Don Cherry: A European Perspective

Cherrygate may have dominated headlines and water-cooler talk across Canada (at least until some dude in Toronto also got fired for unrelated shortcomings), but the dust has mostly settled and watching all this from the sidelines has gifted Alex and Mike a different perspective on the whole kerfuffle.

Alex: European; lives in Canada

Now for all you kids out there who don’t know me- I was not born in the Great White North nor did I grow up playing the great game on ice with my buddies. Originally, I was born in the hockey free Winchester, England a town which didn’t celebrate legends such as Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky or Jean Beliveau. I immigrated to Canada in 2014 and I gained my Permanent residency just recently. For us in the UK, ‘ice hockey’ as we called it was a game which belonged to Canada and was a sport where thugs beat the living daylights out of each other.

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Aside from a solo trip to Madison Square Garden in 2000 (see one my previous posts), my hockey education began in 2011 during a vacation to Vancouver. Getting caught up in the madness of the Canucks’ Stanley Cup Final run got me hooked on the sheer beautiful and excitement that the game had to offer and the Sedin twins became my two beacons of hope. Yes, this was perhaps an unwise choice as the last 8 years have proven.

During my hockey education- I began hearing the name ‘Don Cherry’ knocked around and it seemed that to hockey fans this guy was either the voice of hockey or a racist/sexist/outdated dinosaur depending on who was commenting. Watching the two part CBC miniseries ‘Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story’ and its sequel “Wrath of the Grapes” starring Letterkenny’s Jared Keeso, the underrated Sarah Manninen and a wonderful cantankerous Stephen McHattie as Eddie Shore proved invaluable insight into a man who lived and breathed arguably the toughest era of the game. It also showed me a man whose mindset was still stuck in this ‘dog eat dog’ world of Canadian hockey.

When I first entered Canadian shores, I found whenever I uttered the name ‘Grapes’ all I would hear is “God, don’t get me started on f******** Cherry!” He was always the great divide among hockey fans, and this was what made him so difficult to shift from TV. Growing up I was used to seeing brusque and unapologetic sports presenters on British TV but usually there was a formality in place. Don Cherry never seemed to have the decorum needed and this is what made him such a live wire. I’ll never forget my first-time watching ‘Coach’s Corner’- watching Grapes dressed in his typically wacky colourful suit speaking whatever came to mind reminded me of that distant relative you always avoid at family reunions. You know that a meaningful conversation with him will be unlikely and you’ll spend your time politely nodding and praying it comes to an end.

From an outsider perspective I’m likely out of my depth talking about this as a recent convert to ‘Canada’s Game’ so I will stick to the path most travelled. A friend of mine recently summed this whole affair up in a perfect way ‘It’s not what you say, its how you say it’ and this is how Grapes made his whole career was often saying things that made us cringe. On the one hand, he was oddly endearing as he was a man who truly loved Canadian and was a strong advocate for Ontario hockey and on occasion his fiery defensive monologues captured public hearts- especially after the 1989 World Juniors ‘Punch up in Piestany’. His heavy advocating for this game to be played in the typically tough Canadian way was perfect back in the late 80s early and early 90s but once the game moved away from this whole ‘Rock Em Sock Em’ approach he was always simply treading water.

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While I am sure his unfortunate words were probably meant with good intentions, but they also showed how out of touch he had truly become. You get the sense that if he had played it smart, he could’ve opened a whole conversation about why it is right to wear poppies and made it into a tender and subtle plea- not just insulting people outright. Before coming to Canada, I was well aware of his dislike for foreign players- especially during the first wave of Soviet defectors arriving in the NHL and relentless mocking of Swedish players for wearing visors. That fateful day exposed what people were already well aware of- that he was a man who was living in bygone era and loved to still promote a rough and tough game of brutal hits which the NHL is shying away from. Hockey is a game loved by dozens of cultures in Canada and the US and the league has opened its arms to players of all nationalities from young ages to pursue careers at the top level. It will always be considered ‘Canada’s Game’ but everyone is welcome. A recent interview unearthed from 1990 showed just how deep his dislike and nationalist views went.

In recent years my parents have made to several visits Canada and they were present for witnessing many editions of ‘Coach’s Corner’ (not always by choice) and after his firing I felt compelled to let my Dad know. The response was verbatim ‘About time- he was just obnoxious’. In his limited knowledge of hockey my Dad could still read things well. Since his firing, people have been divided into two camps- those who saw it coming and those who are with him until the death and are advocating for people to boycott Sportsnet.

I feel this whole thing could’ve been handled better and firing him on Remembrance Day was slightly disrespectful and probably their last slap in the face since he’s a firm supporter of the armed forces. However, it is something people have been calling for for many years and his popularity was always his safety net. Sadly, this was just one unfortunate remark too far. I agree that life without him will provide less controversy but that was something that always made him stick in our minds. Cherry prided himself on ‘talking the talk’ and when he did it well it was fantastic to watch, unfortunately there were never enough of those times.

Mike: European; lives in Europe

Living outside North America means that we don’t get to see Coach’s Corner. When we watch hockey all of the commercials and intermission shows are removed. So although I knew that Don Cherry existed, his career as a coach was over before I was born. As such, everything I learnt about Cherry was usually from Twitter, and usually preceded with ‘crazy old man says something offensive’.

That’s how I got to know Cherry. Through his twitter-worthy tirades and rants. Of course the question was often asked ‘why is he still employed?’, but Cherry’s antics and opinions drew more viewers than it did complaints for a long time. The anti-Cherry movement was the vocal minority, but that’s all it was.

Times change though, and comments that were once easily waved away became harder to dismiss. Crazy Don with his outdated opinions on Europeans, enforcers and now immigrants had moved too far beyond the cranky old man stage. As such, he had to go.

It’s easy to look in from the outside and wonder why this dinosaur held court for so long, but there are two problems with that. Firstly, Cherry isn’t synonymous with hockey outside of North America. The whole world loves the English Premier League, but few people know or care about Gary Lineker or Jake Humphries outside of the UK because they present and comment on the game, but don’t play it (anymore in Lineker’s case). Both are considered national treasures in the way Cherry was; after all, he brought a lot of good content.

Secondly, it’s hypocritical to look across the pond, wondering why it took so long to remove Cherry, despite many, many good reasons to. We have our own loudmouths to deal with. Usually by putting them on talk radio or breakfast TV.

Love him or hate him, we’re moving into a new era of intermission content, it’ll be interesting to see how the show changes moving forward. At least, I look forward to reading about it on twitter while I watch the NHL Game Center logo.


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