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After Don Cherry, where do we go from here?

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The game needs a culture re-set, and now is the perfect time to do it

Ron McLean gives thumbs up. Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI

When I wrote my piece last week about Don Cherry’s segment on Coach’s Corner after Scott Sabourin was injured, I did not anticipate having to write a follow-up so soon. My primary objective at the time was to highlight Don’s long-standing hypocrisy when it came to player safety, deliberately leaving aside the issue of his also long-standing bigotry. Maybe I had resigned myself to the notion that he was untouchable — no matter how noxious his views. Maybe I just didn’t think there was anything he could say that would actually cause the network to take action. Clearly, I was wrong.

We won’t re-litigate the specifics of why Cherry was fired by Sportsnet because that story has been told ably by many, many others. Instead, we should turn our attention to the question of what comes next not just for the weekly Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, but for hockey more broadly. Everyone would agree that Cherry was a central figure in the hockey world, for better or for worse. He was, and for many still is, a cultural icon. With his place of prominence suddenly taken away, we would do well to examine who we want to act as the game’s mouthpiece. Whose voices do we lift up? Regardless of exactly who they are, they need to be different from what has come before. Hockey culture is at a crossroads. Some might go so far as to say crisis, but I don’t think that’s actually true; the sport has roots so deep that it will be around long after everyone reading this article. What it looks like 10, 15, 20 years from now, though, that is very much up for debate and the conversations that we have today could very well change the future of the game.

Sometimes we can only speak from our own experiences, and my relationship with hockey is probably not very different from many of the male readers growing up. I’ve always had a stocky build, but I’m only 5’10 if I reach for that extra half inch. When I was a teenager, being that height was nearly disqualifying from playing high-end hockey. I was taught in ways both explicit and implicit, that « smaller guys » could progress in competitive hockey by being willing to throw big hits, particularly in the open ice. I was taught to seek out opportunities when the attacking forward looked down in his feet for the puck, and to step forward and “blow him up”. I was a good skater, and I learned to use my mobility to throw the types of open ice hits that would have made Cherry proud. I didn’t even take many penalties; not that long ago, it used to be acceptable to blindside a player if they had the puck.

I’ve never been a fan of Cherry’s, but so dominant was his narrative of how to play the game that I accepted this approach without much question. I didn’t even know there was another way to play competitive hockey, and truthfully it wasn’t until I had a bit of distance from playing, and we learned more about concussions, that I realized the full truth of the situation.

I have conflicting emotions about my playing style from when I was a teenager. I got to play at a reasonably high level and I will never forget some of the memories I forged with my teammates and friends. Hockey is a part of my identity to this day; I manage this blog after all, and I play three nights a week in various men’s leagues. I’ve made lifelong friendships and broadened my world through the sport. I have much to be thankful for.

I also inflicted traumatic hits that may have caused serious injury. I truthfully don’t know what happened to some of the players I played against. One hit in particular, against a skilled player on the Nepean Raiders, will be forever etched into my memory. I remember he left the game and didn’t return. I wasn’t penalized on the play, and I remember my coach congratulating me for “cleaning his fucking clock”. My coach wasn’t a bad guy, that was just the attitude folks had at the time. I also suffered concussions myself. Today I better understand how much my attitude towards a certain style of play was informed by a hockey culture that views so many players as disposable.

It’s this same callous attitude that informs Cherry’s hostile views towards immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, and just plain « others ». It’s the basis of an Us vs. Them mentality that is deeply poisonous to the culture of the game we play and love. Hockey prioritizes the “we” over the “I”. On its face, that’s difficult to argue against; who doesn’t like selflessness? However, one of the outcomes of such an intense focus on the “we” is an exclusionary environment for anyone that doesn’t conform. Hockey has had a profoundly hard time attracting participants that aren’t young, white men for nearly as long as it has existed.

If hockey is for everyone, then we have to leave these attitudes behind. Moving on from Don Cherry was an important, and necessary, first step in changing the dialogue around the sport. But what comes next is even more vital — we need to change the faces of the game. Diversity cannot simply be a buzzword, hockey has to be for everyone. We badly need to lose the tribalism that folks like Cherry only inflamed. It’s not enough to ask people to conform to hockey’s pre-existing culture. We need to change it so that it’s more welcoming to all the people that don’t feel they have a place. We need to change the way we think about player safety so that our athletes aren’t simply disposable. It’s going to be hard work; a lot of people are not going to like it. There are going to be a lot of heated disagreements. But this change needs to happen. This moment is an opportunity that we cannot squander.