I wasn’t watching the live broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada. The next morning, the story was dominating the headlines, and when I listened to the clip and began to disseminate the fallout, my immediate thought was that what he was saying was certainly controversial, like so many comments he has ranted and raved over the decades. But this time, it felt like there would be more consequence to his statement. And when twenty-four hours passed, and an apology from the network, from the sponsors, and from his co-host came, while he remained steadfast in his silence, it became distinctly possible that he was going to lose his job.
I was literally in the middle of answering a comment on Facebook about it when the news dropped, and I would be lying if I said my jaw hadn’t. It never occurred to me that he would end his career like this, even with countless reasons to suspect that it could. And there it was.
Don Cherry was fired.
It usually doesn’t serve to categorize how people process things like this. It would be kind of ironic in this case, really. But suffice to say, people are taking a ‘for’ or an ‘against’ stance in this issue, very much mirroring the left versus right, liberal versus conservative divide in politics and society at large. You can take a wild guess which side Don represents. Historically, Grapes has made his views crystal clear on foreigners, everything from Swedish-born NHL players being effeminate to Russian players acting more like soccer players. If I were a soccer fan, I’d have taken offense to that—it’s a hard game to play with a very distinct culture. We would be comparing NHL apples to Premiere League oranges. Yet the tone was derisive, and it was all wrapped in the guise of pride. In our country, and in our sport.
And that is part of the problem.
There is a reason Don Cherry ranked number seven in the CBC’s Greatest Canadian poll back in the early 2000’s. After all, he is the kind of television personality who commands your attention. I’ve heard from several different commentators how when Don’s segment on Hockey Night came on, the whole room would quiet down until he was finished. We all laughed when he had a joke at straight-man Ron MacLean’s expense, and either rolled our eyes or chuckled when Ron got in the last punny line before rolling to commercial. I genuinely think that if CBC had sold Don’s ‘Coach’s Corner’ theme as opposed to the Hockey Night theme, people would have openly revolted.
As a hockey mind, Don was always smarter than his delivery would have you believe. He has long spoken out in favour of safety for players, even if he maintains his defense of fighting in the game today. You can make the argument either way on that one, but suffice to say guys like Bob Probert and Donald Brashear would not be on rosters if they played today. The game, like our society at large, has evolved. And that word is crucial—evolved. Not changed, because change can go forwards or backwards. Evolution is a move forward, implying that change is for not only the better, but the progression of society. We live in a world where fifty years ago, black people were celebrating equal rights in the United States nearly one hundred years after the Civil War was supposed to. We’re celebrating the anniversary of the end of the Great War, which took place at a time when women couldn’t let alone serve in it, but scarcely had rights as human beings in Canada. Today, the LGBTQ community is still pushing for equal treatment, even though their rights are enshrined in law. Indeed, the most recent Canadian election opened up the can of worms that is same-sex marriage, even when both Conservatives and Liberals alike admitted that the issue has been closed. You can’t go back on it, just like you can’t go back on civil rights and suffrage.
We can’t devolve. As a race, divided into ethnic communities, nations, and beliefs, we progress in our own time, sometimes in baby steps. But always forward. Sometimes it stalls. World Wars were fought so these stagnations or concerted efforts from some to throw anchor and keep the world as it is or was can be defeated. We do it because we have to. We can’t stop progress.
Don Cherry has been a staunch defender of this principle his entire life, and I think we can all admire him for that. I remember some of his earliest broadcasts in which he tearfully reported on the lost lives of fallen police officers, soldiers, and others who died in the line of duty. More than anything he ever had to say about hockey strategy, his genuine love for those who serve is what vaulted him into the top ten greatest Canadians, ahead of prime-ministers and innovators, even ahead of Wayne Gretzky, an all-around nice guy and probably the only person who has transcended hockey outside of the game and Canada. Don Cherry was an advocate for the brave, and he held the same sentiment for his favourite hockey players. Wanna drop the gloves and defend your star player when the league is too afraid to? Don has your back. Played through career-threatening injury? Double thumbs-up if you’re a Canadian. Or at least an English-Canadian. He has a long history of disparaging French-Canadians.
I think that the best way to understand Don Cherry is to look back at the era in which he came of age as a hockey guru. He is of the generation that remembers the 1972 Summit Series, when Paul Henderson scored a winning goal that instantly proved that Canada could beat the communists in at least one thing. Because let’s face it, otherwise, Canada was the wide-eyed bystander holding a melting ice cream cone while the neighbourhood toughs, the US and the USSR lunged at each other with knives. Our Summit Series win was about the equivalent of yelling at the Russian to distract him so the US could scramble for the knife he dropped. We were doing our part. And we were so proud of ourselves, sticking it to the enemy none of us ever met. So when Russian players began to infiltrate our game, it was incredulous to people like Don that the enemy was now among us, playing with us rather than against, and suddenly a floodgate not dissimilar to the doors of our country opening to refugees was flung wide, the flow seemingly unstoppable. And the great fear crept in—will they ever outnumber us? Will there be more of them, rendering us the minority? Whatever happened to our values—where we played tough, not like ballerinas.
Don lived in Archie Bunker’s generation, when there was a genuine fear of the changes we all knew and could see were coming. It’s understandable to fear change; that’s likely the biggest reason we fear dying, because we don’t know what’s coming next for sure. What we sometimes forget is that while we lament the loss of the good times, the comfort, and the constants that made sense of the world we lived in, we do ourselves a disservice in assuming all change will be harmful. In fact, change is necessary for evolution to continue.
It is in all of this context that Don Cherry’s comments make the sense that they do. Like Archie couldn’t get his head around his nemesis George Jefferson, the successful black man that moved in next door, Don can’t wrap his head around the changes our world is experiencing. He still lives in an ‘us versus them’ world, when more and more of us accept happily that it is really just an ‘us’ culture. He sees people on the street not wearing a poppy and assumes that they are ‘them’ against us. His choice of the words ‘you people’, regardless of how he intended it, was divisive. His choice of the words ‘you come here’ indicated people who have immigrated, even if he wasn’t calling out skin colour or ethnic origin. That same fear of the Europeans invading our game and changing it is living vicariously through some people Don has never spoken to all because he doesn’t see a red flower on their lapel.
The legacy of the Don Cherry firing is unknown, but you can extrapolate it with an educated guess. As time goes by, and the sting of losing an icon that generations admired will subside, as it always does, and the world will continue to evolve, as it always does. Don Cherry will be seen as an artifact not of the past, but a very specific past, in which fear of change dictated how we held on to outdated views on immigration, masculinity, and nationalism far too long, all because its most revered spokesman really thought he was right.
Can we separate his love and reverence for the armed forces and first responders from his bombast and bravado? I think so. People who make poor decisions always make lots of good ones, of course. Lance Armstrong raised tens of millions through his Livestrong foundation, and that good can’t be taken away even if he was a cheater. If Don Cherry truly wished to evolve and maintain his position, I have no doubts the avenue was clear for him to make amends. But how do you make amends for something you think you didn’t do in the first place? So I don’t fault him for operating within the only world he knows. And I don’t fault anyone who is mourning the loss of a national treasure, because I believe most are mourning the loss of all the good he has done.
Change isn’t coming. It’s here. “To you from failing hands, we throw the torch…” John McCrae understood it. Maybe that’s what’s most ironic about all of this.