Sour Grapes

A couple of weeks ago, there were rumblings in the hockey world that famed broadcaster Don Cherry had been fired from Hockey Night in Canada on Sportsnet. If you’re new to hockey, here’s a taste of Cherry’s thuggish style. He wields his words like a toddler swinging nunchucks.

Oh, and here’s one of his custom suits. They’ve become more preposterous looking over the years. I always feel bad for his partner, Ron MacLean, who seems like a nice-enough guy, albeit a complete enabler.

Cherry, who has long been nicknamed “Grapes,” has always been a loud, opinionated, old-style-hockey guy, advocating for fighting, insulting teams he believes are weak, criticizing European-style players who aren’t his kind of “gritty.” He’s 85 now, fully transformed into the angry old man yelling at clouds.

The possibility that he might be out on his wrinkled ass was exciting. I watched hockey news for updates, and found only Sportsnet announcing that Cherry is, once again, returning to the booth to give hockey fans ten minutes of his uninspiring bile.

Cherry represents an era of hockey that’s long past its prime. The league has moved away from its rules allowing and encouraging violence. Officials no longer treat elbows to the head with the kind of “boys will be boys,” rub-some-dirt-in-it laissez-faire that led to so many concussions on the ice. The race to the puck over icing has been tempered to prevent needless crashing into boards.  

But Cherry wants the old-timey, punch a fella in the face for looking at you cross-eyed hockey to stay. He advocates for fighting, for hits to the head, for “you hit my guy, I’m going to hit your guy twice as hard and show you who’s boss” in every game.

Hockey is a fast sport, and because the NHL allows checking, it will always have some measure of violence. Fights are a storied facet of the game, and the instigation of a fight by a losing team has occasionally inspired a rally, some real competitiveness among flagging players. Fights, even those that draw blood, are largely theatrical; players going at each other for 20 minutes straight know something’s gonna happen, and sometimes agree ahead of time that they’re going to fight. They dance around each other, pull on their jerseys, wrestle like drunken bears on a frozen lake, somebody takes a fist to the nose, and another classic hockey face with a broken nose is born.

Player spar verbally in sports all the time. Bench-clearing brawls in baseball and basketball are famed throughout the sports’ histories. Hockey is the lone sport that allows fighting of any sort to continue past the first punch thrown.

Fighting, however, is not the only thing that Cherry advocates for.

Cherry wants players to check each other into the other bench. He wants the better team to be “better” because they’re physically dominant, not because they have skills like shooting and passing and skating. He consistently roots for “bruiser” hockey teams—like St. Louis and Philadelphia—who win games by injuring opposing players—broken arms, concussions, “lower body injuries.”

And it’s not just his stance on hockey brutality that makes him a throwback to a lesser time; he also derides face shields on helmets, anyone with a name he can’t pronounce, Russian players, multiculturalism, and any former player who wishes they hadn’t fought so much.

He’s been given a pass because he’s “Canada’s favorite drunk uncle,” a baffling excuse for keeping someone so vile on national TV. Does anybody choose to spend time with their drunk uncles?

Another excuse for his continued presence is his knowledge of the sport, but in reality, he knows the sport that used to exist, the one of the 70s and 80s, before mandatory helmets and face shields, before a player could get ejected for intentionally leaving his feet to check someone into the boards with the full force of a 200 lb man on ice. He knows the sport that used to be, the sport he wishes were still around. He exists to remind us of how things once were, and tell us how awful things have gotten since then. His method of argument isn’t intelligent persuasion, it’s brute force; shouting, over-talking, swinging his ham-fists toward the camera like he’d like to punch anyone who disagrees with him. He’s a bully.

Just like the drunk uncle who can’t shut up about how horrible Millennials are. “In MY day . . .”

There are some spectacular hockey announcers on TV. Kenny Albert, whose NBA-announcer father Marv Albert made famous the phrase “from way downtown!”, is an exciting, knowledgeable hockey announcer with NBC.  Kevin Weekes is a favorite on the NHL network, as is Mike Rupp. Both are former players—and not all who have played or coached the sport have skill in talking about the sport. That transition is challenging, as pretty-boy Patrick Sharp found in Chicago.

Knowledgeable, personable, opinionated and even contentious commentators are easy to find. This site has two – Erick and Tim, either of whom would be hell of a lot more interesting to listen to than Cherry.

With the announcement that Cherry would continue in his role as NHL agitator, it is clear that Sportsnet isn’t ready to move into the new era of hockey. Sportsnet has chosen to keep one foot in the past, hedging their bets against the progression of the sport.

But change comes to us all.  The old ways eventually fade away and die out. We are in an era of tremendous change globally; the friction between those hanging on to the past and those pushing us into the future has reached ignition.

Hockey is changing, and, like it or not, some of the old ways are dying. It will always be a sport of overgrown kids, tossing sticks in a pile in the middle of the street, getting one more game in before the streetlights come on. But there is room for growth, for improvement, for skill as well as strength, speed and power.

Whether Cherry leaves this season or next, hockey has grown beyond his kind of hockey, and will eventually leave him behind. It will be a welcome pruning.

Author: Meg Currell

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