Don Cherry came out swinging yesterday – swinging against those people, including some notable former NHL pugilists, who believe that fighting should not have a place in hockey. During his Coach’s Corner segment on last night’s NHL season opener, the colourful and controversial Hockey Night in Canada commentator proved that there are, in fact, three sure things in life: death, taxes, and Cherry’s intractable belief in an outdated and violent code of masculine honour in hockey. Here’s the video:
Many people were curious to see how Cherry would respond to an upsetting and tragic off-season in which three NHL fighters died. While the circumstances surrounding each death are different, and we must be cautious in drawing broad conclusions from or links between three different cases, we can at least say that the tragic deaths opened up space for dialogue on fighting in hockey and shed the spotlight on the many physical and mental health issues facing hockey players whose job includes regular fisticuffs.
The calls against fighting were growing stronger even before the deaths this summer. Even CBC commentator Mike Milbury, who had previously lamented the “pansification” of hockey, was moved to suggest that the role of fighting needs to be reconsidered. Not so Cherry. Rather, yesterday evening Cherry came out guns blazing against a wide range of people who he sees as distorting hockey away from its rough and tumble roots. Cherry declared that “people who are against fighting should be ashamed of [themselves].” Cherry’s conspiratorial view is that there is an anti-fighting establishment that capitalized on the tragedies to advance its agenda, rather than recognizing that the deaths created the space for a wider variety of anti-fighting views to be popularly aired and that their impact caused many people to reconsider their acceptance of violence in hockey.
Cherry saved most of his vitriol for former fighters who have recently spoken out against its role in hockey, calling Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, and Jim Thomson a “bunch of pukes,” “turncoats”, and “hypocrites.” The basis of Cherry’s argument seems to be that because these men made a living dropping the gloves they should therefore be grateful and keep their mouths shut: “You guys were fighters, and now you don’t want guys [to] make the same living you did!”Funny, you’d think at a time when fighting is more hotly debated than anytime in recent memory we would want to hear from the experts: the people who actually did the job. By Cherry’s logic, no employees in any company should speak out against harmful practices in their job because they are getting paid. Apparently earning money for harmful or dangerous work strips you of the right to criticize aspects of your job or advocate for safer labour practices.
I am saddened, though not surprised, by Cherry’s outburst. Saddened, because he is one of the most prominent voices in hockey media and his populist persona resonates with many Canadians. Unsurprised, because Cherry has never hid his love of fighting and violence in the sport and, at this point, I see no reason why he would change his views. I sincerely hope this incident (to say nothing of his previous history of xenophobic and sexist comments) causes the CBC to take a serious look at Cherry’s role on the public broadcaster. Despite his enduring popularity, his views continue to place him at odds with the growing movement to make hockey a safer, less violent sport.
Sadly, any action by the CBC seems unlikely. Cherry is not only popular, but, according to some, politically expedient. As Charlie Smith argues in the Georgia Straight:
The bureaucrats at CBC enjoy having a rough-and-tough, jingoistic right winger on the hockey broadcasts because it keeps the Conservative government happy. . . . Cherry’s presence helps neutralize those Conservative MPs who want to cut CBC’s funding, sell the television network, or let the lucrative Hockey Night in Canada franchise slip away to a private broadcaster.
Despite Cherry’s seemingly ensconced position on Hockey Night in Canada, there is a serious groundswell within hockey against fighting and, hopefully, it will result in positive changes for the health and safety of its athletes.