Don Cherry And The Problem With Canada

When I became a homeowner on Long Island in 1997, I never felt more Canadian. Why? Because with my home, I became one of the very first subscribers to DirecTV satellite service, not the reviled Cablevision that I loathed since they refused to service the Brooklyn neighborhood I grew up in way back in the 80s. 

With DirecTV came the NHL Center Ice package, which allowed me to watch out-of-market hockey games, including the venerable Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts that were the cornerstone of a Canadian hockey fan’s Saturday night. During the first intermission, I was finally able to watch Coach’s Corner with Ron McLean and Don Cherry on American soil – in my own living room! Before, it was a sacred, intermittent event relegated to visits to my family in Canada. That, and the fact that I lived less than 10 minutes from the Nassau Coliseum (I was a New York Islanders season ticket holder) was a dream come true. 

Saturday, November 9th, 2019 was the last Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry. It was not planned, and I honestly think the guy, at 85, had plenty more years left in him to stand there and bloviate for nine minutes once a week. Unfortunately, he went down in a Trumpian ball of flames by inferring that immigrants to Canada are disrespectful of the country’s military veterans by not wearing poppies on their lapels for the week leading up to Remembrance Day (also its American equivalent, Veteran’s Day). His rant set off a firestorm of controversy that resulted in his firing on Monday, November 11th – the actual Remembrance Day. 

If you’re a hockey fan of a certain age, you know Cherry is an acquired taste. After a less than memorable minor hockey career, and a somewhat successful career as a coach in the AHL and NHL, Cherry was awarded his weekly pulpit back in 1982 by the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) during its Hockey Night in Canada telecasts. The ritual of the nationally televised Saturday night game dates back to 1952, but most fans don’t care about that. For many of today’s hockey fans, the Coach’s Corner segment is the high point of the evening. The game comes in second. 

Although Cherry has a long and colorful history of stirring up controversy, most Canadians let it slide. As the years went by, he was thought of more as your crotchety old uncle or grandfather, who lets it fly after one too many beers. His diatribes were not taken too seriously, despite periodic efforts to paint him as an out-of-touch, racist curmudgeon – which, let’s be honest, he actually is. But, there was always a sense that he was harmless. And, for the most part, he was; up until last Saturday. 

Much as I hate to keep going back to this, attitudes in the world of sports have shifted dramatically since the U.S. decided to elect Donald Trump and embrace nationalistic and xenophobic attitudes. Unfortunately, many Canadians have also embraced these modes of thinking, and it is just as alarming there as it is here. It’s weird to feel stateless as a citizen of both countries, but when you witness the same rhetoric coming out of both the U.S. and Canada, the world quite literally feels like it is off its axis. I feel like I’m being hazed by a group of beer league buddies who want to get me so irretrievably smashed that I’ll agree to pull down my pants and slide bare-assed on the ice. 

For generations, Canada felt like a haven, the place where people were accepting and gracious; not angry and ignorant. The recent federal election was one of the most contentious in history, and the degree of admiration many Canadians have for the current American government is shocking. How ironic that I just wrote about how much hockey meant to Americans back in 1980 when the Cold War was raging, and the specter of nuclear war had us quaking in our boots. Now, divisiveness blankets the entire continent, and it seems we will never be able to heal the wounds that divide us. 

One look on social media will yield a plethora of content from angry Albertans wishing for #Wexit because the main commodity coming out of that province is oil. Since the remainder of the country is attempting to focus on ways to rescue the environment, Alberta and its oil sands are being excoriated for harming the planet. Hence, many residents have adopted a MAGA approach to their provincial and federal governments, voting for Conservatives and lambasting Liberals much the same as is happening in red state America. The wound festers in parts of other provinces as well, with incidents of racism against people of color who may not have been born in Canada, but consider themselves just as Canadian as Canadians who can trace their lineage back to seventeenth century colonization. 

The aftermath of Don Cherry’s last Coach’s Corner has been as divisive as everything else lately. Hell, people in Canada are so pissed off, they can no longer even tolerate a Tim Hortons double-double. There are two distinct camps: the people who think Cherry had every right to speak his mind and said nothing wrong, and the other, who claim that his firing was a long time in coming. I can see both sides of those arguments, but I truly think he got what he deserved. 

All of North America has become a powder keg of tension, and it all leads back to one person who has normalized the kind of behavior that should never, ever be considered normal. You know who I’m talking about – I mentioned him earlier. He lives in a big white house and regularly uses his thumbs to malign everyone and everything that does not worship the ground he walks on. I am in no way saying that Cherry wouldn’t have been put out to pasture eventually, but the sudden, jarring way it happened has much to do with everything else that has happened over the past three years. 

Lest we forget the plight of Cherry’s sidekick, Ron McLean; McLean stood by faithfully during many episodes where Cherry needed a seven-second audio delay, or just a simple smack in the head to keep him from veering off a verbal cliff. 

McLean did a five-minute segment himself the Saturday following Cherry’s dismissal, and one thing he said made sense to me: “Canada needs to re-imagine itself.” That sentiment is spot on. The problem is that our collective imaginations are splintered, and we can’t seem to visualize an inclusive path forward for everyone. Until we do, both Canada and the United States will be aggrieved, despondent places where “True Patriot Love” and “The Home of the Brave” have become just quaint notions. 

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