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A Reimer or Steckel book? Thoughts on the Leaf win and more on the long-running debate: Is Don Cherry still relevant? You tell me…

A few brief comments on the Leaf win Saturday night:  it was abundantly clear the Leafs, by the way they played (so free-wheelingly) have no fear of the Senators (nor should they; this is a poor NHL team with a major re-build ahead of them).

The fact that the Leafs let the Senators back in the game said more (perhaps concerningly so) about the Leafs simply letting down badly than it did about the Senators, who, based on their effort in the first 50 minutes of the game, should never had gotten close.  But credit to them for fighting back, for sure.

I just wonder, why does Bryan Murray still have that job?  Why is he the guy allowed to do the "re-build", after taking a team from Cup contender to the basement in relatively little time?  It's baffling to me.  He's paying Gonchar major dollars to play....lazy in his own end? And the season just started, when everyone is supposed to be pumped up. Oh well.

They've been on the road, yes, but they have given up 11 goals in two games.  If Detroit needed to, they likely could have produced more.  The leafs, too.  The Sens (I understand it is only two games) just appear to be awful in terms of overall team defense.

I say this not because I don't like the Senators but because I want them to be a strong NHL franchise, as they had been for years.  The Sens have some nice young players, but they are so, so far from being a good NHL team.  No leadership (besides an aging Alfie).  For me, Spezza is NOT the guy to be the captain of this kind of team. No goaltending, either.  Just not a lot there, except for a few promising kids.

Owner Eugene Melnyk will tell us better days are ahead.  But goodness. They were 'this close' to being a Cup team barely two years ago.  What happened?

I'm biased, but I still think, by the way, that Melnyk should have brought Pat Quinn as GM in a couple of years ago.  He would have been perfect for the Senators and would have absolutely re-kindled what once was a pretty good rivalry with the Leafs.  How much fun would it be when Quinn came into town with  the Senators on a Saturday night?

Some post-game Leaf thoughts...

-I like the little move Kessel often makes just before he shoots.  It worked very well on his first goal.  He does that a lot and it often freezes the defenseman. 

-Way more importantly, was that Kessel out there in the dying seconds when the Leafs were protecting a one-goal lead?  Was that Phil chipping the puck in, fighting to keep the play in the Senators end--and not worrying about trying to score a 4th goal on the night?  Is it possible he will slowly begin to become the kind of player I've talked about here for two years when reflecting on the young forward?  That is, a more complete, all-around team guy?  It's early, but a nice sign... 

-And hey, a few people still boo Alfredsson at the ACC, eh?  I guess we don't let go in Toronto.  Personally, I've developed a lot of respect for him as the years have gone on...

-Finally:  what will come first:  a book on Reimer (after 5 shutout periods, I thought one may be on the way the end of the game...), or one on face-off saviour Steckel (who most Leaf fans, myself included, could not have located with a map a week ago)?


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.

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. Don is most certainly relevant, although that can mean a lot of things. I've liked Don in the past when he kept his thoughts to his standard brash opinions on general hockey. With each passing day and season, however, he's looking more like a dinosaur- that is to say, a species doomed to extinction due to it's inability to adapt. When the CBC PR director publicly distances the organization from you, your time is running out. All indications are that Cherry's time at the CBC is coming to a close unless he adapts, which is going to be a very tricky and potentially messy divorce, depending on how Cherry handles it. His biggest mistake, I think, was poking his neck into politics with the Ford regime. It's stupid- you automatically alienate yourself with 2/3 of the population and are forever tied to it. My high level of discomfort at his fetishizing the military was eclipsed by his direct political involvement in a campaign, which made him look particularly dumb in light of the fact that he gets a huge paycheque from Canadian taxpayers. This Grimson/Nilan thing is just Cherry painting himself into a corner that he will find very difficult to extricate himself from. He may as well have called Dougie Gilmour a communist. The sad thing is that his insights on hard equipment, etc, will now have less impact as a result. When he says that we have to say goodbye to hitting in hockey, it's kind of a metaphor for his own career if you think of it.
    As to the game, the worse off the Sens organization is, the better. It'll be a long, long time before I can forgive them for blacking me out of Leafs games on Saturday night when I lived in eastern Ontario. Murray is what he is- an old guy who doesn't seem able to adapt to a changing NHL, and he sure as hell doesn't understand a value contract. BB is running circles around him every day.
    For the Leafs- defensive breakdowns, yes, but Reimer both lost some composure and starting flopping around in the 3rd, which exposes his weaknesses. Alfie knew exactly where to shoot on him- snap it hard over his glove hand.
    I'm not surprised at Kessel's evolution into a more complete player- how many times would it take for you and I if someone like BB went to bat for you with 3 major draft picks and then told you to your face what his expectations of your development were? "SIR, YES SIR!!"

  2. great article as always michael. like you said, don cherry is an entertainer. he's like howard stern or rush limbaugh: incredibly polarizing. i watch coach's corner every game, which is not something i can say about 2nd period intermission, or intermissions on other channels. coach's corner is stimulating, vibrant and always entertaining.
    as a canadian-american citizen, i appreciate don's right to freedom of speech (although i'm surprised how this 'right' is becoming weakened in canada... i read an interview where chris nilan was asked if he was going to SUE don cherry over the comments. really??? a lawsuit over words? being called a 'puke' is hurtful, but not worthy of a lawsuit. thankfully nilan said he wasn't going to sue). i think cherry's always going to bring in the ratings for CBC, and like you said, people hate to love him or love to hate him... if people really dislike him... change the channel! but if he's anything like howard stern, the people who hate him watch/listen most of all!!!! ~alex

  3. KidK, your post provides a glimpse of why I have not "dealt with" the Cherry question too much. It's a subject that touches nerves, but you expressed it well.

    Alex C...thanks for your kind comment. Don is a polarizing figure, to be sure, and his comments this past week provided some of his detractors with yet more ammunition. But as you well state, people seem to watch- whether they "like" him or not.

  4. I actually love it when you delve into the larger issues Michael! Being a Preds fan necessarily means I don't follow the Leafs as closely, but it's more than that. After such a trying summer I think it's important that writers such as yourself, who've watched the game a long time and have been through highs and lows in both hockey and life, provide a source of insight and perspective for the rest of us. I also take comfort in the fact that your blog is a place that values respectful debate, a skill too often lost when people speak to each other from behind computer screens.

    So on to Don Cherry-- he's definitely polarizing, though I wouldn't put him in the same category as political pundits like Glenn Beck and the like. Those guys you truly either love or hate, and how you feel about them largely has to do with what side you're on politically (though if you're like me you can't stand any of them regardless of viewpoint). Unlike them, "Grapes" has reached the venerable status of "institution," meaning that many people love him even if they disagree with everything he says. He's like a loudly opinionated family member that you feel affection for even if you have to roll your eyes at the things that come out of his mouth. I know there are many who truly dislike Don Cherry, but I'd say the majority of his viewers do possess a level of affection for him just because he is who he is regardless of what anyone else says or thinks. He can be politically incorrect and sometimes offensive, but I believe Cherry actually does speak for an important segment of hockey fans with regard to his views on fighting. Unfortunately he muddled his point by going after Nilan and Grimson, two guys who didn't deserve his ire. I'm glad they both came out and stood up for themselves by refuting Cherry's claims against them. Even if they were against fighting altogether or felt that life as an enforcer contributed to addiction behaviors, that doesn't make them hypocrites or take away their right to express their opinions.

    Regardless, as polarizing and off-putting as he can be, I think we need guys like Don Cherry. Not because they are right, but because they express opinions that are represented in society. In hockey, just like in politics, you have very vocal idealogues on either side of certain issues when in fact a majority of the population falls somewhere in the middle. However, it is often the squeakiest wheel that gets the grease when law or policy is made. Having voices of influence on either side helps the pendulum fall back to center. As for me, I love the physicality of the game and don't want to see fighting banned altogether. On the other hand, I'd gladly live without staged fights and huge enforcers who have one function and only play a couple of minutes per game. So in my case I'm glad to see balance among the the hockey media. If Adam Proteau from "The Hockey News" is about to release a book on "Why On-Ice Violence is Killing Hockey," I'm ok with "Rock-em Sock-em" Cherry lobbying to keep fighting in. I'll take his gaffes and occassional offensiveness over what I'm more afraid of: hearing only one side of the story.

  5. insidepinksocks...thanks for sharing that, Jessica. It's very well said. That would be my concern as well- that, as we shift to a societal perspective that claims certain ideas are not longer acceptable, we just shut them down. That seems worse than allowing full and thorough debate on sensitive subjects...

    I'll add this: like him or not, the CBC will have a very hard time finding someone to replace him who will keep eyeballs on the tube during the first intermission every single Saturday night like Don has- and do it with the viewing "numbers" he did ...for the next 30 years...