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[Perspective]

The World According to Grapes

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Hockey fight in Canada: how the firing of a legacy sports broadcaster exposed the frailty of Canada’s national myth

For a few weeks in November, most conversations in Canada revolved around one person. My sister and I got in a heated back-and-forth about Don Cherry in a brunch restaurant in the quiet hours before Toronto’s annual Santa Claus Parade. Right after instructing me to come back in an hour, my optician asked me, “What do you make of this Don Cherry situation?” A gentleman shoveling the snow from his patch of sidewalk near the office where I sometimes work flagged me down, mimed for me to remove my headphones, and asked, “What do you think about Don Cherry?”

Even the people who didn’t want to talk about Don Cherry were talking about Don Cherry. The guy who runs the used bookstore around the corner from my apartment posted a sign near the checkout counter: “please do not talk to me about don cherry. thank you for your understanding.” A trainer at my gym told me that she was tired of talking about Don Cherry, right before another member approached to engage her in a conversation about Don Cherry.

Don Cherry is a veteran TV sports correspondent and cohost of the long-running “Coach’s Corner” segment on Sportsnet’s Hockey Night in Canada, the legacy NHL broadcast that has been part of the nation’s TV landscape since the early 1950s. He is known for his gruff, frank commentary and his comparably loud sartorial choices. He is a strident advocate of what’s sometimes called “old-time hockey”: a version of the sport favoring big hits and drag-down brawls, prizing blood and sweat and grit above nimble balletics. He doesn’t care for Russians, Swedes, or other foreigners whose approach to the game—or mere presence within it—might undermine Canada’s claim to hockey exceptionalism. In a country internationally known for its mild manners and multicultural mosaic, Cherry’s bombastic persona announces him as the nation’s unshackled id. He is beloved because he personifies everything Canadians are told we’re not. In a 2004 nationwide poll, Cherry was voted the seventh Greatest Canadian of All Time, two spots ahead of Alexander Graham Bell. This goes some way towards explaining why Cherry’s sacking, at age eighty-five after nearly four decades on the job, escalated into a full-blown national incident.

On November 9, Cherry had used his “Coach’s Corner” pulpit to address Remembrance Day, the annual wartime memorial observation that pulls double duty as a political flash point for conservatives, in Canada and across the Commonwealth. In this fateful rant, Cherry targeted Canadians who offended him by not wearing poppies, which are used by the Royal Canadian Legion to raise funds for veterans and their families, and generally sported to signal quiet observance for sacrifices made in times of war. “You people,” he began, leading with two words that typically portend offense, “that come here… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that… These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.”

The reaction was swift. Jagmeet Singh, the Sikh leader of Canada’s federal New Democratic Party, posted a photo on Twitter of his great-grandfather, who had served Britain in both World Wars. Toronto mayor John Tory called Cherry “way off base.” The National Hockey League’s PR wing weighed in, saying that Cherry’s remarks were “contrary to the values we believe in.” On November 11, Sportsnet, which owns the rights to air all NHL games in Canada, fired him. In an interview with the Toronto Sun the following day, Cherry was unapologetic, though he explained that all he meant to say was, “Everybody in Canada should wear a poppy to honor our fallen soldiers.”

The blunt counterreaction to Cherry’s dismissal is typical of most contemporary outrage: his devotees threatened to cancel their Sportsnet subscriptions, and also threatened to boycott buying poppies from the Royal Legion, after the Legion condemned Cherry’s comments on social media.

“We should convert our leftover poppies into red cherries as a protest against all this subversive softness,” wrote one disgruntled fan in a letter to the National Post. “Or what are men for?”

Screenshot of the June 15, 2011 episode of “Coaches Corner.” Source.

Cherry exemplifies a kind of thick-necked machismo that may seem to outsiders utterly un-Canadian. In the minors, Cherry earned the nickname “Grapes,” from “sour grapes,” a reference to his disposition as a hotheaded enforcer. An unremarkable hockey player who saw precisely one game of NHL action, Cherry made his reputation coaching the Boston Bruins between 1974 and 1979, leading the team to two Stanley Cup finals. Under his stewardship, the “Big Bad Bruins” prized physicality over finesse. “Don’t poke the bear,” emerged as a team slogan, oft repeated by Cherry on “Coach’s Corner” to refer to the inevitable consequences of agitating a team of tough guys.

In contrast to his bloody-knuckle approach to the game, Cherry was also known for dressing to the nines, striding the boards of the Bruins’ bench in tailored three-piece suits, accented by splashy paisley neckties. As he moved into broadcasting in the early Eighties, when he was hired as an analyst by the CBC, his roughneck, self-described “good ol’ boy” bona fides only deepened. Likewise, his fashions grew from snazzy to outlandish. In 2010 he helped usher Toronto’s scandal-prone late mayor Rob Ford into office while wearing a Pepto-Bismol-pink silk jacket, boasting, “I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything.” Ranking Don Cherry’s “Coach’s Corner” suits is (or was) a perennial fixture of the Canadian blogosphere. His masculinity was fragrant and flamboyant, but there was never any doubt of its abundance.

Cherry cannily—and lucratively—exploited this larger-than-life persona. He has hawked aftershave, beer, fiberglass insulation, all-season tires, insurance, mortgages, and, most prominently, a series of hockey highlight videos called Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey—a perennial stocking stuffer for any Canadian hockey fan come Christmastime. In 1993, he was featured on a novelty techno single in which he rapped, “Listen, listen to what I say / Play the game the Canadian way!” He was the subject of a made-for-TV biopic miniseries (2010’s Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story), which proved popular enough to merit a sequel (2012’s Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story II). He is also a best-selling Canadian author, thanks to several official biographies and collections—including 2009’s Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff and 2014’s Straight Up and Personal: The World According to Grapes (which he dedicated to God), and 2018’s Don Cherry’s Hockey Greats and More—which made Cherry’s insights and anecdotes fixtures of any Canadian bathroom reader’s collection.

On “Coach’s Corner,” Cherry’s digressions from hockey commentary were routine. Across the program’s long history, those remarks—whether about European players or female hockey fans “yapping away” in lieu of watching the game—became part of the segment’s appeal. (His seven-minute tirade lambasting Canada’s decision to not deploy troops to Iraq as a “lack of support to our American friends” was also an indelible Cherry moment.) He and cohost Ron MacLean worked as an improvisational two-hander act: Cherry played loudmouthed stooge, MacLean the long-suffering straight man trying to rein it in with panicked interjections and labored puns.

Afforded such a platform on a beloved, nationally televised program, Cherry’s provocations were received as folksy conventional wisdom. At best, he gave voice to “the people that drink the beer,” whom he described as his key demographic in a 1990 profile for the CBC. At worst, he was the nation’s sundowning great-uncle, whose impolitic manner and inflammatory tirades could be shrugged off as the products of a less tolerant time. In the same profile, he made a crass joke about women joining the NHL (“I think every dressing room should have one”) and complained that “foreigners are coming over here, earnin’ the dough.” When a columnist lambasted Cherry as a “misogynist” and a “troglodyte,” he laughed it off, claiming he didn’t know what the words meant.

All the while, one got the nagging sense that Cherry—unlike more modern populists who posture as spokespeople for some silent majority because doing so is politically expedient—wasn’t faking it. He really did speak on behalf of Canada’s broad bloc of beer drinkers.

Canadians are singularly associated with the sport to the point of cliché, not without good reason. Images of kids playing shinny—an informal, outdoor version of the game usually played on iced-over ponds or ad hoc backyard rinks—adorn our colorful five-dollar note. In 2010, the desperately cornball Score: A Hockey Musical, which is precisely what it sounds like, launched Canada’s most prestigious film festival. A few years ago, the University of Saskatchewan offered a popular class called “Hockey in Canadian Literature.”

A deeply collaborative and highly improvisational team sport played in subzero (Celsius, not Fahrenheit) conditions, hockey makes a virtue of Canadians’ professed value of cooperation and our smug ability to withstand cold weather. “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver,” sang French-Canadian songwriter Gilles Vigneault: “My country is not a country, it’s winter.” Absorbed into the media and ecosystem of the neighboring United States, whose TV shows and movies dominate Canadian cultural conversations, hockey remains distinctly ours. Hockey Night in Canada regularly ranks among the best-rated TV broadcasts in the nation, appearing alongside the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, and, for a long time, the debuts of Big Bang Theory episodes. The tendency for viewership to nose-dive when Canadian teams are knocked out of the playoffs only speaks to this inextricable bond between the sport and Canadian identity. Hockey feels culturally essential, in large part, because it is all we have.

In the national mythos, exciting hockey moments also serve as cornerstones of nationhood. Among them: Wayne Gretzky assisting Mario Lemieux on the game-winner against the U.S.S.R. at the 1987 Canada Cup; Marie-Philip Poulin leading the Canadian women’s team to an overtime win against the United States in the 2014 Olympics; Paul Henderson breaking the tie and pushing Team Canada ahead of the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series, one of those classic Cold War–era clashes of athletics-as-ideology. (The Summit Series goal is described in the opening verses of “Fireworks,” a song by quintessentially Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip.) These are the sort of genuine “Where were you when…?” events that can forge bonds of national solidarity, and which faithfully serve the lore of hockey as “Canada’s game.”

Yet the hysteria around Cherry’s firing betrays an emerging anxiety that hockey isn’t especially reflective of Canada itself, a nation where multiculturalism is official government policy. The “you people” talk stings because, despite protestations to the contrary, hockey is a sport that is predominantly popular among white people. NHL players are overwhelmingly white, and 92 percent of pro hockey viewers are white, according to a 2013 Nielsen report. Compare this with Canada itself, which is about 73 percent white, and welcoming increasing numbers of visible minorities. In terms of team sports, soccer—“the world’s game”—is rapidly filling the gap in a nation whose demographics more and more closely reflect the rest of the world.

There’s a class dimension at play, too. A 2012 survey conducted by Hockey Canada revealed that families who registered their children in hockey programs boasted household incomes 15 percent higher than the national median—it’s the most expensive after-school sport. Shortly after Canada’s recent federal election, Mona Fortier, the nation’s “Minister of Middle Class Prosperity” (a new, and official, ministry created by Trudeau’s government), told CBC Radio that having a child enrolled in hockey is a marker of middle-classness. As Canadian writer Nora Loreto noted in a recent Washington Post article, “With more than one-third of Canadians living in regions where lakes don’t get cold enough to skate on in the winter, it’s even less likely that young people have the chance to learn to skate for free.” (Loreto’s ongoing critiques of hockey culture have subjected her to death threats.) Where the myth of hockey holds that the next superstar can be forged in the backyard rink, à la Gretzky or Gordie Howe, the reality of professional success comes increasingly at an exorbitant premium.

The institutions of hockey are working with some diligence to address the game’s perception as mono-ethnic and middle-class. There’s a Punjabi-language version of Hockey Night in Canada, and Hockey Canada’s regional First Shift Program aims to make the game more affordable. (See also: Gritty, the new Philadelphia Flyers mascot who has been co-opted as a leftist meme.) But it’s not as broadly unifying as its defenders insist. Just a few weeks after Cherry-gate, Nigerian-born former NHL-er Akim Aliu publicly spoke out against hockey’s habitual racism, which included blackface costuming and, most notably, Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters hurling racial epithets at him while coaching in the minor leagues. Peters resigned.

Compound this by Cherry’s sack-worthy comments, which distinguished between the “real” (read: white, European-descended) Canadians who visibly support wartime veterans, and encroaching parasites (read: non-white immigrants) who do not. For all its beaming “Bienvenue/Welcome” borderland signposting, Canada is not immune to the sort of anti-immigrant populism that has plagued other western nations. The recent federal election saw the People’s Party of Canada (PPC)—critical of “official multiculturalism,” campaigning on promises of restricting immigration to applicants who “align with Canadian values and societal norms”—promoting candidates around the country.

Like Don Cherry’s ousting, the routing of the PPC has a reassuring, even purifying effect: the bigots and xenophobes have been defeated, and so back to the business of sunny ways multiculturalism as usual. Members of this party become scapegoats, not in the sense of their blamelessness, but in the sense of their exile serving to restore the status quo. It’s easy to shuffle Cherry off to forced retirement and relative obscurity (he has since launched a podcast, the last refuge of the disgraced). It’s considerably more difficult to pause and consider the extent to which his attitudes might actually reflect those of large swaths of Canadians. The fear is not that Cherry’s comments affronted the dignity of the game itself, but rather that they comport with the views of its fervent defenders; that Cherry, bigoted and troglodytic as he is, still barks on behalf of a deeply conservative culture of Canadian xenophobes. As another letter writer, a veteran and a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, put it in another periodical of record: “I believe a silent majority of Canadians agree with Mr. Cherry.”

“Canadians are in denial that racism is a systemic thing,” Desmond Cole, a Toronto activist and author of a forthcoming book about Canadian race relations, The Skin We’re In, recently told Canada’s CTV news channel. “It’s not just a few people’s nasty or racist, bigoted opinions,” he went on. “It’s not just Don Cherry spouting off on ‘Coach’s Corner.’ It’s us not getting jobs. It’s us being kicked out of the education system. It’s us being disproportionately the victims of violence.”

In his 2017 history Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen rigorously lays out the patterns of “magical thinking” and “anything-goes relativism” that has long defined American life. Canadians, in my experience, take comfort in believing that we are unaffected by lunacy; racism, xenophobic attitudes, populist bluster, and pathological self-delusion are things that go on down there. This is, itself, a comforting fantasy. Not long before Cherry’s firing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went, in the length of one federal election cycle, from a hunky calendar boy in goofy custom socks to an avatar of Canada’s latent racial illiteracy, thanks in large part to a series of brownface and blackface scandals (and a subsequent apology that included an admission that he couldn’t even estimate the number of times he had donned racist makeup).

The problem of what to do with hockey post–Don Cherry is also the problem of what to do with Canada. The NHL is struggling to revamp itself league-wide with high-profile discussions about on-ice concussions and off-ice domestic violence, amending the game’s image as some necessarily violent, rock ’em, sock ’em affair. The locker room culture—a fetid breeding ground for all manner of sexism, racism, and homophobia—has likewise been exposed by some former pros, illustrating how the sport’s problems manifest in the minor leagues. More than just bad PR, it feels, vaguely, like a reckoning.  Even in Canada, the sport’s popularity appears to be on the decline. Sportsnet columnist Mark Spector noticed in late 2019 that the Edmonton Oilers were advertising tickets still on sale for a Saturday evening game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That a contest between two such (allegedly) adored squads wouldn’t be an immediate, all-butts-in-the-seats sellout is, as Spector noted, “unheard of.”

Granted, a one-off NBA championship that welcomed shameless bandwagon hoppers (such as myself) and subpar hockey ticket sales hardly constitutes a meaningful bellwether of the sport’s uncoupling from the idea of Canada. But these events suggest a relationship that is being rethought, dragged out of the pleasant glow of myth and fantasy, out of Tim Hortons’s coffee cups and Canadian Tire Christmas commercials, and subjected to the cold, edifying light of a more regressive reality. If, in Canada, hockey and nationhood are inextricable—whether bound together or doomed to one another—then perhaps they can modernize together.

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