Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Don Cherry

News had scarcely broke about Don Cherry's firing before Facebook was awash in "I STAND WITH CHERRY" pictures and memes.
The "Don" of Canadian hockey--a man who won coach of the year twice in the minors and once in the NHL before becoming a mainstay on Hockey Night in Canada in 1982--has always been a polarizing figure. You either love the guy or loathe him.

Me, I've been in both camps. I started watching HNIC the same year Cherry won the Jack Adams trophy, well before Coach's Corner. But I took to the 'Don and Ron' show: it became must-watch television. Something about Cherry's avuncular, heart on his garish sleeve manner really spoke to me, and often he'd literally speak to me: "You kids," he'd say, before telling us never to run somebody into the boards or get our sticks up or what have you. This may sound odd, but having an adult actually address me (even if I would never play a single game of hockey) on a show that wasn't explicitly a children's show....that was all but unheard of, and inspiring.

I'm a bit ashamed to admit I was a long ways into adulthood before I thought to even question Don Cherry.

As usual, all it took was being exposed to another perspective, in this case that of an NHL "enforcer". This role no longer exists in the NHL, but not all that long ago, pretty much every team had at least one. A few of them could actually play the game at a fairly high level--Brendan Shanahan, the current GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was one such. But most of them were third or fourth liners making NHL minimum salaries, and it was understood they weren't there to score goals or to prevent them. No, the whole point of their existence was to beat the ever-loving shit out of anyone who messed with a teammate. The fights were usually goon against goon, and for reasons I can't explain that run entirely against my character, I used to love them. Until I started reading memoirs of NHL enforcers like this one.

If you're an NHL goon, the fear never goes away. The fear that your career might be ended with one punch, or that you might end someone else's the same way. The fear of what will happen to you if you refuse to fight--bye-bye, out of the NHL you go. The fear of the pain, a constant only somewhat abated by your addiction to painkillers. The fear that you're going to die early thanks to all these concussions, likely losing your mind before you go. All because you're paid to do one thing and one thing only: beat up your friends. (Many of them really were friends off the ice.)

These were the players Don Cherry adored. He put out a series of 'Rock'em, Sock'em" hockey videos in which the object of the game -- scoring goals, or making great saves to prevent goals -- was utterly secondary to the fighting. I suddenly realized (Christ only knows why it took me so long) that actual hockey, as seen in the Olympics and the Stanley Cup Finals, almost never had fights in it, and certainly never staged fights.

Fighting in hockey still happens, but it's much, much rarer than it used to be. I don't think my beloved Maple Leafs have had a five minute penalty assessed against them yet this season. The days of fighting, and especially of players paid to do nothing but fight, are thankfully over.

But I'm quite convinced that Don Cherry still, in his mind, lives in an age where hockey fights are perfectly acceptable. Don Cherry still, in his mind, lives in an age where an awful lot is perfectly acceptable. The rest of us have moved on. Cherry has called former NHL enforcers "pukes" and "turncoats" for daring to suggest that fighting has ruined their lives--when it so clearly has.

He's never shied away from controversy, has Cherry, and most of his controversies were of the same type. Put charitably, he loves his 'good ol' Canadian boys'. Again, this appealed to me when I was young and sheltered: after all, I was a Canadian boy myself...he likes me! Hey, Mikey! Never mind that I would never play a single game of hockey (can you imagine me skating? Neither could my skates)...like many Canadian kids, I've scored enough game winning goals to be crowned the MVP of the Imaginary Hockey League eight years running.

Again, it was shamefully late before I really understood the flip side. Put "Cherry-tably", he loves Canadians. Put more bluntly, he's a raging xenophobe.

He always has been. As the owner of the Mississauga Ice Dogs of the OHL, he famously refused to take part in the import draft, thus ensuring all his players were Canadian...and further ensuring his team won sixteen games in its first three seasons combined.  That's sixteen wins out of 204 games played, a stellar winning percentage of .078
He blamed his coach, fired him, and stepped behind the bench himself for the fourth season: the team won eleven games out of 68 that year...better, but still resoundingly in last place.

You'd think he'd learn.

But no--he would double down on his disdain, often verging on hatred, for players who weren't from English Canada. French Canadians were awful because they wore visors, the horror. Americans were tentatively okay, but Russians were "N-O-T-H-I-N-G" and Europeans were even worse because they wouldn't fight. Cherry would routinely, maliciously and gleefully mock and mangle any name that wasn't Anglo-Saxon. And as the years went on, he would stray from hockey, which was what he was paid to talk about, and venture into the political arena where he would make an utter ass of himself with regularity. Rob Ford would be the best mayor in Toronto's history, Don proclaimed, before calling his opponents "left wing kooks". You don't even have to be Canadian to know how well that prediction turned out.
Cherry also is a famous climate change denier. "Warming trend?" he's sneered on more than one occasion. "We're freezing to death out here!" Yeah, because weather is climate and one cold spot makes up for the rest of the world that's growing hotter and hotter.

And now, of course, the back-breaking straw.

"You people that come here, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy."

How do I explain to people who see absolutely nothing wrong with this how wrong it really is?

Let's start with "you people that come here". I mean, Cherry's fellow traveller Donald Trump wouldn't have called them people, so I guess there's that, but still. Who are we talking about here? Immigrants from Scotland? Australia? The U.S.? Somehow I really doubt that.
The poppy, let's take a moment to remember, is a British thing. Outside Britain and her (former) colonies, a poppy is strictly something you get opium out of. I would no more expect a Syrian or Nigerian to understand the significance of a poppy than I would expect them to be able to spout off hockey statistics.

If Cherry had simply said, "I hate it when people don't wear poppies, show a little respect", he would have been fine. But no, it had to be about "you people", i.e. immigrants -- and non-white ones at that. Does Don have a problem with Canadians like me who don't bother with a poppy? If so, he didn't say it.

And no, I don't wear poppies, for the same reason I don't participate in any of the proliferating "awareness" months. (It's Movember this month, a month in which people are supposed to pay me not to shave and I'm supposed to donate the money to fight prostate cancer, because, you know, when you think moustaches, naturally, you think assholes? I don't get it. All I know is that after Movember, you get Decembeard followed by Manyouhairy.)

Do I respect veterans? You're damned right I do. Do I feel the need to broadcast it for two weeks out of every year? I most certainly do not.

"You love our milk and honey". That's a reference to Exodus 3, describing Israel, but I'll let that pass. Yes, new Canadians love it here. They love the freedom they have, and it's a freedom that Don Cherry will never understand, let alone accept: the freedom to be themselves. We don't force you to be something you're not, here. We ask that you obey our laws, but beyond that we welcome your traditions and incorporate them into our own. Our land is all lands--built on Native land, a fact we still have not come to terms with, a fact Don Cherry has nothing but scorn for. Don't even get me started on how Cherry treated Ted Nolan, the indigenous erstwhile coach of the Buffalo Sabres.

Here's another thing: immigrants, including non-white immigrants, have fought for Canada in every war.  See here in particular. These men fought and died for a country that couldn't be bothered to give half a fuck for them: they were the last to be supplied, the last to be paid, and they came home to jeers and worse. Do you think their descendants rush to wear a poppy each year?

Let's see what the Canadian Legion has to say about Don Cherry's remarks, shall we? If anybody's going to side with him, it'll be them, right? Here it is:

"Mr. Cherry’s personal opinion was hurtful, divisive and in no way condoned by the Legion."
--the Legion's Twitter feed, November 11th, 2019

Well there you have it.

Cherry's Canada is conservative and Conservative. He would posit some distinct Canadian "identity" that -- I guarantee you -- would be as WASPy as a hive of yellowjackets....holy crap! Is that why the far right wears yellow jackets? Because they want Canada to revert to the 1950s country that was largely White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant? There are yellow jacket protests the world over, so no, but it fits, doesn't it?

That Canada is on its way out. There are people fighting a desperate  and demographically doomed rearguard action to try and keep it: Andrew Scheer, the Fords, Jason Kenney, and, well, Don Cherry. Grapes was born in 1934. He's 85 years old, and while many people will excuse his views as a product of his age, I look at a man who lived through a great deal of the twentieth century..and learned absolutely nothing.

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