Friday, October 07, 2011

Five Reasonable Discussions with Don Cherry

The first time I saw Coach’s Corner, I didn’t think Don Cherry was a real person. I thought it was a comedy sketch, and that at some point towards the end it would degenerate into utter surrealism, with beavers in tutus or something, like late-period Kids in the Hall. It wasn’t until the third or fourth viewing that I began to understand that this was, in some way, a serious thing, that this big, blustery man in his Muppet fur suits, who came on TV to, apparently, yell at children for four minutes, whose name was Mr. Cherry, was considered to be a real commentator, and not just a real commentator, but one of the great sages of the game.

I wrestled with how to take Don Cherry for a long time. It’s not the audacity of what he says- plenty of calmer guys in darker suits say the same stuff every day on TSN- but the theatricality of the persona. Hockey commentary is populated by pretty vanilla people, all in all, nice guys you could totally take out to a nice dinner at a nice restaurant and have a nice civilized conversation with, and then there’s Don Cherry, bellowing and waving his neon-pink arms, shrieking warnings, prophesies, and admonitions like some kind of resurrected Khazar shaman, with Ron MacLean sitting there ducking limbs and wearing look halfway between respectful attention and Jerry-get-me-my-tranquilizer-gun. Coach’s Corner is, for me, more like hypnotic performance art than hockey analysis, and for a long time I found it very hard to engage with the philosophy of Don Cherry because of that.

But no longer. Because tonight, I finally figured out the secret: you have to close your eyes. If you close your eyes, he loses his power over you, and you can hear the substance of his ideas. And so, now, I am going to try to actually listen to Don Cherry, and try to have a reasonable (although tragically one-sided) conversation about his principles.

Don Cherry [Showing a clip of a penalty.]: “Watch this penalty on Schenn. Watch. This is boarding. Imagine that. Watch, watch this, watch this here. That’s boarding? He hits his own head!”

E: You are correct, Don Cherry, if by your incredulous tone you intend to suggest that it is not in fact boarding. It is not boarding, it’s holding. Although I don’t believe that the NHL rulebook features a ‘no-callsies’ exception if you hit your own head in the course of committing a penalizable offense.

Don Cherry [Showing a clip of Max Pacioretty lightly shoving Zdeno Chara during a goal celebration]: “All you kids out there, I’m gonna save your life, gonna show you something. After you score a goal, never push a defenseman, because they’re infuriated. Watch what happens. Now watch, he pushes him for some reason. And lookit, now why would he do that? Now watch what Chara does after this, he goes bananas. A 6’9” giant, and you push him? Kids, leave the defensemen alone like that, because they always remember. […] All I’m saying is, he ticked him off, and he got it the next game. Leave the defenseman alone after the goal, because they always feel it’s their fault.”

E: Oh Don Cherry, it is not the responsibility of the Canadian children to ensure that they are not murdered by Zdeno Chara. The fact that Zdeno Chara is very large and is a defenseman and does not like to be scored on does not make him some sort of killing automaton. He is still, by all accounts, a human being capable of refraining from the murder of children and also forwards. If Max Pacioretty had left his keys in the ignition while he ran into the store for a Nutrigrain bar, that does not mean Zdeno Chara would be allowed to get into said car and drive away with it. If Max Pacioretty had been wearing a low-cut jersey and a lot of eyeliner and batting his eyelashes furiously, Zdeno Chara would still not be justified in slipping a rufi into his Gatorade and absconding with his unconscious body to the nearest motel room. Frankly, Don Cherry, as much as I admire your concern for the children of this land, I am also somewhat concerned about the message you are sending to the freakishly large defensechildren.

Don Cherry: “When you give an excuse to the players to not to hit, they will not hit.”

E: This is a very interesting thesis which, I must admit, I have not previously considered. I had always assumed that hockey players enjoy doing most hockey things, including skating, shooting, passing, hitting, hugging, and squeezing bottles of water all over their faces. Maybe some of them aren’t as good as others at one or another of these fundamentals, but it seems like generally speaking they are in favor of them. It had not occurred to me that they were all, en masse, secretly yearning for the end of contact. But frankly, if the players don’t want to do it, then why is there so much of it? Because the coaches force them? In that case, won’t the coaches keep forcing them under the new rules, only perhaps additionally pressuring them to be marginally cleaner? And isn’t that the objective of the stricter rules, to make hitting marginally cleaner?

Don Cherry: “How many games would you give Scott Stevens? Hall of Fame-er. Everybody loved this guy. We used to say, ‘What a hitter, boy, what a guy, Hall of Fame-er.’ How many games would you give him for this one?”

E: Under the current rules? For the totality of the hits shown in those clips? Oh, Don Cherry, I would give him so many games. I would give him dozens and dozens of games. So many games that he would feel a true and deep shame, so many games that he’d just lie on his bed at home and stare up at the cracks in the ceiling and think, oh Lord, what have I done, what manner of man am I that I go around charging people left and right, elbowing their heads? Don’t try to tell me that getting into the Hall of Fame retroactively justifies everything a person did in his career. I was just reading a historical work which made mention of a playoff game wherein Maurice Richard whacked two separate Leafs in their two separate heads with his stick. As much as I understand how he must have felt, I’m not going to start supporting sticks-to-the-head just because Richard did it, and I’m not going to start supporting charging or elbowing just because Scott Stevens was a charging-and-elbowing enthusiast.

Don Cherry [Referring to the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak, and the suggestion by some that fighting causes depression/drug abuse]: But the ones that I am really disgusted with… Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson. 'Oh, they reason that they're drinking drugs and alcoholic because they fight.' You turncoats. You hypocrites. It's one thing I'm not, it's a hypocrite. You guys ... you were fighters and now you don't want guys that make the same living you did."

E: There is a difference between ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘changing your mind’ or ‘having regrets’. Typically, we allow that people can stop doing things when they begin to feel those things are harmful to them, and suggest in turn that perhaps others should not do those things, because they might also find them harmful. According to your logic, Don Cherry, anyone who ever held up a few liquor stores would be morally obligated to continue holding up liquor stores as long as he could, and furthermore to encourage others to hold up liquor stores as a means of survival, and if that person ever renounced liquor-store-robbery, they would be a turncoat and a hypocrite. Personally, I am not anti-fighting, nor do I think that fighting ‘caused’ the deaths in question, but I respect that players who have done it and found it psychologically destructive have a right to say as much, so that others considering the profession may take their experiences under consideration. It’s not treachery, it’s advice, and like any advice, people are free to disagree with it, argue against it, or ignore it completely. But it’s not immoral to offer it.

Join us next time the Canadiens lose on HNIC for further installments.


Anonymous said...

Hey, great blog! Somehow it had escaped my attention until EOTP linked this article, and I'll be sure to follow in the future.

Anonymous said...

Oh jeez

That liquor store comment was a win. Ty sir. I'm saving this blog.


punkster said...

Good stuff here. I'm bookmarking for future returns.
(by the way the word verification for me was : coled, as in the Leafs did NOT get coled last night.

saskhab said...

The logic regarding his Pacioretty statement is equally baffling. I'm positive after the hit occured he rallied on about the unsafe rink... he's always been for improving boards, glass, nets, and player equipment to reduce injuries. He absolved Chara by simply toting the NHL's line of a hockey play gone bad. But now he blames Pacioretty for provoking Chara.

So which is it, Don?

Anyways, glad to see you back watching the Habs again, E. Although I will miss your mall hockey reports.

E said...

thank you, anonymi! although if you do come back repeatedly, give me a name by which to identify you, so that you don't all bleed together into one gigantic amorphous anonymonster in my mind.

punkster- unfortunately, it's usually not this goofy. but come back anyway.

sask- hey, i've still got a few asian hockey articles in the works, but they're longish and serious, so i'm not rushing them. and i rather hope that my experiences of the game over there continue to inform my perspective on it here. so the mall hockey isn't gone forever. besides, the boy and i have even more exciting further destinations in mind (uae? argentina? thailand?). it's not gonna be all-nhl forever around here.

zach CaNdOiT said...

Listen buddy(E) i don't give a fuck of who you think you are , Don Cherry is in Canadian history , Scott Stevens won't give a shit of how many games you give him , that's how is father taught him how to play , to hit the good players , your saying he shouldn't of done that , if he hadn't of done those hits he wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame and no one would have ever said - He hits like Stevens