In a country often maligned for its cultural passivity, one man stands out from the crowd in the unlikely arena of sports commentary: Donald Stewart “Grapes” Cherry.
Don Cherry is the host of Coach’s Corner, which airs during the first intermission of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. But enough with the background. It seems to be a Canadian’s patriotic duty is to have an opinion on Cherry from birth. For those of you who come from abroad – or the Canadians who might as well – I’d recommend viewing him without prejudice and forming your own opinions. This piece is intended as a defence, and you should witness Coach’s Corner on its own merits. If hockey’s not your thing and you don’t want to sit through a period of decent east coast hockey on a Saturday evening to get to the goods, feel free to YouTube him. Or – you know – just grow a pair.
I kid, friends. This language of emasculation and derision is one of the trademarks of Cherry’s persona that needles so many. The man can most definitely be a jerk. He has identified women as the only people who look away during hockey games, resulting in them being the only fans getting hit in the head by pucks. He has chastised Europeans and Quebeckers for their perceived tendency to wear visors at games, and antagonize other teams only to “turtle” (or to cower in hockey lingo) when someone fights back. He has been labeled militaristic for prioritizing time on the program to celebrate and commemorate Canadian troops in Afghanistan. He promotes some of the least socially acceptable aspects of the game – namely fighting – and stubbornly refuses to even attempt to pronounce non-English names.
For these reasons and more, he has earned himself a long list of detractors. Certain hockey intellectuals hate him for his boisterous blow-hardery on topics that they waste time contemplating before speaking on. A fair share of Quebec hates him; Propagandhi hates him; women may or may not hate him; and Europeans would either sue him, elect him, or both.
But with the initial deposition from the prosecution noted, I rise to defend Don Cherry. I will not, however, bother defending his misogynist streak. As we all know, Charline Labonté – the esteemed gardien of our McGill Martlets – could deflect an errant puck into the press booth with a popcorn box, if she wanted to. And though a study proved that Europeans and Quebeckers do indeed wear visors more often, that same study also found they were less likely to commit the offenses that Cherry accused them of. There is no defence for these kinds of comments, except maybe a selective memory.
But with regard to his supposed militarism – bearing in mind that I cannot attest to his activities early in the war – I find it more than defensible now. Since I’ve lived in Canada, I’ve mainly seen Cherry air pictures of recently killed Canadian soldiers at the end of his broadcasts. And his decision to devote the entire Coach’s Corner before Remembrance Day to pictures of the year’s deceased – set to bagpipes playing “Rule Britannia,” no less – was truly poignant, haunting stuff to get in the middle of a hockey game.
Cherry’s teary reminders of the real costs of war on the national stage every Saturday night – with or without political commentary – is nothing to scoff at. I’d give anything for a similar memorial for American soldiers on NFL Sundays, but I come from a country where a man was kicked out of Yankee Stadium for having the audacity to take a leak during the singing of “God Bless America.”
To put things in perspective, the 1965 Life magazine that featured the portraits and names of all people killed in Vietnam in a particular week was considered a turning point in the media’s presentation of that war. Grapes does the same thing every week. Short of stopping the wars, we should at least be reminded of them when we’re most comfortable and fortunate: putting our feet up, drinking beer, and yelling at a television for one coloured shirt to put a piece of rubber in a net on a Saturday night.
But mitigating that indefensible occasional misogyny or bigotry – or the debatable accusations of militarism – is the fact that he manages to be both remarkably entertaining and knowledgeable about hockey. His intermission spot is genuinely insightful, the fruitful exchange of two powerful hockey minds in Cherry and co-host Ron McLean. The talk is catered to the working classes of the hockey world. He provides advice for young players, volunteer coaches, and devoted parents seeking to improve their skills and increase safety in hockey. And all this advice is given in the hopes of increasing access to the social mobility afforded by junior leagues, college scholarships, and professional contracts. Not to mention that Don also just wants the kids to have a good time.
Don Cherry is for the kids – even those overgrown ones who get paid to play the game, as his ceaseless assaults on the league for putting its players at risk attest to. Don, like all of us, simply wants hockey to be as good as it can be – and that, let no one put asunder. Sure he’s an anachronism. When he goes, his type will haunt the game in the whispers of “old-timers,” like the spectre of Eddie Shore. In the meantime, ignore the occasional stupidity, admire his candor, and challenge it with your own feelings on the matter. After repeated viewings, one feels as though half of his controversial comments come with a smirk that dares you (or Ron McLean) to engage, just like your uncle would at the dinner table during a political discussion. And while seemingly dismissive of criticism, we know that he secretly loves every one of us – even the pinko, war-hating scum like me who just happen to love hockey.