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On Steve Downie, Don Cherry and Violence in Hockey Culture

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There are human consequences to the brand of hockey that Don Cherry advocates

*Editor’s note: This column contains strong language.*

For many Canadians, Don Cherry is hockey. That’s not an accident: for over 30 years, Cherry has shaped the way we think about the NHL. Lest we forget, Cherry was once named the 7th greatest Canadian of all-time by his compatriots. No other hockey personality finished higher than Grapes (Gretzky was 10th). Don Cherry is important to hockey discourse, no matter how outdated some of his ideas may seem.

Cherry also symbolizes a certain way of thinking about hockey (and about being Canadian, and being a man, and lots of other things that necessitate more attention from someone more qualified than myself). Cherry has spent his broadcasting career lionizing enforcers, gritty players who triumph over their more skilled counterparts, and good Canadian boys that’ll do anything to help their team win. While Cherry’s undoubtedly popular, he’s also divisive — in recent years, there have been more and more rumblings about his place in the hockey hierarchy. That said, no one has ever gone after Don the way that Steve Downie did last night on Twitter:

Steve Downie sounds like he’s having a hard time, and it would be a mistake to place all of the blame for Downie’s various misdeeds at the feet of Don Cherry and the hockey media as a whole. Downie was, after all, ultimately the one who delivered all those dangerous hits. But to dismiss Downie as a lone rotten apple is to miss the point of what he’s saying. Cherry is perhaps the most visible cheerleader for a brand of hockey that has a casual disregard for the health and safety of its players. It’s not fun to think about what happens to the players after they’ve had their faces punched in, or their brains rattled from a particularly vicious blindside hit, but there are real consequences to real people. If you need a local reminder, Dean McAmmond was a Senator when Downie delivered the vicious blow he references in the above tweet.

Virtually anyone who’s been around competitive hockey recognizes in Steve Downie several young men they knew themselves, players who badly wanted the dream of playing professional hockey. Players who from a very young age had been told that the ultimate validation is to play pro hockey. Once it became clear that they wouldn’t make it on skill alone, these players learned that there was a place for them if they were willing to subject themselves, and others, to violence and pain.

It will be tempting to dismiss Downie’s comments by effectively shooting the messenger. I’d point you towards the story of Mike Peluso, a player who in this case literally fought his way to the NHL. Peluso is the epitome of a Don Cherry player, but he’s one of a wave of retired fighters who have suffered immensely in the years since their retirement. From the linked article:

Peluso was one of the toughest enforcers in NHL history. He had 240 fights in the NHL and 105 of those occurred after the Feb. 21, 1994, warning from the neurologist.

“The defendants knew that the probable consequences of requiring that [Peluso] go back out on the ice and perform his job as an enforcer would involve serious injury to its employee,” Stuckey wrote in a court filing. “The neurologist sent his report to the NJ Devils, its general manager Lou Lamoriello, team doctor Barry Fisher, team orthopaedic surgeon Leonard Jaffe, and warned them explicitly that the only way [Peluso] could avoid long term neurological damage, and a chronic seizure disorder was if he did NOT sustain any more hits to the head.”

Peluso has filed a lawsuit against three of the NHL teams he played for in which it is alleged that he has suffered nine grand mal seizures since his retirement. These are the consequences of the brand of hockey Cherry advocates for. Yet when faced with the real-life stories and tragedies of these same players, Don called them “a bunch of pukes”. These are players who supposedly followed Don’s code, they’re his guys but Cherry can’t (or won’t) hear it. That’s why Downie’s comments are worth discussing, because no one of any standing has ever gone after Cherry for this hypocrisy before. Ever.

Cherry isn’t alone in thinking about hockey in these terms. Lou Lamoriello, implicated above, maintains a prominent role in the front office of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s hardly surprising then that a confrontation precipitated by someone as controversial as Steve Downie generates a lot of backlash.

We’ve never had a serious conversation about the consequences of selling hockey through violence, be it fighting or the type of damaging head-shots Cherry and his ilk have long cheered on. As long as people like Cherry are untouchable, it’s going to be awfully hard to do so.