the sport he covers.

Consider: in the mid 1970s, the members of the NHL Players Association pondered the role of fighting in their sport. After much debate, a majority of the players in the Broad Street Bullies' era decided that fighting was extraneous to the sport. Frankly, many were scared of being injured in the Slap Shot atmosphere ruling the sport. They wanted it gone.

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NHLPA president Bobby Clarke, that noted pacifist, took the players' decision to the NHL owners of the time, august men such as Harold Ballard (cough) and Bill Wirtz (cough, cough). With a war going on versus the rival World Hockey Association, the owners were in no mood to question their brand and so rejected the players request to modify or eliminate fighting.

But, in 1977, the league did implement rules to eliminate the third-man-in and leaving the bench to join a brawl. Explained then-NHL president Clarence Campbell. "...we are not going to tolerate the senseless spectacle of disorder that tends to turn a game into a farce."

Fast forward to the present day when a poll of current NHL players was taken about the role of fighting in the sport. Virtually every player insisted that fighting was an integral part of the sport. So what happened to turn the majority of NHL players from being against fighting to almost every one of them in favour of it?

In part players have changed because so few of them have to fight any longer; the threat of injury in a fight has been eliminated. But the change in attitude also corresponds with the advent of Cherry as the philosopher king on Hockey Night In Canada. Starting in 1981, Cherry used the greatest bully pulpit on Canadian TV to proselytize for his rugged version of hockey - including fights. Coming after the diminutive, fussy Howie Meeker ("he went around him like a hoop around a barrel") Cherry was red meat to TV viewers as he linked rock 'em, sock 'em hockey with Canadian values.

At this peak, CBC named Cherry one of the top ten Canadians in a poll. Almost every Canadian NHL player, coach and executive in the current league grew up watching Cherry's macho chalk talks on Saturday night. In fact, Cherry is guiding his second generation of hockey players in the manly art of fighting, its etiquette and its values. Skill? That's for sissies. Cherry's success also moved TSN and Sportsnet to celebrate kill over skill in their highlights, choice of analysts and attitude toward the sport.

Anyone who portrays Cherry as a clown or believes his weekly lectures had no impact on impressionable young players is deluded. His philosophy, repeated by an amused/shocked press corps, reaches down to the lowest minor-league levels, and it saturates the mindset of the young men who play in the NHL-- and now overwhelmingly approve of fighting. Cherry's fingerprints are all over Canadian hockey, and his impact is undeniable. Usual Suspects? Not so much.

Having said that, it's interesting to note that in the thousands of replies we've had to our stories on Cherry in the last two weeks, disapproval runs against him almost four-fifths this time. While reader comments are hardly scientific, it does raise the question, Has Cherry lost the room this time? Among the comments we received were several saying that "better late than never" for Cherry's apology. A contrasting sentiment, however, was that it took Arron Asham 10 minutes to figure out the had to apologize for his post-fighting gloating but it took Cherry 10 days to realize he needed to say sorry for linking NHL tough guys to addiction.

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Hopefully, Cherry was out walking Blue last night instead of watching HBO Real Sports. Reporter Bernard Goldberg tried mightily to link this summer's deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak to brain injuries suffered in hockey fights. While he never squared that circle, Goldberg did get the "turncoat" Jim Thomson to offer a less-than-flattering portrayal of life as a brawler. Of course, Goldberg is an American so what does he know?

Earl The Pearl: Back before there was a Don Cherry tweaking the public's tail there was writer Earl McRae. While many have forgotten in recent years, McRae in his heyday was a national figure. Perhaps his most outrageous comment was to breed Wayne Gretzky to as many pretty secretaries as possible in an effort to guarantee Canada hockey supremacy. It drove people wild.

CBC tried to make McRae into a TV personality on the local Toronto Sports, and everything was going swell for Earl till he attempted a live interview with lawyer John Agro. Sadly, McRae was not told he had to wear a telex in his ear so he could hear Agro. Viewers were treated to McRae tap dancing while waiting for Agro ("He must be out walking the dog," mused McRae).Meanwhile, Agro was heard loud and clear, saying, "I'm here, Earl, I'm here..."

McRae wasn't just a punchline. He could also write marvellous magazine pieces-- his Reggie Fleming profile is a classic-- and define the issue of the day through the old magazine The Canadian. To those of us who tilt at windmills, McRae was an inspiration. For more, see Roy McGregor's fine obit.

Handshake Deal: No doubt Earl would have loved the hoo-haw surrounding the handshake flap between Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. Losing coach Schwartz flipped out when winning coach Harbaugh gave him a slap-shake, a shove in the back and a few choice words. Schwartz chasing Harbaugh postgame (along with the death of Dan Wheldon) might be the most enduring image of the sports TV weekend. It has also been endlessly debated on sports talk radio.

So how did the NFL's Mr. Warmth, Bill Belichick, see Harbaugh's drive-by? "I think it's ridiculous that the media focuses on it the way it does," the Patriots head coach told WEEI Radio in Boston. "I'd like to think the reason the people are there is to see the game and see the competition, but we seem to want to talk about anything but the game. Thats the media's job, so that's what they do, but it takes away from the things you would say as a coach."

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Blog Trotters: Finally, one of the wittier hockey blogs is no more. The Orland Kurtenblog has folded its syntax and headed to NBC where Jason Brough and Mike Halford will produce the less prosaic ProHockeyTalk blog. The reason? We're told they were starving. NBC promised sandwiches. Good luck, boys.

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