Skip to main content

Cherry's apology and Slap Shot mythology

On second thought: the threat of legal action against him seems to have helped Don Cherry rethink his attack on the former NHL enforcers he called "pukes, turncoats and hypocrites." (Leon T Switzer/ Icon SMI)


By Stu Hackel

The Great Apology was issued on Saturday night, Don Cherry admitting to the world that he had thrown three former NHL fighters, "my kind of guys, under the bus." He set the record straight, saying he was wrong to claim that two of them had come out against fighting and linked their problems with substance abuse and addiction to their former occupation.

That might end the matter in one sense, because the three former enforcers -- Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson -- said they'd now drop their threat of legal action against Cherry. Nilan, who expressed dismay that a man he thought of as a friend had inexplicably turned on him, subsequently tweeted that he and Cherry "are friends once again." But while the lawyers may now stand down and the friendship appears repaired, Grimson wants you to know that he isn't letting Cherry off the hook so easily.

First, here's Saturday night's mea culpa edition of Coach's Corner:

Let's say a few things about it before getting into Grimson's statement, the first being how relatively articulate Cherry can be when CBC lawyers are at his back.

Another observation has to do with his use of the phrase, "I can't do better than that," which he uttered a couple of times, leaving the distinct impression that he apologized with some reluctance and to mollify his CBC bosses. Let's remember that he had two previous opportunites to apologize and retract his original comments on Coach's Corner and could only manage a meager regret about subjecting young viewers to rude terms such as "pukes," "hypocrites" and "turncoats" while describing the three ex-fighters.

It's also impossible to overlook his claim that out of the 1,500 shows he's done, he can count on his hand the number of them in which he's been wrong about something. "For all his strengths as an analyst and an entertainer — and he has several — the notion that he has only been wrong a handful of times should be added to the list of times that he has been wrong," remarked Bruce Arthur in The National Post).

And it's impossible to overlook how Cherry's transformed his praise of Pittsburgh's Arron Asham, who quickly apologized after making classless celebratory gestures following a fight with Jay Beagle, into a statement of self-congratulations. "I'm proud of ya," Cherry says with an air of moral authority, praising Asham for doing something he could not bring himself to do swiftly or without prodding. "Let me tell ya something, it's pretty tough for him to go in front of the TV and it's pretty tough in front of two million people to admit you're wrong. Arron, you have to have a lot of guts and character to admit when you're wrong when you have two million people watchin' you."

It was hardly a model of contrition. (And among the sarcastic Twitter reactions to Cherry's belated apology was this beauty from Graham J. Campbell, "It takes a big man to call himself a big man for reluctantly apologizing 3 weeks late.")

Now, what concernsGrimson, who issued a second statement on his own after the joint one from the three amigos, is how Cherry uses and misuses his weekly pulpit. "This is about the words Mr. Cherry chose and the way he chose to express them," Grimson wrote.

"And let's not forget the context," he continued."Ron & Don waded into a very sensitive prominent discussion about the recent tragic deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and my friend, Wade Belak. These are three men that battled the demons and they lost. In offering his opinion on this issue, Mr. Cherry targeted two other men who played this same role and who battle some of these same demons. Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson.

"My point is this. You cannot stand on the highest mountaintop in the country — Hockey Night in Canada — and point your finger at these men and shout down to the Nation that you believe they're 'pukes, turncoats and hypocrites' simply because they have a different point of view than you. You cannot use that platform to target anyone in that way — and especially not men who are battling to get their lives back on track. You cannot shout those names at these men with that kind of fury and expect not to answer for it. I believe this is why the response to Mr. Cherry's comments has been as strong as it has." (Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski had the entire statement -- which includes a call for Canadians to express their feelings about Cherry directly to the CBC -- on his blog yesterday)

Grimson's point is well taken, and Cherry's blustering antagonism to all that is contrary to his point of view rubs off on a huge segment of fans, whose intolerance of opposing opinions leads them to their own blustery rhetoric and name-calling, including insults to their targets' manhood -- a childish response to those who are concerned about the serious challenges facing the NHL. We've seen it everywhere for years in blog comments from those who think talking tougher and being vulgar somehow makes them more right.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

And Grimson is correct that the response to Cherry's most recent faux pas has been strong. It is, perhaps, unprecedented. I don't believe that Cherry has ever been as heavily criticized for anything he's ever said on Coach's Corner, and that includes (unfortunately) his various diatribes against Europeans and Francophones. But this time, in addition to being more closed-minded than usual while bullying men who are wrestling with demons, there was the perception that he went after "his own" -- North American-born tough guys who speak his language (well, none of them speak English quite the way Don Cherry does, but you get the idea). It's hideous how these things tend to break along lines of ethnicity and nationality, but they do, to the extent that some people still want to portray the breadth of Cherry's detractors as ending at the Quebec-Ontario border.

But the heat has been turned up everywhere -- not merely throughout Quebec, but also in Ottawa, Toronto (here, here, letters to The Toronto Starhere and here) and on into the Plains and Rockies, which some consider to be Cherry Country: Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary, and out west in Vancouver. This has nothing to do with anyone's language or national origin and everything to do with a changing game and the inability of its loudest major figure to change with it.

I was discussing some of this last week with my colleague John Rolfe, who assembles the hockey page, trying to articulate how sharply the new consciousness around the game contrasts with the old one, the one informed by the film Slap Shot. Most fans, I believe, look to that film as a cultural touchstone. We've memorized the dialogue, we throw quotes around in our beer league dressing rooms, we have it on DVD (or at least VHS) and have laughed with and celebrated it for over 30 years. But 30 years is a long time and, as entertaining as its values are, those values are rapidly becoming passé.

The Ottawa Citizen's Andrew Duffy put it much much better this weekend than I might have, writing, "Cherry assumed his place on TV soon after Slap Shot gained cult status in Canada. The movie gave hockey its foundation myth, one built upon the rough-and-tumble Hanson brothers. Like Slap Shot, Cherry sold us on the idea that hockey fights were good clean fun, an essential but harmless part of a tough sport. Cherry delighted in highlighting the honour of the game’s enforcers: the mutual nod and smile after a good tilt. He disparaged those who didn’t follow the 'code.'

"I believed that these players were happy warriors; I think many of us did. And this speaks to Cherry’s greatest failing: He either didn’t know or didn’t tell us the truth about them. Because the truth is that few enforcers enjoyed the role. To a man, of course, they were grateful for the chance to play in the NHL. But a disturbing number have also talked of fear, of sleepless nights — and of their reliance on alcohol and drugs to get them through."

Duffy went on to quote former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque, who said last month that he could name 20 people who “have demons still because of that job.” He related the words of the excellent Brent Severyn piece we ran on, in which he said, “A slow boil of fear is always under the surface of your life.” He reminded us what free agent tough guy Todd Fedoruk, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, said during the offseason: “A lot of guys in my role kind of carry these demons around with them.”

And Duffy named a dozen more NHLers who some suspect have suffered or died as a result of substance abuse, alcohol consumption, depression or other neurological problems perhaps linked to their job. The mythological values of Slap Shot don't fit with that more frightening view of the game's most rugged characters.

"The NHL has responded to the danger of brain trauma by imposing tough new penalties on hits that target the head, Duffy wrote. "But Cherry is hostile to this advance, too, saying the new rules will take hitting out of the game. 'The players will not hit, guaranteed,' he said earlier this month."

Well, Cherry was wrong there, too. We had a few big legal hits this weekend, none bigger than Zach Rinaldo on Drew Doughty...

...and here's a compilation of the Top 10 hits from last week. Hitting seems alive and well in the NHL.

So we'll keep watching Cherry each Saturday, but now more of his audience has the understanding that he is no less flawed than those he lectures, that his word is not always the truth, that some of his proclamations are tainted by his obsolete approach to the game. And when he lashes out again, as he's almost sure to do, we'll recognize we are watching a nervous fella who feels backed into a corner as a new era dawns in the sport.

and here's the original version