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Why It’s Time For Don Cherry To Retire

The reality about Coach’s Corner and why it should end.

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After a brief flurry of rumours that he might not return, Hockey Night In Canada has announced that commentator Don Cherry will be back for another season.

Cherry had a journeyman playing career and a more distinguished coaching career, in which he led the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup Finals (they lost both times to dynasty Montreal teams). Subsequent to that, Cherry took up his role as the star of HNIC’s first intermission show, Coach’s Corner, accompanied by former referee Ron MacLean. Don and Ron are coming up on thirty-four years in the job together.

I don’t think Don should do it anymore.

Why People Love Cherry So Much

I have a fair feeling this is not going to be a beloved article, and it’s worth thinking about why. Don Cherry means a lot to a lot of people in this country. Icon is by no means too strong a word, and his influence extends beyond hockey. In 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation conducted a massive poll and TV show to find who audiences thought was “The Greatest Canadian” of all time. Don Cherry finished seventh in viewer voting. For the greatest figure in the history of the country.

Cherry has been doing his job so long, on what is still the most culturally unifying TV program in Canada, that he feels as Canadian as maple syrup to many people. There is a generation of hockey fans, who are no longer all that young (including me), who can’t remember a time when Don wasn’t there. Saturday nights meant the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada, and that meant you watched Don Cherry at the intermission.

And maybe you’d argue about what he said, or disagree with him, but he was, and maybe still is, appointment television for most of this country. More than that: Cherry is proud to be Canadian. He’s loud about it, and always has been. He loves the Canadian military and police, and commemorates them when they fall in the line of duty. He outright says Canadians are better hockey players than Europeans, and he skirts pretty close to saying they’re better men. For a country that is stereotypically apologetic, that has few charismatic politicians, that is constantly overshadowed by its superpower southern neighbour, Cherry will stick his jaw out and talk up the good Kingston kid that plays the game the right way and sticks to the Code. Cherry tells you what Canadian boys are like, and a lot of this country still believes him.

There’s the hockey, of course. Cherry is always willing to stand up for how the game should be played: hard, physical, big, and by Canadians. The league’s recent changes to become more international, faster, and skill-based leave Don cold, and he’ll tell you so. He (through his assistant) took to Twitter after the Leafs’ most recent draft to castigate Toronto for picking too many short Euros and Americans. It was only last December, after years of ugly research and a brutal class-action lawsuit about what happens to the brains of hockey players, that the final title in his long-running Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em series went to market. If you’re waiting for Cherry to apologize for three decades’ worth of videos glorifying hits and fights, well, don’t hold your breath.

If what you like in hockey is the physical side of the game—and I think a lot of us do to some extent, even if the skill is the main course meal—you’re going to nod to some of what Cherry says. If you think the Leafs got pushed around two years in a row by the Boston Bruins and that’s why this oh-so-skilled gang of playmakers can’t get out of the first round, well, I think you’re wrong, but Cherry’s going to agree with you. If you want someone who’ll stand up and say in a fuck-you bark that Canadians are the best, goddamn it, and anyone who doesn’t like it can kick rocks, Don Cherry is still your favourite uncle and you’ll push back hard against those damn SJWs trying to drag him off the air.

You’ll do it because he’s a symbol to you. Because as a performer, it’s not there anymore.

The Present Day

Have you listened, really listened, to a coach’s corner segment lately?

As you can gather from the above video, there is a running Youtube series that transcribes what Don actually says, word for word. The above sample is far from the worst I’ve seen. Don no longer regularly finishes his thoughts in complete sentences. He repeats himself frequently. There are times he isn’t coherent.

I do not feel especially good about pointing this out. We will all get old, if we’re lucky, and we may well be fortunate to be as lucid at age eighty-five as Don is. This is not something he can help and I want to draw a hard line between criticism of Don’s opinions and criticism of his delivery. But: age is undefeated in sports, as the saying goes, and age is only a little more forgiving in broadcasting. Bob Cole, who was the voice of the Leafs for my childhood and whom I will always love unconditionally, retired at the end of this past season after the game had become too fast for him to keep up with. I think if you’re being honest, you have to say that Don’s showmanship is no longer enough for him to do the segment.

Well, you might say—so what? He’s not what he was, maybe, but he’s Canada’s uncle! He’s all those things we talked about earlier. We all make allowances for family, we can make allowances for the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time. He’s a symbol.

Icon Don

A symbol of what?

If the case for keeping Don rests on What He Means To This Country, then we have to be honest about what he really means. If you grew up watching him, he told you something about how your favourite pastime was played and how you were supposed to be. Keep your head up and your stick on the ice. If you were a white Canadian kid with an Irish name (like I was) he seemed like he could quite literally be family. But a great portion of the league, the country, and the world are not Irish-Canadian boys who grew up watching Don. They do not tend to be nearly so well-praised on Coach’s Corner.

There is a long, long list of things that Don Cherry has said that tend to get politely euphemized as “controversial” or “polarizing.” Things about Europeans being softies who wear visors, about Finnish players whose names sound to him like dog food, about how Russians are quitters that take drugs (see prior link), and on and on. These are controversial because they say that other nationalities and ethnic groups are weird and worse than those Good Canadian Kids he’s so fond of. A lot of people like to have some kind of linguistic argument about whether these comments officially count as bigotry. I don’t know why that is supposed to help. They are bigoted, and xenophobic, on their face.

All those warm and fuzzy feelings about the flag that Don gives people are the mirror of him saying outright, repeatedly, that other people and players are worse. There are people who like to excuse his shots at Europeans and Quebecois as foibles, and there are viewers who not-so-secretly enjoy that someone gets to say these things on TV. This isn’t incidental to what Cherry stands for, and it isn’t something to be proud of. If Cherry is a symbol, much of what he symbolizes is wrong.

This is above and beyond the fact that the game has changed. Most of those things that Don gets so mad at are things where he’s been shown to be wrong. His junior team, where he conspicuously refused to allow European players, was an abject disaster as long as he owned them. Shot blocking, which he long advocated against on the basis of letting the goalie see the shot, is now standard defensive practice for every serious hockey team on the planet. The enforcers he lionized are basically gone from the NHL. This is not to say he has been wrong about everything—his arguments about Matt Cooke’s play being dangerous and no-touch icing both hold up well, in my opinion—but most of his thoughts are still from the last year he coached in the NHL. That year was 1980.

Don Cherry, as much as he’s been a towering figure in Canadian hockey, is not able to comment on the game as it is in 2019. He doesn’t seem either willing or able to keep up with it. All he does is serve as a gatekeeper for who gets to count as a real hockey player. Sure, he’ll make exceptions for The Good Ones now and then, but at this point, Cherry represents a desire to go back to how things were in a league that was almost exclusively North American. If he’s being defended based on all he’s meant to the game and the country, then you have to acknowledge that some of the things he stands for are just ugly.

If we want to grow the game, to make it welcoming to new fans, Cherry does not do that. He appeals to people who saw him years ago, when his performing skills were at their peak. He also appeals to white Canada and to people who buy an older kind of masculinity. Not exclusively—different people are different—but those are the threads that run through Cherry’s values. No one else gets the same valorization. If HNIC wants to draw new and younger fans, pragmatism ought to lead them away from Cherry as much as progressivism. Time and Canada are marching away from 1980 no matter how much Don wants them to stop.

So where does that leave us? The showmanship is no longer there. The mind is for a game whose era has passed. And the values that he presents as Canadian are for a narrow kind of Canada that isn’t the one we live in. Cherry will keep working as long as advertisers are willing to pay for the spots around his segment. But the nostalgia and the pugnacity that draw people in won’t be enough to stop many fans from changing the channel. HNIC had better hope they flip back to catch the start of the second.