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Don Cherry has to go

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For hockey’s culture to better itself, it needs to move on from one of its figureheads

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CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

There’s probably very little that I could write about Don Cherry’s career that you haven’t read before. He’s a fan of “old school”, rough and tumble hockey. He’s unapologetic about his abrasive opinions and his loud suits. He’s an unabashed homer for the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’s said some highly controversial things over the years, and your mileage will vary as to how much you love or hate what he has to say. I’m not breaking new ground here, and I’m not particularly interested in re-litigating all of the little battles that have been fought over the years.

But Don Cherry’s gotta go. Frankly, he should have been removed from his role on Coach’s Corner a long time ago but the networks that employ him have been too scared for far too long. Or maybe that’s giving them too much credit; maybe there’s tacit approval coming from the top. Cherry is, after all, a cultural icon. He’s one of our greatest Canadians.

He’s also 85 years old, and even his staunchest defenders would surely admit that he is becoming more of an anachronism with every passing year. Moving on from Cherry is a necessary step to improving the culture that surrounds hockey everywhere, but most especially in Canada. It wouldn’t be some injustice, either: he’s been on the air since 1980. He’s had his time.

On Saturday night, Ottawa Senators forward Scott Sabourin was knocked unconscious and cut his face open upon falling to the ice after delivering a hit on the Bruins’ David Backes. It was a scary scene, and members of both teams gathered around the stretcher that carried Sabourin off the ice. During the first intermission, Don Cherry had this to say about the situation:

The first word that comes to mind when parsing Cherry’s reaction to the video is callous. He’s always been a bit of an incoherent rambler, but here’s the relevant bit transcribed:

CHERRY: “Alright, we’re gonna show the hit, Scott—”

MACLEAN “— Scott Sabourin, yeah”

CHERRY: “Watch this here, he runs at him, what happens is the visor hits the helmet, that’s what I think happened, and uhhhh his leg was shaking. Boy when you see the leg shaking. And there he is, Sabourin. Too bad eh? Five years in the minors, he finally makes it and he gets whacked. He just got knocked out, that’s all”

MACLEAN: “Moving all his extremities, responsive, so, uh”

CHERRY: “His what?”

MACLEAN: “Yeah, well, we were worried, it was a scary moment”

CHERRY: “His what?”

MACLEAN: “Extremities. That’s the report we got from Ottawa and we’ll keep you posted”

CHERRY (laughing): “Alright”

This exchange gets right to the core of the issue with Cherry: for all of his bravado about loving the players, and sticking up for them, he has time and again showed that he views them as disposable. The contradiction plays out over the course of three sentences: “Too bad eh? Fives years in the minors, he finally makes it and he gets whacked” is a perfectly fine sentiment. But Cherry immediately follows that up by minimizing the damage to Sabourin: “He just got knocked out, that’s all.”

The subsequent segue into his juvenile laughter about a perceived dick joke doesn’t do Cherry any favours here, either. It’s impossible to read this as anything but someone who just doesn’t take Sabourin’s situation seriously. “He just got knoced out, that’s all” is a funny way to describe a player that had to be carted off the ice, taken straight to the hospital, and will miss several weeks recovering from what by all accounts is a severe concussion.

The deep irony is that Sabourin is exactly the kind of guy that Cherry purports to be championing. Except that Cherry doesn’t pull for the individual tough guys, what he’s actually supporting is the concept of tough guys. He doesn’t care if Scott Sabourin specifically plays the tough guy role in the NHL, he cares that someone plays that role. Cherry’s interest is in holding up a specific culture in hockey. The individual players are disposable. That the archetype remains is what matters to him. It’s a norm that’s particularly dangerous because it leads us to disregard the healthy and safety needs of the players. When I say Don Cherry has to go to help change hockey’s culture, this is what I mean. How can the NHL, or even the hockey world in general, say with a straight face that player safety is a serious consideration when one of the most visible figures behaves this way in the face of a traumatic injury. What kind of message does that send?

The incident on Saturday night isn’t the first time Cherry’s turned his back on what one might describe as his type of guy. When the NHL was defending itself against the concussion lawsuit, he went on Coach’s Corner in 2018 and called the litigation a “money grab”. Even more appallingly, after several former NHL fighters spoke out following the 2011 deaths of Derek Boogard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak, Cherry spent time on Coach’s Corner calling them “pukes.” His lack of empathy on that same segment was absolutely jarring:

“(They say) ‘Oh, the reason that they’re drinking, (taking) drugs and alcoholics is because they’re fighting.’ You turncoats, you hypocrites. If there’s one thing I’m not it’s a hypocrite. You guys were fighters, and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did.”

Cherry can’t conceive of the notion that these players are sincere in their need for help, maybe in part because that would require a critical re-assessment of his own views of the game. Admitting that fighting may cause long term harm to its participants, and that as a community we owe something to the players that have suffered the consequences, is diametrically opposed to everything the man stands for. It’s too much to ask someone so set in his ways to change. Maybe he’ll issue an apology for laughing about a perceived dick joke, but that won’t wash away the overall sentiment from the whole Sabourin saga. This isn’t a one-time thing.

For hockey’s culture to improve, particularly how we address player safety, there are some things about its past that need to be let go. One of those things is Don Cherry.