Custom Search

Is Don Cherry still relevant? Debate it here...

In case my post on Don got buried a bit because of the focus on the Leaf win Saturday night, I am re-posting it here, because I'd like to get your thoughts on the long-time HNIC fixture...

While I’ve certainly posted a bit on Don Cherry in the past, I’ve been reluctant to dip my toe in the water too deeply when it comes to his customary Saturday night rants.

Why?  Well, as much as strive for this site to be a place where people can indeed discuss and debate issues around the Leafs and hockey in general, I like this to be a comfortable place to come and visit—somewhere where we can throw opinions back and forth but in a reflective and respectful way and often with some historical context.

And we do debate things.  This is not just a site to “boost” the Leafs, “no matter what”.  There are plenty of places to do that, and that’s entirely appropriate.  That said, I try to provide something perhaps a little different.

But Don is just, well, such a seemingly…no, not seemingly, he actually is in fact a divisive figure.  I’m not sure there are many high-profile Canadians who are more polarizing—and he’s just a “hockey guy”, really.  But because his views take us beyond the sport itself and gravitate to political, social and cultural values, he touches a lot of buttons—and a lot of nerves.

Yes, Cherry is both loved/revered/embraced by many and simultaneously loathed/hated/dismissed by almost as many, or maybe more.

So where do I sit/stand with regard to Don?  Well, first and foremost the guy is clearly an entertainer.  He found his “voice” in that regard way back when he was developing his public persona as coach of the Boston Bruins in the mid-and-later 1970s.  He was loud, bold, arrogant, “out there”.  I recall laughing out loud, lying in bed reading the book he wrote after his years with Boston (and his one year at the helm of the lowly Colorado Rockies).  It was wonderful stuff, with great bebind-the-scene stories galore. 

I also recall in his early years on Coach’s Corner, our eldest son and I were watching Hockey Night in Canada one Saturday evening in the basement of our previous house.  Don was on one of his usual rants.  My son, then about 9 (he is now in his early 30s) asked me, without trying to be funny at all, “Dad, doesn’t that man know how to talk without yelling…?”

That was—and is—Don, when his public persona is “on”.

The world has always been his oyster.  He loves to give his opinions and as we all know, he has many.  In those early “Coach’s Corner” days, he would fill the airwaves with talk of “Europeans” and on occasion, “the French” players, I seem to recall. He could antagonize.

Mario Lemieux was a “floater” to Cherry in his early years with the Penguins (and he was- Don was right...).  It took Don a while to like future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy.  He had thoughts on just about everything.  People couldn’t get enough, or maybe they just couldn’t turn away.

He has always had a love of hockey as a physical game.  He likes the rough stuff, for sure.  (If most of us are honest, many of us do as well.  Not many long-time hockey fans want a game with no hard-hitting, or where players can skate around with their head down all night because everyone is afraid to touch you…as we saw with the big Phaneuf hit Saturday night.)

He was a “tough guy” himself in his legendary minor-league career.  (Though, interestingly, the just-as-legendary refereeing great, Red Storey, in his book some years ago, wrote that his brother remembered Cherry from Don's junior playing days and did not think of him then as a tough-guy kind of player.)  But Cherry certainly became that in his long American Hockey League career.  And this was and is Don’s reputation, his  “legend”—and it has only grown through the years, though he is now in his 70s. (See the great old picture of Don from one of his many minor league stops at right, in a Leaf uniform.  I'm guessing this was in the 1960s, during Leaf camp, when he was with the Rochester Americans...)

His Bruins were indeed rugged—John Wensink, Stan Jonathan, Terry O’Reilly, not to mention Wayne Cashman and some of the players who where there before Don arrived.  It was a tough team.  They didn’t ice the puck, for example.  They were too proud.

So that is Don’s history in the game.  He liked the Rick Middletons and the Jean Ratelles, guys who were highly skilled, yes,  but loved a team made up of guys who could work the corners, the front of the net at both ends—and could fight with anyone while also contributing in other ways to the team.  In historical Maple Leaf terms, we could say Don was certainly a Conn Smythe, “If you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice” hockey guy.

Since his views are out there every Saturday night during the hockey season, a guy with this platform—and that background and perspective—is going to attract followers and detractors.  So when he talks fighting, and (stubbornly?) clings to the idea that it must stay part of the game, that there is no proof that there is a co-relation between what happened this past summer (three sudden, high-profile hockey deaths, all “enforcers”) and their role as team “policemen”, some recoil.

Is he just a Neanderthal?  Is he a fool?

On the fighting question, well, it’s way too complicated for me.  I heard psychologist Dr. Paul Dennis on the air recently on this topic (I think it was the Fan 590, to give due credit).  I have a lot of regard for Paul, as I’ve had occasion to work with him professionally in the past.  But as wise as he is on this and many subjects, I still don’t know if we really know definitively about the “link” between fighting and depression, for example.  Or between guys whose role it was/is to “fight” and a possible link to, say, dementia. 

That said, after reading about the research done on the late Reggie Fleming, a hard-working player with the Rangers, Boston and that great 1961 Cup-winning Chicago team, I don’t know quite what to say.  After his death, his brain was donated for research and the results sounded alarming.  Now, Fleming played well into his 40s, I seem to recall.  And, while he was a hard-working winger in his prime, he did, sadly, become, according to various accounts (I particularly remember a piece years ago by the long-time writer, Earl McRae, I believe it was) a guy that stayed way too long simply to earn a salary in low-level hockey. Or maybe he stayed in the game because that was all he knew, or what he felt his identity was.   But he became a guy that got hammered way too often in fights, maybe because he had a “reputation” to uphold against younger "fighters".

That kind of thing is very sad to hear.  And it was/is truly sad that no one in the game—agents, NHL teams, someone…did not help a guy who was clearly hurting himself, after giving a lot to the sport.

But back to Don Cherry.  So…he pointed a finger this past Thursday at ex-enforcers who he now says no longer think fighting should be a part of the game.  Now, I’m not sure those guys are “hypocrites” simply because part of their role as NHL’ers was to fight, but they may now see things differently.  If anything, maybe we should be listening to those players, individuals who are now in their late 30s and 40s.  These ex-players have lived the experience very recently, in some cases, in the modern NHL game.  If they genuinely feel fighting is a dinosaur-like element in the game, don’t we at least have to discuss it, without vitriol?

(An aside, Don’s hypocrisy angle is red herring for me.  Guys “changing their mind”, if that is indeed the case, does not discredit them in any event.  The debate should be about the issue, not whether “former fighters” have changed their views and somehow that makes the dis-loyal to the "fraternity"…)

Honestly, I don’t know if I’ve ever turned off a fight in my life.  Now, to be clear, I am not an MMA guy (I did go to an event in Toronto a few months back with my three oldest sons, as part of a night out with my boys…) but I have always, on the other hand, enjoyed football and hockey, both very physical sports.

There is no fighting allowed in baseball. Or in  football, or basketball, or soccer.  (Or rugby, for that matter).  And rugby and football are violent, physical sports.

But in hockey, it’s always been OK.  It is "part of the game".  (Though we almost never see fights during the best hockey of the year, in the playoffs.)  And honestly, I guess I had always thought, well, no one seems to get hurt.  It’s two guys who want to go at it, so what the heck…

But the game now is so fast.  The players in many cases are so big compared to what I grew up with in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.  (Hey, Jerry Korab of the Sabres was an absolute giant, it seemed like, in the early and mid-'70s.  He was 6 foot 3, 220 pounds.  He was huge.  Or so we thought.  Guys his size are common, today and often way, way faster.)

All by way of saying:  things are very, very different now.  The game has changed—drastically, in some ways.  Maybe if fighting was once OK, and hitting guys in the head was “OK” because players were 'skating with their head down', it’s not anymore.  It's not, because people care more now and because, while we don’t know everything about concussions, about depression, about the anxiety enforcers live with every day,  we certainly know more than we knew thirty and forty years ago.  And if we truly know more, we need to do more to protect athletes.

Could hockey survive without fighting?  I think it can.  I’m not saying we have to eliminate it but I think we could live without it, or at least create much more punitive outcomes for certain fights. 

I watched Canadian university hockey very closely in the early 1970s.  I loved it.  Fighting was an automatic suspension.  So you never saw a fight.  It was often great, fast-paced, intense, rivalry-filled—and skilled, hockey.

In the same era, and years after that, I followed junior hockey very closely.  Great skill also.  Young players with passion and energy. But my goodness, the fighting, the brawling—it was all about getting "noticed" by the scouts and emulating the Bruins and the Flyers, I guess.  It was too much, even back then.

So hockey has moved away from those bench-clearing brawls of the 1970s and '80s, for example.  Things change because society demands change, or because leagues realize something has to be done.  Maybe fighting will be the next thing to go.

But as for Don, I think he is still very relevant.  Maybe not always (or even often) "right" in some of our minds.  But he’s one of the people that led the charge for that “S.T.O.P.” sign on the backs of jerseys in youth hockey, to stop hitting from behind.  That’s important, educational stuff.

He has long campaigned against the huge, artillery-like equipment that players wear nowadays, equipment that is surely causing some of these injuries that are fast becoming an epidemic in the game.  He was ahead of the curve on no-touch icing, which would protect so many players and prevent unnecessary injuries.

And I’m sure I’m missing many of his other valuable contributions, not to mention Don's on-his-sleeve patriotism and the fact that he cares about our youth.  He also  mingles and signs autographs for probably tens of thousands of people annually at rinks across the country.

So here’s where I sit.  The man makes money (as does hockey overall) for the CBC.  That doesn’t make him right or wrong, just a political and economic reality.  He is and has been far more entertaining on many nights than the Leafs have been over some of the past thirty years. 

And, he gets us all thinking.

If only some of our political leaders had half his passion—other than at election time when they are desperately trying to get back “in” one more time to plump up that indexed pension—we might actually be able to believe in politicians again, even if we didn't always agree with them.

In any event, surely we just can’t shut down voices we don’t like, or don’t agree with.  I’m not as old as Don, but I’m getting up there.  My views on a range of things have modified in the last thirty years.  I hope that’s a good thing, not a sign of simply “caving in” or not caring anymore.  Hopefully it’s because (and I am grateful for this, on this Canadian thanksgiving weekend) I have been given the blessing of living long enough to review my opinions, stands, values and beliefs, and examine them through the collective wisdom of others in my own family (including my wife and soul-mate of 30+ years and our four grown sons) and many others that I respect out there in the “world” at large.

Yes, there are things—values, core beliefs—that I reflect on, re-asses, but still hold dear.  And then there are things I probably should re-examine further.

I’m sure I am still, in many ways, stiff and inflexible.  But experience, winning and losing, life’s ups and downs ( including, in our case, losing a son at a very young age) all have a way of helping to create, if not wisdom, then at least the possibility of embracing ways of thinking that may be better than our own.

For Don Cherry, if there are some things he “can’t let go of”, well, he may be right, he may be wrong.

But if his comments lead the rest of us to re-assess where we stand on things that might in fact be important, because they are larger than hockey, larger than “sports”, then yes, he has a role—and will continue to.

And hey, he has said forever (as recently as Saturday night!) that Bobby Orr is the best player of all time. On that, we absolutely agree....


  1. He's got the right idea on a lot of issues facing hockey (No touch icing, player respect, etc...), but he got such the wrong idea on other aspects like head shots, enforcers, euro-visors, that the little bit of bad greatly outweighs the lot of good stuff spewing out of his mouth on Saturday nights.

  2. I think Don Cherry basically demands relevance because of the impact he has on hockey and our perception of the game of hockey. If Don Cherry was not relevant, and the vast majority of people had no qualms dismissing him as an old dotard who'd played out his song too long, then we wouldn't have these firestorms created by his comments.

    That is not to say Don is consistently correct or incorrect, but he does inspire debate and at times re-assessment of the direction hockey is taking. People need a catalyst to take a new look at their views and I believe Don provides that, even if it is sometimes simply reaffirming that 'Yes, discrimination against Europeans is wrong'.

    I believe Don also helps foster a sense of Canadian identity with some of his work. I've always been a big fan of his stance towards honoring fallen Canadian soldiers during his 5 minute segment for example. The reasons for being at war should always be debated but the courage and sacrifice of the people fighting these wars should never be forgotten.

    So yes, while I certainly do not agree with a good number of Don Cherry's views, there is little question in my mind that he is still relevant and will continue to be relevant until his views become too consistently inflammatory for public television to tolerate.

  3. Beautifully said, Ben. Great post. I appreciate getting that kind of thoughtful commentary here. Thanksgiving weekend seems an appropriate time for your post, as well.

  4. I loved the clarity of thought in this post so thanks for sharing.

    As a New Zealander moving to Canada in 2000 it took me all of two weeks to be utterly and irretrievably addicted to hockey. The fighting to me was then, as it is now, an oddity to the game, a throwback element akin to a vestigial limb: there may well have been a good reason for it to have evolved and it may still be obvious how it used to impart some tactical advantage in the past but it's now basically redundant.

    It might be easy to mistake an ongoing place for fighting in hockey for the thrill of seeing such awe-inspiring athletes engaging in a combatative, vigorous competition but that doesn't make it true. I thrill at clean, open ice hits like Dion Phaneuf's the other night or the Scott Stevens specials of a decade ago and I roar with pleasure when some 6'4" ogre travelling at God-knows-what horrendous speed has the sweetness of dexterity to slot a puck through a 6" gap between goalie and post but the outbreak of a fight? Nipples on a man.

  5. Argggghhhh it ate my long and awesome comment!

  6. Thanks for your comments on the post, Glenn, and for sharing your own unique perspective.

    New Zealand, I sense, would be more rugby and soccer in terms of an outlet for sports passion. It's great to see you've found hockey a worthy sport to follow as well!

    I'm glad you found this blog site. Best wishes.

  7. This I know - Don Cherry knows hockey, and his passion for the sport is undeniable. I find it interesting that people I know who have a passing/small interest in hockey on the most part, find him repulsive/strange. However, the more serious hockey fans that I know, tend to be more forgiving and understanding of Don (but he still has his detractors). I certainly look forward to Coach's Corner even if I don't agree with everything that he says, and I cringe at some of his politically incorrect comments. As you said and this is true: He is and has been far more entertaining on many nights than the Leafs have been over some of the past thirty years.

    I've read some comments by some people who believe it's an act to get higher ratings and such. I don't believe it for a minute. He hasn't changed at all over the years. And these types of inflammatory comments are nothing new - I dare say he's said far more controversial things on Coach's Corner.

    I'll tell you one thing though - if I had to choose one hockey player/personality right now to have a beer with, it would be Don.

  8. I have come to appreciate Don Cherry over the years. He adds color to the game and every once in a while he is right about something, and the rest of the time he is partially right. You spent a lot of time talking about fighting and his stance on it. For me, the fighting doesn't really make or break the hockey experience for me. And while I think hockey would be just fine without the fights, I don't think that it's the fights that cause most of these players problems. In the case of brain injuries, and long term damage, I believe that it is all of the hard hits on the ice that is to blame. And as a hockey fan I am definitely against unneccessary hits. My daughter plays hockey, no hitting in the girls hockey and truthfully I find it as enjoyable as I do mens hockey. They're different games certainlly, but just as enjoyable. But more to the point, my daughter loved Sidney Crosby, and it wasn't a fight that sidelined him. In fact, he might have been one of the best players ever, but we'll never know because of a sensless hit. I say, let the fights stay in the game and suspend any players delivering these unneccessary hits for a couple of years for every hit and we'll have much better hockey.