Tuesday, February 10, 2009

SPORTS: In Defense of Don Cherry ... Sort Of

Donald S. Cherry can be a polarizing figure. Duhhh!

I have no problem separating Don Cherry from his public rants. I've met him without the benefit of an audience to play up to and I can tell you that Cherry is a likable guy. Back in my days in radio, I had occasion to discuss some business opportunities with Ken Mackenzie, former publisher of The Hockey News. Ken and I were discussing a TV show to replace the then just-canceled This Week in Hockey. My idea was a sports trivia show, set in a bar. Ken was squiring me around to various places, checking the pulse of various people about the concept. It was going to star Dave Hodge as the bartender/quizmaster. (The show never came off, of course)

As circumstances happened, we ended up at Cherry's home. When I met him there, there were no mile-high shirt-collars and bombastic suits. He was working in his yard in an outfit I might have worn, a t-shirt and sweatpants. I was treated as warmly as anybody could hope for, especially being a member of the fifth estate. Guess being with Ken had its perks. But I will tell you, the conversation with Cherry was genial, informational and I hope I made a friend that day. I haven't tested that since, but I hope so. I like the guy.

Now, I am also on friendly terms with Chris Zelkovich, the media columnist for the Toronto Star. He worked in Mississauga, while I was the Assistant Sports Editor for the Brampton Guardian, at a time when there was still some competition in the local weeklies wars. I respected him then, I respect him now.

The two of them don't get along all that well. Chris has something to say about Cherry's Saturday night Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada in his round-up column just about every time it comes out on Mondays. Chris really, REALLY feels Cherry's promotion of some of the uglier elements of hockey is off-putting. I'm trying to soft-toe this, but Chris occasionally seems as stridently anti-Cherry as any member of the media is. I say seems, because I don't think Chris is being all that unfair with the curmudgeonly old coach.

Yes, it's true. I disagree with Cherry about violence in hockey, the foreign element in hockey and his on-screen boasting about being right. I don't think all of the show Saturday's is core Cherry. Trust me, he knows the names he mangles a LOT better than people might think. He plays to the roughhouse section of the crowd and mispronouncing Patrick Roy's last name makes him a hero with them. But that's an act.

He isn't as xenophobic as he's portrayed. He IS virulently pro-Canadian and in being so, comes off as a Euro-baiter and hater. He wants desperately for a local lad to succeed and will tromp on all of those who stand in the Canuck kid's path, be they Europeans, officials or media types. His continual use of homophobia in putting down those and that, that he doesn't like is beneath him. On the other hand, there hasn't been a bigger supporter of women's hockey in the major media in this country. He treats women as hockey equals at whatever level he finds them. He pooh-poohs women participation at the highest levels of men's hockey, but fights for them to have equal hockey-playing rights otherwise.

Don Cherry is a dichotomy.

Baseline, he's a good guy. He is proudly Canadian and is not blowing smoke with his heart-felt support for our troops in the armed forces. A little bit of him dies when he does one of his in-memoriam bits on Coach's Corner. A lot's been chopped away this decade.

He IS getting older. Sometimes, he lets his act get ahead of him. The Don Sanderson situation has affected him badly, undermining his stance on fighting, and leaving him in a bad spot when mis-interpreting 'supporting' statements he believes were made to him by Sanderson's father. The fallout over the elder Sanderson taking him to task for that first surfaced in Damien Cox's blog on Monday. This situation, along with the now-undeniable momentum to end fighting in hockey as a regulated, but allowed, sideshow, is a banana peel in Cherry's path to the future.

I fear he might be the rock that can't move with the times. The rock that withstands the tidal wave and proclaims, "I'm right, dammit!" On this, he's wrong. Just as he has been wrong about it all along. That said, he's been right about so much, not the least of which is the hitting from behind campaign, that I hope Cherry finds some way to bend with the times.

But I really wonder if this might be the start of the end of a guy who's been right a lot, just not on this one.

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