Register Sunday | December 8 | 2019

Sweating Grapes

Is it Time for Don Cherry to Retire?

My mom loves Don Cherry. So how is it that there are so many detractors of this rock of stereotypically tough Canadian hockey? How can high-level CBC executives, hockey fans and pundits nationwide, especially in Quebec, contradict my mother?

It’s been a rough year for Don: so much public criticism of his favourite hockey-related activity--fighting--following an assault by Todd Bertuzzi, one of his favourite players, on my old high school acquaintance Steve Moore; the accusations of racism after he counted (correctly) a higher proportion of European and French Canadian players wearing visors, which resulted in him being put on a seven-second delay by the folks at the Ceeb. The worst of it is that now our national broadcaster is considering squashing Grapes entirely.

According to a report in the Globe and Mail, there is a good chance the commentator’s contract will not be renewed. Maybe this doesn’t have to do with his recent troubles. Maybe, at seventy, it’s just time to retire. Don has always been resilient, though, and he has had offers from other places, but he contends that he wants to stay at the CBC. He likes working with Ron MacLean, even though he has said of his partner, “I sometimes don’t understand him, and I don’t like his left-wing thinking and he’s a referee.” Apparently McLean might leave too if Don gets ditched.

Still, Cherry is getting on, and regardless of controversy, he won’t be on the airwaves forever. Who will replace him? Aside from the usual suspects of Kelly Hrudey (who already has a similar spot on West Coast CBC games as well as every other night during the playoffs) and Pierre McGuire (who definitely qualifies as opinionated and is very knowledgeable), the best candidates might be a few years away. Two current players, Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick, would both fit the bill perfectly. They are the only two NHL players, that I have seen, who never give a pat interview: they never spout the usual clichés and always have something off-the-wall to say. Or the CBC could try and keep McLean and then go after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman--Bettman is pretty much the biggest asshole in hockey, so we wouldn’t lose anything in the controversy department, though his knowledge of the game is perhaps suspect. In any case, it would get him out of the commissioner’s office and maybe save the game.

In February, Conservative MP Deborah Grey harangued the Commons about a CBC poll that asked Canadians whether they thought Don was racist. She said it was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Let me get this straight: Deborah Grey, a member of the former Canadian Alliance, thinks Don Cherry is a waste of taxpayers’ money? Who pays her salary to worry about such things? At any rate, Don is not racist, nor does he wish to be seen as such. “It was sort of disheartening,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I have to tell you, here you are doing your best, and you find out they’re asking if people think I’m racist. That kind of bothered me.”

It is unfortunate that Don was vilified for comments about visors in a season that saw fans in Montreal booing the American national anthem during their first-round playoff series with Boston. Barry Melrose, a former NHL player and coach, dismissed the action as that of French Canadians, a group English Canadians don’t really like anyway. What!?

The knock on Cherry is that he doesn’t stick to hockey; he goes political, and his views are supposedly outdated. In fact, his political views, specifically his pro-military bent, are shared by many--including our federal government, which plans to increase military spending while continuing to gouge health care and education. Oh, but sorry, this isn’t supposed to be a political column...

Don Cherry would be a problem if Don Cherry existed in a vacuum. That is, people not realizing that hockey is just a game, that other things go on in the world, yes, even when the NHL playoffs are taking place. Don does tremendous charity work, not only with veterans, but with kids’ groups as well. It’s easy to pick on Don because he says what he thinks. He is a real person, not a talking head.

Don is at once the embodiment and the antithesis of various Canadian stereotypes: as a player, he was a career minor-leaguer; as a coach, he did well, but never won the Cup--though he did win the Jack Adams trophy as the best coach in the NHL in 1976, the same year he coached Team Canada to a win at the first Canada Cup. In classically Canadian fashion, Don was the bridesmaid, but never the bride. (The Canada Cup is an important trophy, but in a hockey sense, no career is complete without the Stanley Cup.) Don speaks his mind, though, in a way that Canadians of the “polite” variety might find off-putting; this is precisely why he is so important to the fabric of our nation’s game if we are to claim it as our own and as a necessary, vital part of our identity. He is our repressed inner child.

I met Don Cherry once. He was filming a commercial at St. Mike’s Arena in Toronto while I was attending the school. During our lunch break, Brian Bannan and I walked up to his trailer and knocked on the door. Rose answered. She said he was eating his lunch, but that she’d get him. She disappeared for a minute, and then Don came lumbering to the door. He’s a very large man. He was genuine, kind and interested. He signed my tie; I hadn’t thought to bring anything to sign, but obviously that was the best thing I could have offered. Brian only had his French textbook; somewhere at St. Mike’s, some kid in Mr. Grassi’s grade eleven French class has that book, signed by Don Cherry. I still have the tie. We asked Don if he thought the Leafs were going to win the Cup. He said he didn’t think so, that it was going to be Pittsburgh that year. It was in September or October of 1991, I think, and the season hadn’t started yet, but he ended up being right. No matter what people say about Don, they can’t take away the fact that he knows hockey. I’m not sure that my mom knows hockey, but moms just know, and if she likes Don, that’s good enough for me.