Don Cherry's politics and brand of hockey aged poorly. So will his legacy

The more time passes, the more Cherry's ideas came to represent a version of the game that was on its way out. How much did he really build the game in that case?
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I first spoke to Don Cherry in 2013. His famous hockey video series, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em, was turning 25 years old, and I was interviewing him about the history of the franchise. As someone born in the early 1980s, my child hockey fanhood started to emerge right around the time Rock ’Em Sock ’Ems started coming out, so I was absolutely part of the generation that grew up on those tapes. There was a degree of excitement reminiscing with the iconic ‘Grapes.’ There was also, however, an underlying awkwardness. We had to tackle an elephant in the room.

The truth was that, 25 years after Don and his son Tim began producing Rock ’Em Sock ’Em, it was difficult to view the content through the same lens as I did in the late 1980s. My views on fighting in hockey had changed. I no longer felt a thrill seeing a player lined up “in the trolley tracks” – not when we’d since learned so much about brain trauma and CTE, and not after I became a post-concussion syndrome sufferer myself. The devastating Scott Stevens hits, like the one on Slava Kozlov in 1995 or Paul Kariya in 2003, were difficult to rewatch because they were no longer legal hockey plays.

I broached the subject with Cherry, and he was, not surprisingly, quick to defend his product. He explained that the NHL always approved the footage, that he and Tim only ever chose evenly matched fights rather than beatdowns, and that “It’s pretty funny when the left wingers criticize everything I do and they say Don Cherry’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Ems are full of fights, but they would have to watch it to know that we have two or three fights in a minute and a half (of the entire video). It’s absolutely ridiculous, because kids are watching the fights during the hockey game.”

Cherry wasn’t ever going to see his work in a different light, so his response wasn’t overly illuminating. But when Sportsnet fired him this week, I couldn’t help but remember our 2013 conversation, because Rock ’Em Sock ’Em is a microcosm of what might become his long-term Coach’s Corner legacy: revered and loved in its time but a bit more uncomfortable to digest the more time passes, simply because the content represents what the game was rather than what it is today.

And that, to a large degree, is why Cherry’s number was up at Hockey Night in Canada, wasn’t it? There’s no denying Cherry has long represented a version of Canada for a long time – but whose Canada was it, really? It was his Canada, the Canada belonging to people like him, not necessarily the Canada envisioned by much of the country. Cherry has been largely unapologetic in his remarks since the firing, and we’ve seen a groundswell of support from like-minded people in social media, lionizing Cherry, planning to boycott all Rogers services. And none of that is surprising, either. Cherry and his sect of followers – call them the guys who like to bust out “snowflake” on Twitter – believe he was the ultimate patriot, a supporter of the troops, a hockey institution. But the reality is that Cherry represented only their institution, ideas of hockey and Canada that befit an earlier generation. Like the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em, tapes, Cherry’s politics never adapted even though the world did.

And that’s what will make his legacy so complicated going forward. Certain voices will trumpet that he’ll forever be Canadian royalty and that he deserves induction into the Hall of Fame as a builder. But think about the “you people” demographic that Cherry called out on the weekend for “drinking our milk and honey” and not buying poppies. Think about Canadians from families that immigrated here, or CTE sufferers whose lives have been destroyed by the same brand of hockey so often championed by Cherry. Did he grow the game for them? You could make a better case that he alienated them. Is that a “builder”?

These are important questions in 2019, when the NHL is promoting the idea that Hockey is for Everyone. In the end, Cherry represented a version of Canada and hockey that weren’t for everyone. That didn’t make him suitable as a voice on the same program that has broadcast hockey in Punjabi since 2008.

There’s no denying Cherry has been an immensely popular figure throughout his broadcasting career, that many people will forever consider him synonymous with Canada and hockey itself. But his shtick may one day be remembered like cigarettes are. They were beloved and ingrained in society for years but, once we found out how damaging they were to our well-being, we could never unlearn that fact. No matter how nostalgic some of us may feel toward Cherry’s legacy – it simply hasn’t aged well, and it likely will look even worse as the years go by.

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