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Don Cherry supporters stand outside Rogers head office in Toronto on Wednesday November 13, 2019.

The Canadian Press

This week, hockey was forced to ask itself a lot of questions.

Among the most pressing: ‘What the hell is going on at public-relations schools? Are they skipping the “crisis PR” section? Can’t anyone write a halfway-decent apology any more?’

As the Don Cherry infection spread – from the man himself, to his sidekick, to the broadcast, to the network and eventually the sport – no one had any idea what to say about it.

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Hockey’s organizing bodies tried pushing and pulling at the same time. They liked Cherry and all he’d done for the game, and were also against everything he stands for.

They put out official statements of such towering banality they ought be gathered together in a book and used to cure insomnia.

Hockey “brings our country together,” Hockey Canada said.

“It unites us, not divides us,” Rogers Sportsnet said.

“Hockey is at its best when it brings people together,” the NHL said.

Did you feel brought together this week? Neither did I.

When that didn’t work, people tried going the other way. A host on a CTV daytime show had some undercooked thoughts about the sort of people who play hockey – “white boys,” “often bullies,” rich. Those didn’t go over so well.

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In many other countries, a chanting mob would’ve burned down the studio. In Canada, thousands of people got the pleasure of saying to themselves, “Well, that is not very nice.”

On that I will say this – if you are the sort of person who sits down to watch network television when the sun is up, you’re getting what you deserve.

CTV put out its own statement. This one contained so much sophistry it’d make a high-school debate team cheer.

“We’d like to apologize to everyone who was offended by the remarks,” CTV said. “We won’t restrict our hosts from offering their opinions on an opinion show, but we’ll always listen to viewers when they offer theirs.”

So they’re sorry they’re sorry, but they’re not sorry about it. And if that bothers you, well, sorry. No, sincerely. They’re sorry about that.

After that, hockey became what the war was to Basil Fawlty – something you don’t mention.

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A week ago, this sport was the thing that binds Canada together. Today, it’s the topic you raise if you’re itching for a slap.

Cherry wasn’t the cause of this. He was the detonator sitting atop a divide that’s existed for a while. It was only a matter of time before people started looking at each other and saying, ‘Wait, is he being funny or is this real?’

That’s what finished Cherry. A plurality of Canadians finally agreed it was real. He had drawn a line between us (whomever you believe ‘us’ to be) and them (ditto) that could no longer be ignored.

In the slippery way of corporations, the NHL had been trying to sneak out in front of Cherry and his fellow travellers for years. It toned down the game’s parochialism and tarped over its blind spots. It went hard pushing the idea of hockey as family fun that only incidentally involved getting your teeth knocked out.

Most of all, the NHL wanted to expand hockey’s base to include every single person in this country, even those who don’t like hockey.

It worked for a long time. You wouldn’t openly say, ‘Ugh, hockey. I don’t get it.’ That would be unpatriotic. You’d say, ‘I love Olympic hockey’ or ‘Sidney Crosby seems lovely’ or ‘Are the Leafs still solvent?’

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This effort at mass appeal wasn’t community service. It was a business proposition. Hockey could no longer be sold as a Flin Flon sort of thing and expect to make real money. It needed to be pan-cultural. How else were they going to whip up sponsorship deals in China?

The NHL came up with a slogan that got at the idea – “Hockey is for everyone.”

You know what’s for everyone? Air. Air is for everyone. Everyone you know likes it.

You know what air doesn’t need? A slogan.

Anything that needs to say it is for everyone is not, in fact, for everyone. It’s for some people. Which is absolutely fine.

You may be a lawn bowler. I do not lawn bowl. But I do not feel the need to put you up against a wall and say, ‘Listen man, tell me something. Is this lawn bowling for everyone?’

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Hockey’s problem – one of them, at least – is that it can’t step backward now. It is either for every single Canadian or it is in existential crisis.

Anyone with eyes can see the NHL – the embodiment of the sport – doesn’t look like it’s for everyone.

That isn’t a sin. The league is a meritocracy. It’s not as though it is restricting access. But the fact is that lots of people just don’t care, which does tend to chip away at the logic of the slogan.

This is why almost no one who makes a buck off hockey stood up for Cherry. It’s not because they don’t like the guy. It’s because that leads inevitably to a discussion hockey cannot afford to have.

Standing very still and hoping not to be noticed until the hubbub dies down won’t help the NHL. Something has started here. The rest of Canada has begun debating whether it has outgrown hockey. It’s not yet being put in precisely those terms, but that’s what the division is about. People are trying to figure out where everyone stands before they declare themselves.

Twenty years ago, you’d have said the sport didn’t just help define us, but defined us, full stop.

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The NHL – a U.S. outfit – rode that belief to immense profitability. But the league didn’t really understand what it was selling, or to whom. That’s how it let it get to this.

Hockey’s not going anywhere. It is too woven into the imaginative fabric of this country to fade. But it’s possible that it will not be in 20 years what it is today. That it might cease being fundamental to our national self-image.

Don Cherry wasn’t hockey’s most pressing problem. That is.

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