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Don Cherry’s Dangerous Legacy

The Canadian icon/relic talks all the time about the kids. But what is his actual legacy on young hockey fans over the last few decades?

by Joe Pack
Oct 8 2019, 6:56pm

Don Cherry, seen in a 2014 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Don Cherry has always sold his tough brand of hockey with a carnival barker’s touch. His bravado, animated suits, and kid-targeted merchandising display a hard-nosed but clean-cut Canadian sheen. But behind the family-friendly framing of his ethos is a broadcaster who has very real ideas about how hockey should be played and who gets to play it. The former NHL coach’s greatest controversies are so well-known that few in this country will have a neutral opinion on him: His attack on former enforcers speaking out against the NHL, “left-wing pinkos”, decades of anti-Quebec (and European) comments, the throwaway insults about women in hockey.

But still, he thrives. Despite rumours in the off-season that Rogers was cutting ties with him—he’s 85—Cherry returned to “Coach’s Corner” on Sportsnet this season.

As the game of hockey changes, it’s time to evaluate Cherry’s lasting legacy on both the game, and the country: Why he’s tolerated—no, loved—by so many Canadians, what that says about our collective values, and how deep his impact on male hockey culture has been. To do that we need to explore exactly what Cherry has been preaching from his spot on the Saturday night pulpit for the past 40 years.

Cherry needs little introduction to Canadians. The former player and coach was voted one of Canada’s best in the 2004 CBC program The Greatest Canadian. In 2008 he was awarded the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service for his “unwavering support” of women and men in uniform. Cherry has been on Hockey Night as a broadcaster since 1980 and began his run of “Coach’s Corner” shortly after. He remains a staple of minor hockey in Ontario.

His loudest critics are adults, but his most targeted demographic has always been young hockey players. His first screen credit on his “Known For” section on IMDb is his one-time guest spot on an episode of the 90s kids’ horror TV show Goosebumps. When he’s about to make a salient point about hockey on “Coach’s Corner,” he’ll direct “kids” to “listen up.”

Given his national platform, Cherry is one of the most influential voices in the sports entertainment landscape for kids in Canada. Well, mostly boys in white Canada.

Boys in white Canada were easily the biggest demographic of Rock’em Sock’em Hockey, a powerful vehicle for Cherry’s messaging since the series’ introduction in 1989. The VHS tapes had practical value for summarizing a full season of NHL hockey long before the internet, YouTube, and 24-hour sports television. Rock’em Sock’em Hockey typically portrayed Cherry hosting from his basement or in a hockey setting where he provided commentary and threw to video segments. He once rapped. The last of the 30 entries was released in November 2018.

The series was Cherry’s brand of hockey on videotape: a hyper-masculine, violent display that exceeded a Saturday morning slate of cartoons. Videos often concluded with Cherry’s signature prayer, “See ya next year, God willin’.” Unlike the fleeting episodes of “Coach’s Corner,” the Rock’em Sock’em series is a permanent and re-watchable account of his ethos. Aggressors are lionized, victims are blamed, and pacifists are mocked.

The lesson for kids, across all of Cherry’s platforms, is that there is a link between his version of hockey and the way Canadian men and boys should perform on and off the ice. On the outside of this culture are women and girls, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community, French-Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, Europeans, and Russians.

'He’s talking to this white, straight, beer-drinking everyman.'

The problem with the physical violence on display in Rock’em Sock’em is that it is wholly uncritical with regard to player safety. Though Cherry has advocated through his videos that there are safer and more responsible ways to play hockey, that part of the message is muted by the innumerable highlights of hits to the head and dangerous play.

The video series is also rife with Cherry’s dismissals of anyone who isn’t a brawny white Canadian male hockey player (non-Quebec edition.) While he has been a supporter of women’s hockey, his words and actions often contradict his support for that part of hockey’s fanbase. In one video segment he’s discussing errant pucks hitting fans in the crowd, and says of the victims, “It’s always a woman [who’s hit by the puck], yapping away.”

Why then did his video series thrive for 30 years? Why, despite his many expressions of sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia, is he still tolerated? Why haven’t major sponsors of “Coach’s Corner” pulled their advertisements, and why does his outdated behaviour continue to provoke mostly shoulder shrugs from some fans, media, and academics? His continued involvement on broadcasts suggests that his public political statements are just not all that distasteful for the majority of fans of the NHL and he has too much of a loyal audience to risk losing.

On paper at least, Cherry stands in contrast with how the NHL would like to be perceived publicly, though the league’s “Hockey is for everyone” initiative has come under scrutiny as to how comprehensive it is. NHL hockey has started to move on from the version of the sport Cherry prefers but the sport is still not without dangerous stick infractions, legal bare-knuckle fighting, and toxic on-ice behaviour. And while Cherry is watching the game pass him by, he still casts a long shadow over the way it’s played and sold at the highest level.

In a recent interview with The Athletic, Cherry said that he would have voted for Donald Trump were he an American. He appeared in Toronto’s city hall in 2010, the day Rob Ford was installed as mayor, goading “left-wing pinkos” in his remarks. He’s become so confident in his place at Hockey Night that he criticized “Coach’s Corner” sponsor Budweiser for playing an ad that explained its use of wind power in production.

The NHL’s responsibility for the consequences of violent hockey came under particular scrutiny in the past four years with a concussion lawsuit on behalf of more than 300 former NHLers. Former NHLer Dan Carcillo was one of the plaintiffs, and since his retirement has become a vocal advocate for player safety and concussion awareness.

“I don’t think fighting should exist anymore,” he told The Province this February. “I disagree with [Don] Cherry and [former NHL manager and current Sportsnet broadcaster Brian] Burke—I don’t see a place for it in today’s game.”

Last November, the players settled with the league for an amount some believed fell well short of what was deserved. The deal for the players included free neuropsychological tests, an allowance for medical treatment, and a cash payment of about $20,000.

Cherry spoke about the lawsuit in an episode of “Coach’s Corner” aired in May 2018 prior to the settlement: “I feel sorry for the guys, you know some of the guys maybe got whacked a little, but it’s a money grab as far as I’m concerned.”

There just isn’t space on Rock’em Sock’em or “Coach’s Corner” for anything but Cherry’s narrow vision of the sport and its participants. His critics are indeed vocal about his transgressions but they also encourage people to take his rhetoric more seriously.

“The ideal hockey player according to Cherry’s tapes and the era I played in was: you’re big, tough, you fight, you hit, you score goals, you sacrifice for the team, you suck up any injury and play through it,” Brock McGillis, an LGBTQ+ advocate and former pro hockey player, said. “You had to be this manly man without emotions. The closest thing you had to an emotion was when guys like Doug Gilmour would give Cherry a kiss, or you cried when you won a Stanley Cup. It’s OK in one context, but it’s not OK to be gay.”

Cherry’s rules about male kissing in hockey are fairly clear. In Rock’em Sock’em 9 from 1998, Cherry refers to players who wear visors as “sweeties” in reference to Zigmund Palffy giving teammate Travis Green an on-ice kiss. Later in the “Coach’s Corner” segment of the tape, his co-host Ron MacLean says, “I’m not homophobic...but I get a lot of people expressing concerns [about kissing between Cherry and NHL players].” Cherry replies, “You don’t understand. You get a tough guy like Wayne Cashman or Kirk Muller blowing kisses at me—that’s OK. But when a guy like you blows me kisses...whoa! No way!”

Cherry’s damaging comments are too often dismissed because of his disposition, but to think that his message isn’t landing successfully with a good portion of Canada is short-sighted. In Michael Buma’s book Refereeing Identity (2012), Michael McKinley writes in an essay that Cherry has become “the moral guide for a generation of hockey players, their parents, and their coaches.”

“I think it would be foolish to suggest that Don Cherry is not speaking to anyone,” said sociologist Dr. Kristi Allain, who spent three years studying “Coach’s Corner” episodes for an academic paper. “He’s speaking about what it means to be Canadian, who is Canadian, and the ways in which those social positions are changing,” she said. “He’s talking to working-class people—although he might identify as such, he’s definitely not. He’s talking to this white, straight, beer-drinking everyman.”

Allain said despite the misconception that Cherry isn’t thoughtful, his messaging is “remarkably consistent” and calculated. “He has a very careful and considered view on what Canada is, what it should be, and a kind of rough form of masculinity in young, white, straight men and boys,” she said.

Increasingly, even young-boys-in-white-Canada is too wide a demographic to describe Cherry’s hockey-playing audience. It’s young boys in wealthy white Canada. The annual cost for a family for elite-level, triple-A minor hockey is about $15,000, according to this year-long study in Ontario. The research also found that the majority of families of OHL players made more than the average Ontario family, with 15 percent of families studied making 50 percent more than the average Ontario family.

“Even white, working-class people whom Cherry identifies with increasingly can’t play hockey,” said Allain.

The longer he’s on national broadcasts, the larger his impact will be on generations of participants in hockey culture.

“I think the worst thing we can do as academics, reporters, and culture makers is not ask the most important question: why does he resonate?” said Allain. “Why do people care what he has to say? For us to ignore him comes at a great social cost. Ignoring the concerns of whole groups of people is incredibly problematic.”

Cherry stands in the way of a more progressive and inclusive hockey culture that still has a long way to go to become welcoming for all. His messaging is instilled in a generation of hockey fans, many of whom remain subscribed today. While his time on the air may soon be coming to an end, it will take a great deal of work yet from Canadian sports broadcasters and advertisers to incorporate inclusive spaces into the hockey discourse.

The Goosebumps episode from 1997 portrayed Cherry playing a tough-talking hockey coach in a young boy’s nightmare sequence. The boy experiences bullying and violence on the ice while Cherry berates him from the bench. The scene illustrates him at his most crystallized: his angry coach routine played up for laughs but at the real expense of the young men and boys who internalize his ideas and wittingly or unwittingly keep hockey a boys club for members only. While a seemingly lighthearted bit of entertainment it’s also a grim example of the way the Hockey Night broadcaster has bruised youth hockey culture in this country for decades.

Follow Joe Pack on Twitter.

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