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The last time I watched Coach’s Corner I wondered, as perhaps many did, if I was missing something: if there was a time when Don Cherry didn’t dress like a rodeo clown, and comport himself like an old man, in his housecoat, shaking a fist and yelling from his front lawn.
When he had more to offer in terms of analysis than 30-year-old anecdotes about a hardly recognizable game.
When, under the guise of speaking “basic truths,” he didn’t spout off about Swedes and Finns who won’t go into the corner, about pinkos and Slavs, and female reporters, who shouldn’t be allowed in the locker room.
When, styling himself as our everyman, he didn’t feel entitled to use his platform to opine on court rulings and international aid decisions and, as he did on the weekend, make sweeping generalizations about the patriotism of “you people,” while wrapping himself in the Canadian flag, for which he was fired.
He’s been with us for so long that I literally can’t remember what he was like at the beginning, when he first appeared in the broadcast booth and found that there was an audience for what he had to offer.
But I’m now happy to see the last of him for a whole range of reasons: the bombast, the ego, the racism that has nothing whatsoever to do with free speech, and that is anathema to the country that has passed him by.
But in the long run I fear he should be judged for another sin: the gladiator mentality that, in time, has led to an epidemic that has ruined countless lives and, it can be argued, is ruining hockey.
It’s right there on page 57 of the hard-covered edition of Game Change, Ken Dryden’s important book about the biggest threat to the game the Montreal Canadien’s immortal loves: head injuries.
The early 1980s, as Dryden tells it, “were an insecure time for Canadian hockey.” Russian hockey was ascendant; the Canadian game “seemed stuck.”
This, argued Dryden, was the perfect time for Cherry and the “all stitches and missing teeth” style of hockey he espoused while a coach, and later on his Saturday night soapbox “Coaches Corner” on Hockey Night in Canada.
In his book, Dryden blames the increasing number of head injuries on a number of factors. In there somewhere is the toughness-over-talent approach championed by Cherry.
It is evident, perhaps in its most distilled form, in Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Hockey, the series of DVDs that he released, starting in 1989.
Monday I had a peek at a couple of them via YouTube, just to refresh my memory.
He’s an entertainer and these things were meant to sell. So, it’s all there: the outrageous garb, the hound, the bodies flying everywhere.
He says that he doesn’t like helmet visors just like he doesn’t like European hockey players.
When somebody is laid out by a body-check Cherry calls it “stretcher time.”
At one point he lays down a little rap, part of which goes this way: “I played in the minor leagues I coached the Boston Bruins/If you’re asking me I think the game’s in ruins/Guys don’t fight/They don’t back-check/Its like watching the Nordiques/Back there in Kweebeck.”
Near the end of the very first recording he asks the viewer, “What’s a Don Cherry video without the odd tussle?”
For a laugh, he shows one involving Wayne Gretzky, who famously seldom-scrapped.
Then it’s the enforcers squaring off ritualistically, grabbing the other guy’s jersey with one hand, and then pummelling away with the other, like one of those old Rockem Sockem robots after which the productions must be named.
“They want to go, let them go,” Cherry says in voice-over. “They’re not hurting anyone but themselves.”
Which turned out to be true.
One of the four battles in the first Cherry DVD featured John Kordic, who fought countless times during his seven year NHL career before dying of a heart attack at 27, following a drug-fuelled altercation with police.
In the other Bob Probert, who would earn 3,300 career penalty minutes in the NHL, puts up the dukes.
He’s a hard man in the DVD, the kind of player Cherry loved.
After his death in 2011, researchers found that Probert suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which, now that scientists know to look, is being found more frequently in the brains of athletes who have suffered lots of head contact.