Hockey Violence, the “Code” and Don Cherry’s Brilliantly Deceptive Apology

Update (10:08pm): Earlier today Grimson, Nilan and Thomson released a statement thanking Cherry and announcing that they accept his apology [Globe & Mail]

Update (10:19pm): Grimson released a separate, strongly worded statement criticizing the discourse around hockey violence and questioning the role of the CBC in facilitating the promotion of Cherry’s viewpoints [Puck Daddy]

Another Sunday, another reaction to the previous night’s Coach’s Corner. I am starting to wonder if I should just plan on writing a post every Sunday, given that so far this NHL season Don Cherry has been making extremely newsworthy appearances seemingly every time he appears on Hockey Night in Canada. This time, I am responding to Cherry’s rare 180-degree turn yesterday, when he retracted his verbal assault on Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson for which he initially refused to apologize. I include many quotations after the jump, but you can view the entire segment here.

I am going to give Cherry the benefit of the doubt that his apology was sincere – Cherry usually seems genuine in his beliefs, which is the primary reason that his ideological stances are as disturbing to some as they are endearing to others. If Cherry eventually came to believe that he violated the code of honour to which he subscribes, an apology to the ex-enforcers was all but inevitable. What I am far more interested in is the ways in which the apology was accepted and the things for which Cherry did not apologize. Cherry, through his act of public contrition, actually reinforced the belief that only those on the inside have the right to pass judgement on issues of violence or player safety.

It is interesting, given that his apology comes hot on the heels of Arron Asham’s similarly contrite mea culpa over his recent on-ice actions, that Cherry follows his apology with a judgement on Asham. What both apologies had in common is that they were articulated in the context of “The Code” – the unwritten etiquette for hockey enforcers regarding honourable on- and off-ice conduct. In Asham’s case, he realized and (seemingly genuinely) felt ashamed of the fact that he had transgressed the boundaries of appropriate conduct by taunting Jay Beagle after knocking him out in a fight. As simondar put it yesterday on this blog,

Yes, the apology was for the injury but it was mostly for the insensitive gesture that showed up Beagle while he lay passed out on the ice. . . . Fighting seems to be fine, this narrative says, as long as said fights do not lead to injury or, worse yet, embarrass or emasculate the loser.

Similarly, Cherry framed his apology in the context of tough-guy masculinity, focusing on the individual slights to Grimson, Nilan and Thomson rather than the broader social structures in hockey that condone violent behaviour and reward physical – but “clean” – domination of opponents:

I gotta admit I was wrong on a lot of things. I [took] three enforcers, tough guys, my type of guys, [and] I threw them under the bus. And I’m sorry about it, I really am. . . . These guys are good guys, my type of guys. . . . I’m sorry that I put them down, I can’t do any more than that, and if you’re wrong you’ve got to admit it.

What is clear from Cherry’s statement is that he considers his wrongdoing to be entirely related to his treatment of the individual hockey players and not his glorifying of fighting and injurious headshots. Cherry addresses the three fighters and publicly apologizes to them, thereby living up to the socially constructed expectations of honour that are embedded in The Code. When he “threw them under the bus”, Cherry transgressed The Code and his only option for atonement was to retract his statements and admit his wrongdoing. By focusing on issues of honourable behaviour, Cherry deflected attention away from the broader context of debates on hockey violence and player safety and placed the spotlight instead on individual choices and actions – exactly the frame through which these issues are commonly presented (how many times have you heard variations of “two good guys going at it, and the fans all love it”?)

It is also notable that Cherry focuses on the specific factual errors of his initial diatribe. Among the retractions that Cherry makes are:

Now, let’s get it right. Chris [Nilan] and Stu [Grimson] never said that they took drugs because they were enforcers in the National Hockey League. Also, they never said that they want fighting out of the game. That’s for sure. I was wrong on that, 100% wrong. And when you’re wrong you have to admit it.

Cherry’s apology therefore becomes more technical than moral – much like a newspaper that publishes a retraction of a factual error without acknowledging any criticism of its editorial stance.

Not only did Cherry frame his apology as part of The Code, but his targets accepted his contrition on these terms. As Puck Daddy noted, both Nilan and Thomson took to Twitter to public thank Cherry for his apology:

@JimThomson33: Thank you Don Cherry on behalf of my family and I. Jim

@KnucklesNilan: I want to thank Don Cherry for standing up and making a public apology to the 3 of us. Means a lot. We are friends once again

What these exchanges demonstrate is that disputes between adherents to The Code are to be settled entirely within its standards and by the individuals involved. This method of dispute resolution – or self-policing – is thus inherently exclusionary: outsiders who have not been in the trenches as a tough guy have no right to pass judgement on the actions or attitudes of those who have done the job.

Sociologist Michael Atkinson has written about this self-policing characteristic of hockey in the context of “total institutions” – that is, subcultures that insulate themselves against the outside world in part by socializing members into their specific codes of conduct (think, for example, of the culture of the military). Atkinson suggests that The Code operates as both as a socializing force on hockey players and, through the framing of violence as a necessary and tolerable aspect of the game, a barrier against outside interference in the rules of the sport.[1] Both Cherry’s apology and its acceptance by Nilan and Thomson speak to the total institution characteristics of hockey – all of these interactions are framed by an exclusionary social code, thereby discrediting judgements from those outside of The Code, and, through the public spectacle of remorse and redemption, are seen to have made things right. As such, debates around the broader social implications of self-policed hockey violence are sidelined.

As a final note, I would be amiss if I did not comment on the salience of gender in this incident. The Code is an entirely male social construction, applying only to the conduct of and between men. The Code therefore excludes all women and most men, and dismisses the opinions of these excluded people in its self-enforcement. Cherry’s frequent dismissal of “left-wing pinkos” and “bleeding hearts” is just one example of how those outside of the total institution are discredited, often by feminizing them. Furthermore, The Code is constructed of a bizarre amalgamation of  “gentlemanly” conduct and exaggerated masculine violence – it is okay to leave another man knocked out and bleeding on the ice, but it is not okay to celebrate this “victory.” The Code therefore operates within ambiguous, but incredibly powerful, moral boundaries that can only be negotiated by the tough guys on the inside of the subculture. The exclusionary masculinity operative in The Code is continually reinforced throughout Cherry’s apology through his characterization of Grimson, Nilan and Thomson as “good guys,” “tough guys” and “my type of guys.”

Ultimately, then, Cherry’s great apology was little more than a personal appeal to slighted enforcers and a reinforcement of the boundaries between the total institution of hockey violence and the outside world. By framing the incident within The Code, and its implicit assumptions about honourable behaviour, Cherry thus gave the appearance of righting his wrongs while actually reinforcing the very structures that perpetuate violent behaviour in hockey.

Truly an incredible sleight of hand.


[1] Michael Atkinson (2010), Deconstructing Men and Masculinities, Oxford University Press, pp. 135-136.

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About markdavidnorman
Mark is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. He is also a life-long hockey fan, becoming obsessed with the sport at a young age and cheering for the Vancouver Canucks for over two (mostly futile) decades. In addition to his work at Hockey in Society, Mark has been active as a fan hockey blogger for over three years. Mark has worked as a Research Assistant at York University (Toronto, ON) and the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. He has presented his research at numerous academic conferences and been published in the Sociology of Sport Journal and Journal of Sport and Social Issues.

3 Responses to Hockey Violence, the “Code” and Don Cherry’s Brilliantly Deceptive Apology

  1. Pingback: Hockey Blog Beat – October 17, 2011. | Spectors Hockey

  2. Pingback: Brian Burke Laments Decline of the Enforcer, Fears that “Rats” Will Dominate Hockey: What Does this Tell us About Hockey Culture? « Hockey in Society

  3. Pingback: Hockey violence and the 2012 NHL playoffs: Why a moral panic won’t change the NHL’s cultural tolerance of violence « Hockey in Society

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