By Alvin Ma
I don’t know if there’s a better way to discuss Don Cherry than to provide a 6-minute Coach’s Corner-style stream of consciousness rambling and saying the following: “How much time do I have? Let’s roll this clip!”
This Molson Bubba beer commercial featuring Cherry was launched a week after making controversial comments on Coach’s Corner supporting the Iraq War. As an 11-year-old Vancouver Canucks fan in the prime of the West Coast Express era, I thought this commercial was amusing. 16 years later, I find it cringeworthy to hear, “How’s it going ladies?” used as a putdown. Of course, people’s views change over time, often as a result of education. In an article by Kristi Allain and Stephanie Dotto earlier this week, they mention that some people become more closed-minded while others become more educated and strive to create a better society. One of the most important points I learned over years of study in sport policy, and as I’ve written before, is the impossibility of being objective and apolitical, despite my frequent attempts in life to try to be diplomatic and nuanced rather than divisive and polarizing.
Instead of providing to-the-point responses, I’ll take the time to go into complexities and contradictions. Cherry, according to Hall of Fame inductee Hayley Wickenheiser, has been a “vocal supporter” of women’s hockey and he featured the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships while also trivializing the role of female journalists inside dressing rooms and labelling (by association) Inuit seal meat eaters as “savage.” Then in what would be his last Coach’s Corner segment, Cherry mentioned “you people.” Honestly, I didn’t find Cherry’s comment out of character, and my reaction the moment I heard it looked similar to Ron MacLean’s on-air facial expression. Only after reading other critiques of this normalized xenophobia on social media did I ask myself, ‘Am I not the friendly snowflake who has done extensive research on and travelled to four different continents to advocate for multiculturalism and sport?’
A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to watch the season-opening game for the Kunlun Red Star KHL team in Shenzhen. To the chagrin of traditionalists who want to keep hockey confined to Canada, I enjoy seeing hockey spread around the world. However, the arena was mostly empty and $5 Canadian got me a front row seat to cheer on Captain Brandon Yip, Spencer Foo, Tyler Wong, Gilbert Brulé, Adam Cracknell, and others as the home team won in a shootout.
But let’s imagine Yip (Maple Ridge boy ✔, did not wear a visor in the NHL ✔, able to fight, grind, and score ✔) and Czech teammate Simon Hrubec were back in Canada and walking outside without wearing poppies in November. Unless Cherry could detect the one-quarter Irish in Yip, how would Cherry know by appearance on the street alone that Yip was born in British Columbia and had never visited China in his previous 32 years of life before signing with the Kunlun team? Would he be able to identify from appearance alone that Hrubec is Czech? (Note: Cherry has featured Yip.)
In my experience as a guidance counsellor, I continually surprise new international students when I reveal that my first language is English and that I have a decade of paid experience tutoring / teaching ESL. While I might be accustomed using my identity as a lighthearted teachable moment, there are some other people who are rightfully upset by microaggressions and assumptions of their identities. It is a myth to portray new immigrants – and in this situation visible minorities by association – as ungrateful freeloaders of “milk and honey.” An overwhelming majority of sociology of sport scholars, such as my research supervisor Peter Donnelly and the other contributors to the Hockey in Society website, would use stronger words to denounce Cherry and won’t shed any tears for his departure from Coach’s Corner.
However, it would be remiss of me to exclude the reasons why Cherry leaves a positive impression for some people. One prominent Cherry defender is Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, a Muslim and of Lebanese descent but whom Cherry has kissed and applauded for playing an aggressive “Canadian” style of game. Although I disagree with Cherry’s stance on visors and the necessity of vigilante enforcers whose primary job is to fight in his hyper-masculine vision of Canada’s winter sport, Cherry’s high-profile advocacy for stanchion redesign and the elimination of touch icing has potentially saved premature endings to hockey careers.
Unfortunately, Cherry is not known for his on-ice suggestions as much as his code of what constitutes a “good Canadian kid.” As an early-rising, hardworking, poppy-wearing Christian who doesn’t celebrate prematurely or embarrass the opposition in lopsided games, my personality seemingly conforms to Cherry’s standard. However, I don’t want to be used as the “model minority” complicit in silencing voices that share uncomfortable experiences about the game I very much enjoy. These voices could be television personalities such as Jessica Allen who do not “worship at the altar of hockey” or they could be sport scholars who are summarily dismissed despite years of peer-reviewed research that confirm accounts of bullying and systematic problems in hockey cultures and find themselves overworked and inundated with hateful messages (ironically proving their points).
How much time do I have? Here’s my 30-second conclusion moving forward. There are numerous suggestions that would garner my Cherry-esque thumbs up, and the first intermission doesn’t have to be the same polarizing pundit format. When the NHL campaigns that “hockey is for everyone” and Rogers President Bart Yabsley writes that “sports bring people together – it unites us, not divides us,” I would like to see the normalization of diversity in broadcasts where analysts can professionally contribute with their hockey knowledge instead of being obliged to respond to their personal identities. Female panelists, particularly those in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association featured in Budweiser’s extended ad spot after Ron MacLean’s monologue, would also create for a more representative Hockey Night in Canada.
In my previous article for Hockey in Society (yes, it’s been a while), I wrote about the journalists asking serious questions to female hockey players and CWHL executives, and celebrated its development in a decade since Adrienne Clarkson was ridiculed for suggesting that the Stanley Cup in the 2005 lockout season be awarded to the best women’s team. Although the CWHL no longer exists, look to the evolution of beer marketing taglines from “How’s it going ladies?” to “This game is for us all.” Don Cherry has not evolved his views in a changing society, and therefore, time has run out for him on Hockey Night in Canada.