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Mediating Don Cherry and His Critics

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The main talking point from Saturday night probably feels like a re-run. Just like last week Donald S. Cherry targeted the Washington Capitals with a rant against Ted Leonsis and the loss of tradition:

Obviously, on the heels of last week's rant against showing emotion, this week's segment of Coach's Corner will bring up the usual accusations of senility/xenophobia/racism. It has become such a tired pattern that most people don't bother to take a look at what was said to dig a little deeper.

Last week's Coach's Corner focused on Ovechkin's soccer-like celebrations. I don't think anyone argues that soccer celebrations are ridiculously over the top but considering how often goals are scored it's entirely understandable. Who hasn't scored a late winner and run towards the bench twirling their shirt over their head? The conclusion was that one day Ovechkin is going to get paid back for his over-the-top celebrations when potting mostly meaningless goals. I don't know that Cherry is against showing emotion so much as the perception that he is against showing up the opposition.

Now, I love Ovechkin a tonne and the emotion he brings to every shift makes him the kind of player that is almost universally adored by fans but if you don't think that it hasn't crossed a players' mind to drill him after he does a huge fist pump and jumps into the glass after potting the 6th goal in a rout then you have never played competitive sports. Remember Dale Hunter hitting Pierre Turgeon in the '93 playoffs? That didn't even involve showboating just the release of frustration by a player with no self-control. Hell, think back to how people reacted to Terrell Owens celebrating on the Dallas Star at midfield when he was a 49er. People were ready to kill him and it had nothing to do with him being a foreigner. However, Donald S. Cherry has said a number of terrible things in the past so it's easier for the critics to hammer home on that point rather than seeing the argument as one asking for more respect on the part of players to their peers.

Respect is a topic that he has consistently addressed on Coach's Corner. He continued his comparison last night this time with a North American game (Baseball's American, was that xenophobic?). He showed a clip of some no-mark rookie strutting after hitting a home run which any American sports fan can tell you is a massive no-no. What is the expected response to that lack of respect? Well, Don showed us that in the next game that braggart was hit with a fastball to remind him to respect his opponent's. Cherry couched this argument in terms of his admiration for baseball and their tradition. His argument was that he loved that people came to baseball and accepted their traditions rather than trying to change things to suit their own backgrounds.

A superficial look at the rant would ignore the much larger issue (and I'll only mention it briefly because it deserves a much larger airing on a site dedicated to those issues and not sports) that Cherry is addressing that is at the heart of much of the conflict in Western countries such as England, Canada, the US, and really all of Western Europe especially France and the Netherlands. The struggle between efforts to maintain a national identity while welcoming the level of immigration that these countries have either always encouraged or need to encourage because of demographics is really complex. Melanie Phillips' controversial tome Londonistan looks at the conflict in Great Britain. She covers many of the same feelings that are arising in North America. Don Cherry's appeal to tradition falls along the same lines, it's a desire to see what we might term the best of (insert country here) upheld by each succeeeding wave of immigration while incorporating the best of what they have to offer. France and the Netherlands especially have struggled at finding that balance and their political landscape has reflected that over the past decade as radical political parties on each extreme gain in popularity and minority groups learn to use their political power to roll back traditional values. Basically, Don Cherry was trying, in his own way, to give a voice to an understandably growing frustration with a complex situation.

Which leads me to Ted Leonsis' response to Cherry:

I am proud of my last name given to me by my father.

My ancestors are from Sparta. My last name is kind of a derivative of Leonidas, the King of Sparta and of 300 film fame. :-)

For those of you who are unfamiliar, it is pronounced "Lee – On – Sis", Leonsis.

Most intelligent, non-xenophobic and educated people have no issue with its pronunciation.

Caps fans are understandably rallying behind their owner and questioning Grapes' knowledge of hockey and calling him a racist. Apparently beyond not really listening to Grapes they ignore the fact that he admits that he's also called out Crosby in the past for showboating as well or that he lumped in excessive celebrations with the sideshow that is Sean Avery. What do those two have in common? They are Canadians. Even those can be accused of not playing "the Canadian Way".

The funniest part I think is the questioning of Cherry's credentials as a fountain of knowledge on hockey. Taking a look at his career he's basically Bruce Boudreau. Cherry's experiment with building his teams his way with the Ice Dogs in Mississauga is constantly brought up to show that his ideas have no merit but that was an expansion team. Brian Burke is a pretty good proxy for Cherry in terms of their belief that a team has to be skillful as well as physically frightful so maybe Cherry isn't so insane. That belief that both aspects have to be married to create a successful team on the ice and at the ticket office was actually the point of his post-game piece about the Red Wings.

Now, it's really cool that Leonsis is related to King Leonidas. 300 showed us what a badass he was back in the day but resorting to name calling is not exactly the high road. First off, nothing he said about Leonsis was xenophobic. Yes, he mispronounced his name. He then mispronounced Iginla's and the hometowns of two of the Canadian soldiers that were killed in Afghanistan. This might news to some but Cherry has trouble pronouncing every name on the planet unless it's English. Again, it's the easy route to scream "racism! xenophobia!" because more people won't listen to what he said and will assume - based on some valid precedents - that Cherry did say something out of line.

And is Cherry uneducated? Sure, he's a hockey player that pursued his career so he's a high school dropout. However, Grapes has worked hard to make the most of what he has been given. When he believes in something he supports it 100% as the accolades from Veterans' groups and his charity work attests. I hope it makes Ted feel good bringing up his lack of formal education. Maybe next he can discount Cherry because Grapes doesn't have as much money as he does. 

At the end of the day, Cherry does hold some controversial views. Some comments are xenophobic (calling Jokinen a "Russian or whatever" is dismissive of his heritage even if the point is to highlight his abilities) but too often his critics don't see the forest for the trees. He suffers through his lack of eloquence and his age does seem to be playing a growing part in things. He frequently struggles to remember earlier portions of his show and MacLean's interjections can cause him to become tongue-tied. He is an easy target for the over-sensitive and easy-to-enrage but I think he still has a part to play on Coach's Corner. After all, as the saying goes the Devil knows so much because he is old not because he is the Devil. Now, if only his critics would give him the same fair look that they demand he give the changes in the game.