Cherry’s bomb backfires

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The wake for a deceased friend who I played hockey with for years kept me from watching the Canadiens season opener Thursday night. But it seems that the most noteworthy event of the evening — aside from the obligatory annual injury to a Habs defenceman in Toronto and the subpar performance by the visitors — may have been Don Cherry’s segment after the first period.

For those who of you who somehow missed it, here it is…

…and while one is tempted to say this six and a half minutes of offensiveness, misrepresentation and ignorance is nothing new, and we’ve all seen this movie before, that would be inaccurate. This is, as The Globe and Mail’s Bruce Dowbiggen told CBC News, “a new low.”

What this edition of Coach’s Corner shows is a man whose core values about hockey — his beliefs and those of the people he represents — are threatened, a man who feels backed into a corner as a new era dawns in the sport.

It’s an era in which ownership, management and players are moving, somewhat unsteadily, toward a safer game, a less reckless game. He and those for whom he speaks are all for the recklessness, regardless of what we now know about the consequences. So what if the consequences are serious? Why worry about consequences?

It’s strange in one way that Cherry would be on that end of this discussion, considering his long-standing support for no-touch icing, which he favors because of the danger it poses to players. By championing no-touch icing, he has long portrayed himself as pro-safety. But his concern for safety pretty much ends there.

There’s no real reasoning going on in this segment. Instead, we get madness. And he is mad, mad that the type of hockey he advocates (and, let’s not forget, profits from handsomely) is, as he sees it, facing extinction.

You want misrepresentation? How about his cherry picking (pun intended) two mis-timed hits by Jay Rosehill and P.K Subban as typical of what the NHL is all about now? He feels sorry for those paying big money for to watch that, he adds.

Yes, NHLers are cautious about making certain sorts of hits these days — and they should be. But they’re not purposely missing checks here, as Cherry says. They are trying to adjust, to figure out on the fly how to time a bodycheck in this increasingly faster league without crossing the line, how to separate players from the puck without potentially injuring them and, in the process, risking the type of severe suspension the league has been handing out.

“I just really do believe there’s going to be a huge learning curve for a lot of these guys,” Bob McKenzie said over TSN 990 (audio) on “The Morning Show” this past Wednesday. “And there will be a lot of suspensions this year, and that we are going to see something similar to the obstruction crackdown that we had coming out of the 2004 lockout — and there was a parade to the penalty box. And everybody went nuts and said, ‘Nobody’s going to watch this.’ And I think you’re already starting to see the same backlash.”

Yes we are, with Cherry looking to take the lead. But, while he claims to favour the players here — “I don’t blame the players one bit,” he says — he’s not doing them any favours by bellyaching. He may not like it — after all, huge painful hits mean better Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em DVDs — but the players have a different agenda, to relearn how to bodycheck, and it’s not going to be easy or done with the flick of a switch at the start of the new season. How is it fair to them for Cherry to deny them their learning curve?

Some people always think the sky is falling, McKenzie concluded. This sport survived expansions, the Broad Street Bullies and the obstruction crackdown. The players eventually adjust. The game is too good and it always survives.

And how fair is for Cherry to cast blame on the NHL and Shanahan? The league does not enjoy punishing its players — the last 93 seasons of lenient discipline should prove that. But Cherry prefers to neglect what the world now knows about the dangers posed by concussions. The NHL has no such luxury.

Instead, Cherry admits he’s not interested in watching Brendan Shanahan’s admirable videos that clearly explain and illustrate violations of the new rules designed to cut down on behaviour that might cause concussions during the preseason. Instead, Cherry chose to pooh-pooh them, including Shanahan’s latest compilation of preseason hits, showing how the players have begun to adjust and how the game has nevertheless retained its physical element.

“I never saw ‘em, I don’t wanna…,” he tells Ron MacLean. That’s just willful ignorance.

He quickly dodged a MacLean question in order to comment on Elliotte Freidman’s interview with Max Pacioretty from the CBC pregame show (video) — which includes Pacioretty discussing how he’s forgiven Zdeno Chara for the vicious hit that not only ended Pacioretty’s season, but nearly his career. Back in March, I wrote on SI.com that I thought this hit might have been intentional, payback for a slight shove in an earlier game, despite Chara’s claim he didn’t know who he was hitting or where he was on the ice.

Cherry not only strongly implied on Thursday it was intentional, he justified it, blaming the victim, coloring Chara’s payback as deserved — and himself as a hero. “You kids out there, I’m gonna save your life,” he says. It’s a cheap rationalization for the actions of his co-favourite team’s captain, a snipe at Friedman’s interview and certainly not in the spirit of Pacioretty’s trying to defuse the incident, all delivered under the thin guise of warning young players not to make the same “mistake” Pacioretty did.

But no part of this segment is more mean-spirited, nor has gotten more attention, than Cherry’s attack on three former NHL enforcers. He called Stu Grimson, Jim Thompson and ex-Hab Chris Nilan “turncoats,” “hypocrites” and “pukes,” saying they all wanted a ban on fighting and they blamed fighting for their respective past substance abuses and addictions.

The notion that they are turncoats itself is remarkable, if only because he clearly sees endorsing fighting as some sort of cause, a holy crusade or partisan conflict and, in Cherry’s world, one cannot betray the cause.

Yet, when all three appeared on TSN’s “Off The Record” Friday (video), Nilan and Grimson both denied Cherry’s characterizations, challenging him to show any evidence whatsoever that they’d ever said any of what he alleged and demanding an apology (which has not been delivered — let’s see what happens Saturday night).

Nilan seemed particularly aggrieved because he considered Cherry a friend, someone who had even kissed him during a Hockey Night segment back in 1986. He made his case forcefully on TSN 990′s Melnick in the Afternoon as well, and on Winnipeg’s TSN 1290 (audio), where he added Cherry’s comments were “ridiculous” and caught him off-guard. One wonders, realizing Nilan has been regularly speaking out against Chara’s hit on Pacioretty, just who is the betrayer here.

Thompson also appeared on CBC News (video) to say, “Shame on Don Cherry. Shame on him,” and he acknowledged that he is, in fact, now against fighting, saying it’s criminal conduct on the street and should be seen as such on the ice.

Dowbiggin, whose story on Cherry’s rant Mike Boone linked on HIO Friday morning, attacked Cherry from another angle on the same CBC News segment, saying, “Calling people ‘pukes’ and ‘hypocrites’ who are alcoholics is a new low for him. You know, personalizing the argument that way against guys who are dealing with real demons. I think, even for him, that’s a new low.”

It always amazes me that Cherry is still considered some sort of icon, the conscience of the game and the centerpiece of hockey coverage on the CBC, especially in the last six years when the sport has changed — and had to change — so dramatically. And CBC continues to reinforce Cherry’s messages by hiring younger acolytes, like Mike Milbury, who are no less antagonistic and myopic.

Rather than try to keep up with change, Cherry and his tribe have refused to change and they condemn all who do. He and they are far out of touch with the NHL, which is itself trying to get in touch with modern sensibilities on the dangers in sport (as Ken Dryden wrote last week) and create a safer game. And that has made Cherry more belligerent than ever, clearly blind to facts about the game and people in it.

This major challenge facing the NHL involves a learning curve here for us all. Hockey Night may think it is doing the game and the culture around it some sort of service by allowing Cherry to espouse his views, but he’s dragging it backwards each week, and Coach’s Corner has become a forum to defame people. In the end, by elevating Cherry above the game and his narrow view to the level of gospel, he and they become threats to the sport that they purport to love.

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