Don Cherry and his brand of rock 'em, sock 'em hockey will always have fans. (Carlos Orsonio/AP Photos)
By Stu Hackel
The Winnipeg Jets got off to a shaky start Sunday night, at least on the ice (although their fans got off to a terrific start, with a standing ovation for their team in the final minute of a 5-1 loss to Montreal). The Senators are off to an even shakier start, surrendering 11 goals in their first two games. But no one has gotten off to a worse start this season than Don Cherry.
The bombastic former coach overshadowed the arrival of the NHL season with an opening night tirade on Hockey Night in Canada that a few commenters called "a new low" and eventually forced his usually compliant overlords at the CBC distance to themselves from them, a very rare move. Then he only made things worse in his subsequent attempts to justify his initial remarks.
For those who haven't seen Cherry's Thursday night screed, you should. Here it is:
As I wrote late Friday in a blog post on The Montreal Gazette's Hockey Inside/Out, there’s no real reasoning going on in this segment. There's only madness. Cherry is mad -- mad that the type of hockey he advocates (and profits from handsomely) is, as he sees it, facing extinction. This is an era in which NHL ownership, management and players are moving, somewhat unsteadily, toward a safer game, a less reckless game. They have to because of what the world now knows about the dangers posed by concussions.
Cherry doesn't want to know about it. He admits to his willful ignorance when co-host Ron MacLean asks if he's seen any of league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan's videos explaining and illustrating the new rules violations and the one that shows how players have begun to adjust.
“I never saw ‘em, I don’t wanna…,” Cherry responds dismissively. For a man who regularly claims omniscience, that pomposity reveals much about his actual level of understanding. Rather, he and those for whom he speaks are all for recklessness, regardless of what we now know about its consequences. So what if the consequences are serious? Why worry about consequences? His opposition to all that the league is doing to make the game safer is clear.
And because Cherry cannot even recognize, much less tolerate change, he misrepresents two examples of players who are trying to adjust to the new emphasis on safer play -- the attempted body checks by the Maple Leafs' Jay Rosehill and the Canadiens' P.K Subban. To Cherry, these players are "faking" -- purposely missing the puck carrier. That's what the game is all about now, he claims, and he regrets that fans have to pay big money to watch it. Of course, it never dawns on him that those might be examples of players trying to figure out on the fly how to time a bodycheck in this increasingly faster league without crossing the line, and relearning how to separate players from the puck without potentially injuring them and, in the process, risking a long suspension.
Cherry showed Scott Stevens concussing Eric Lindros, and charged the NHL with removing that sort of physical play from the game. "What they've done, you're never, ever going to see it again." The fact is, we continue to see hard hits that don't explicitly target the head -- for example, as recently as Saturday night in Calgary when Cory Sarich slammed the Penguins' Matt Cooke and snapped Cooke's head back but stilll complied with the league's standard that permits head contact on an otherwise legal hit:
That play shows the selective nature of Cherry's presentations and gives a whole new meaning to the term "cherry picking."
There is much more in that Oct. 6 segment worth pondering -- not the least of which is Cherry implying that Zdeno Chara's vicious hit on Max Pacioretty last March was not only purposeful but justified, a far different tone than the one set earlier that evening when Pacioretty discussed forgiving Chara with Elliotte Friedman on CBC's pregame show (video).
But perhaps the biggest noise from the segment came from Cherry misrepresenting, then attacking some of the same former NHL tough guys -- Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thompson -- whose role in the game he champions regularly. Cherry alleged they were “turncoats,” “hypocrites” and “pukes" for now saying they are against fighting and claiming that their former jobs as enforcers led to their personal bouts with alcoholism and substance abuse, then linking the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak this offseason to their roles as fighters.
Those attacks surprised many people, especially Grimson and Nilan, who went on TSN Friday (video) to argue that they never said any of what Cherry accused them of saying and demanding an apology. Nilan especially felt aggrieved, saying he thought Cherry was his friend.
Thompson also went on TSN (video) and acknowledged that he is now against fighting as we've come to learn more about the potential for permanent brain injury. He also linked his substance abuse issues with fighting and connected the three deaths as well. Thompson then accused Cherry of hypocrisy for claiming to advocate a safer game while really advocating increased danger by being a leading proponent of fighting. He also decried Cherry using hockey violence to make money through his long line of Rock 'em, Sock 'em home videos, one of which includes a clip extolling the headshot that ended Keith Primeau's career.
The response to Cherry's season premiere was swift and overwhelmingly negative. One of the first to speak out was Bruce Dowbiggin in The Globe and Mail, who wondered how Cherry's supervisors, who often excuse him for all manner of defamatory and divisive rants, would react -- especially after CBC News had joined this summer's discussions on brain trauma in sports with a series of important reports (including this one). "We can hardly wait to see whether CBC turtles again or has a new sheriff in town," he wrote. Dowbiggin also appeared on CBC News (video) to say, “Calling people ‘pukes’ and ‘hypocrites’ who are alcoholics is a new low for him. You know, personalizing the argument that way against guys who are dealing with real demons. I think, even for him, that’s a new low.”
After gauging the widespread reaction, Kirstine Stewart, the CBC's executive vice-president of English services, told Canadian Press on Saturday that Cherry's comments were his own, not the CBC's. "While we support his right to voice that opinion, we do not share his position," Stewart said in the statement. "Player safety is a top priority for CBC, and we support the initiatives of the NHL and others in keeping players safe on and off the ice." And Stewart said she delivered a similar message to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday.
Cherry reappeared in his usual spot after the first period later that day and, despite CBC's attempt to portray it as a "kindler, gentler" episode, the only regret he admitted to was, "Well, maybe one, the puke stuff with kids listening...it was rude."
Cherry's explanations of what he meant otherwise are largely incoherent. They don't relate to his offensive comments. They're a dodge, his version of Ralph Kramden's "Humina, humina, humina." Prompted by MacLean, Cherry backed off on his criticism of the NHL's initiative on safety, saying only that the stiff suspensions set the "bar too high" (a position many in the backlash against Brendan Shanahan are taking; they seem to prefer losing players indefinitely to injuries that could have lifelong consequences than losing them to a finite suspension).
But the big deception starts just before the three-minute mark, when MacLean denies Cherry ever said Grimson or Nilan linked the three recent deaths to fighting. It's hard to tell what Cherry is ever saying and when one listens to the Oct. 6 segment, he does not, strictly speaking, make that accusation. But there is no apology forthcoming for the accusations that Cherry did clearly make. The man who never misses a chance to express contempt for those he feels lack his lofty principles cannot bring himself to admit his error.
UPDATE:The Montreal Gazettereports Grimson, Nilan and Thompson are considering legal action unless Cherry and/or the CBC issue a proper apology.
The final point that Cherry makes -- that hockey changes its rules too much, presumably in response to media pressure -- tries to draw an analogy from baseball, and his lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues involved with player safety is squarely on display. He shows repeated collisions at home plate on plays when throws, mostly coming in from right field, leave the catcher vulnerable to a blindside hit.
"You telling me this is fair?" he bleats. "You don't hear the media whining, 'Let's do something about the headshots!'...You never see it in the paper...You don't see them changing the whole thing. You don't see the guys on the booth (sic) sayin' anything like that....That's a tough way to play the game. You don't go foolin' with their sport like that."
Well, I'm a Giants fan; have been all my life, since they played in the Polo Grounds in New York. I watched this spring as their catcher, Buster Posey, one of the game's best young players, had his season and the Giants' chances of repeating as World Series champions end on this very play -- one that Cherry includes -- as it snapped Posey's ankle. The outcry from the team, the fans and the media was very, very loud and not just from San Francisco. And the Giants -- including manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher who was on the receiving end of some of those kind of collisions -- called for a rule change to mandate that the runner look for a proper lane and not just run into the catcher. The debate was obvious to anyone who follows baseball. Ultimately, the rule did not change, but there was heated discussion, and it will happen again the next time one of these plays takes place -- exactly what has happened with the headshot debate in hockey.
Hockey may be a bit more advanced than baseball in some ways on concussions but, as a collision sport, it has a more pressing need to be on the cutting edge (and, to its credit, MLB has started to recognize the danger, too, and it created a new seven-day disabled list this season for concussion victims). But, regardless, this is the apples and oranges discussion that Cherry doesn't get, or want to get. One major point that concussion experts continually raise to anyone who is interested -- which obviously excludes Cherry -- is that injuries to the brain are not like injuries to the ankle, arm or any bone or muscle in the body. Those injuries can heal and be rehabilitated. The brain does not heal the same way and can degenerate with awful long-term consequences. That is the issue here.
And, despite Cherry's contention, the media is not the enemy in this matter. This is science. These problems and conditions are being discovered through research in laboratories, not invented by people with keyboards and microphones. The role the media plays is in reporting it, helping to bring it to the attention of the sports establishment and the public at large. For Cherry to say the media is the cause of the new emphasis on player safety is an overly simple, narrow view of what has gone on in a game in which he is supposedly some sort of leading figure.
CBC seems intent to allow this raging, unknowing, embarrassing man to continue being that leading figure. A CBC spokesman told The Montreal Gazette that Cherry's job is not in danger. So there he was again on Sunday night from Winnipeg...
... trying to claim that the preseason elbow by the Maple Leafs' Clarke MacArthur to Red Wing Justin Abdelkader's head -- which earned MacArthur a suspension -- was identical to the big hit Saturday by Toronto's Dion Phaneuf on the Senators' Stephane Da Costa for which Phaneuf got nothing -- because it was very similar to Sarich's hit on Cooke. The MacArthur and Phaneuf hits are very different, but to Cherry, who wants fans to believe the backlash against player safety is causing the NHL to back down, the two shots are the same. They're not -- MacLean knows that; he's a certified ref -- and that's why Phaneuf was not penalized nor punished. Cherry's misguided, mean-spirited misrepresentations continue.
As I wrote over the weekend, it always amazes me that Cherry is still considered some sort of icon, some sort of conscience of the game, and the centerpiece of hockey coverage on the CBC, especially during the last six years when the sport has changed — and had to change — so dramatically. And CBC continues to reinforce Cherry’s messages by hiring younger acolytes, like Mike Milbury, who can be no less antagonistic and myopic (although Milbury sometimes sees things more clearly than Cherry).
Rather than try to keep up with the times, Cherry and his tribe refuse to change, condemn all who differ, and remain far out of touch with the NHL, which is itself trying to get in touch with modern sensibilities on the dangers in sport (as Ken Dryden wrote last month). The NHL wants to create a safer game, and that has made Cherry more belligerent than ever. He is clearly blind to facts about the game and people in it.
The major challenge facing the NHL involves a learning curve for everyone. Hockey Night may think it is doing the game and the culture around it some sort of service by allowing Cherry to espouse his views, but he’s dragging hockey backwards each week -- most recently three times in five days -- and Coach’s Corner has become a forum to unapologetically defame people. In the end, by elevating Cherry above the game and his narrow view to the level of gospel, he becomes a threat to the sport that he purports to love.