So much simplistic reductionism has been used to support or malign Don Cherry during his latest brouhaha. Ardent supporters of old-school tough guy hockey are behind opposing trenches against modern day ‘we juuuuust learned about concussions,’ firing generalizations at one another without really addressing Cherry’s actual stance. To be clear, Cherry blamed three ex-fighters for denouncing fighting, calling them (in classic parlance) “pukes,” “turncoats,” and “hypocrites.” This was factually wrong of him, because only one of the three actually wanted to ban fighting. He should have apologized for making a mistake. The players are considering legal action and have hinted they want his Coach’s Corner segment to end, saying it’s behind the times. The subtext is, it’s not only this incident but his approach to the game that enables vicious, dangerous hockey, and it’s time for him to go. But the truth is, despite his reputation is as a supporter of hockey as a primitive blood-sport, hardly anyone has done more to advance safety in the game as Don Cherry. Paradoxically, this tendency has existed alongside his brazen endorsement of fighting, but only a certain kind of fighting, as we’ll see.
In the mid 90s, Cherry took up many causes to keep NHL players safe that are only now coming into vogue: smaller elbow pads that can’t be used as weapons; starting a campaign designed to end hitting from behind doling out stop sign stickers on the backs of kids helmets, and denouncing it in the NHL; demanding no-touch icing after showing dozens of disturbing hits causing serious injuries as a result of a more-or-less useless aspect of the game. As a kid, on his TV segment and movies, Cherry taught me how to absorb a body-check and how not to get hit from behind. People condemn the Rock Em Sock Em videos without acknowledging all the safety tips for kids that come afterwards. People are distracted (understandably) by his loud suits, and by the force of his on screen persona, but this doesn’t eliminate all the concern Cherry has shown for player’s safety. And finally, there’s a huge aspect of fighting he denounced that nobody gives him credit for.
There is a brand of fighter, a goon, that sits on the bench until he has to fight–the kind of guy with 3000 penalty minutes, 2 goals. Cherry has unequivocally denounced this practice, citing his own experience as a bench-warmer as humiliating. He said the fighters on his team when he coached were four twenty goal scorers. In other words, fighting should be an organic part of the game, occurring when tensions run high because a code of the game is broken. It shouldn’t be the routine farce it has become, where no-talent Goliaths schedule fights in advance to remain in the league and make a better salary than they otherwise would in a freak show. Fighting should happen the way it does in other sports and in life: when people are actually mad.
When it comes to making observations about hockey (not politics, or life in general), nobody is more observant than Don Cherry. He explains aspects of the sport that totally escape other so-called pundits, normally ex-players finally allowed to show personality. Cherry enriches the game by making you appreciate little things. Last week, he showed fighters carefully moving away from a puck before a fight, knowing they were liable to step on it and injure themselves. I watched the same play live but didn’t notice. I thought the only threat of injury was an opponents fist. He recently showed Max Pacioretty pushing/taunting Chara after scoring a goal (typical), whereas most people focused on Chara annihilating Pacioretty’s head into a scansion. He condoned the hit as a hockey play, rightly, but but he ripped into the Montreal arena for being dangerous, offered a simple, effective solution, and showed a string of identical hits that went without suspensions. His solution was comprehensive, taking the game and player’s safety into account. The hit was shown hundreds of times, even on the national news, but nobody else shed light on what could have been one aspect of its real motivation. Cherry sees a bird’s eye view, the total game, that comes from watching an incalculable amount of hockey (NHL, all junior levels and even below).
Those who make it sound like Cherry is opposed to player’s safety, that he’d deny the oncoming wave of science backing up the dangers of concussions because he’s essentially a caveman, are disingenuous at best, and I suspect most of them haven’t really watched him for years and see him as a one dimensional caricature. When he gets his facts wrong, he should admit it, and I was surprised his apology was only half-hearted. But his opinions on hockey still enrich the game as ever, and offer a refreshing, insightful perspective that never conforms to the newest, modish opinions on the game, some of which, his detractors never admit, he predicted years ago.
If he is effectively thrown out of his position over this quarrel,he’ll leave behind a gaping hole and hockey won’t be any safer.