Rennie: The last ravings of a mad man with Don Cherry

(Boctaoe/Flickr)

By: Scott Rennie, Managing Editor
@scott_rennie

Here’s my favourite Don Cherry story:

When he was the owner of the expansion Mississauga IceDogs (OHL), he refused to participate in the CHL Import Draft. Those selections, for the uninitiated, allow CHL teams to forgo their domestic draft picks to take a NHL draft eligible European player, eager to boost their own profile with North American scouts.

But Grapes wanted none of this, telling the Sudbury Star in early 2001:

“There’s some father out there that’s been getting up at 5 a.m. and his kid comes and he works until he’s 16-years-old. They pay taxes in this country, they’ve done everything they can, the kid has worked his butt off, and then they try out and he’s every bit as good as a European and he’s a Canadian, so what happens is that they’ve already brought the European over, paid his way over, they’re committed to the guy, so, even if the Canadian is a little bit better, he doesn’t make the club, and that’s happened time and time again. I don’t care what anyone says, there’s two Canadian kids not playing on every club, and it’s not fair.”

This is nonsense, of course. It’s one roster spot for a player who’s already developed on his European club’s dime. It’s almost the equivalent of a free agent signing in the pro game — a short-term, low-risk pickup of a player looking to a make a name for himself.

And while there’s no way to ever predict if injecting a young Swede or Russian would have made a difference in those first years, I can tell you this: in the seasons before Grapes allowed the selection of their first Euro (Igor Radulov in ’01), the IceDogs won just 16 games. Sixteen wins in three years? Beauty, eh?

I’m using this to show that being at the helm of a sports franchise — and a national sports commentator — requires a certain amount of open-mindedness. It’s like That Gretzky Thing where you go where the puck is going, not following it.

And if the 2011-12 NHL season gave us anything, it was a big reminder that Don Cherry is now far behind the game, following it along like an angry grandpa.

So as we await the beginning of the playoffs, let’s relive Cherry’s headline-grabbing rants of the year.

10.06.2011 — THE WORST PERIOD OF ALL TIME

This really sucked. Last offseason was ugly for the game. The deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak triggered a crisis in the sport, raising questions about the safety of fighters and the place of fighting in the game. There’s really nothing that can be said in this space that wasn’t written months ago. We lost good men, and we’re still not sure why.

But instead of inflecting on these tragedies, Cherry targeted retired toughs Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson and Jim Thomson — painting them as chickenhearted cowards for somehow betraying the fighting fraternity with their comments regarding fighting after the tragedies. “HYPOCRITES!” Grapes yelled at no one.

And while it was ridiculous for the ‘pukes’ to respond by threatening Cherry with a law suit, Cherry had painted a complex situation with the broadest of brushes. What Nilan said or what Grimson said was much more nuanced (or even much more non-controversial) than how they were portrayed on Coach’s Corner. It was only Thomson who cut right to the quick about a fighting ban.

So Cherry was not only being ridiculous, he was wrong. But Cherry makes a lot of his money selling DVDs of guys punching each other in the face. His ideas about hockey were brewed in the 1960s, but we’re at a different place now. If people are evaluating the current game based on the experiences of its former players, that’s a good thing. Things change. We don’t need to be chasing the puck.

3.6.2012 — THE BLOOD’S IN THE WATER

Thankfully, Cherry’s next brouhaha had less to do with life and death, and more to do with his raw hatred of Leafs GM Brian Burke.

Obviously, Brian Burke has a gigantic ego, which might have been part of the reason the he approached the CBC with misgivings regarding Cherry’s comments about his team. But Toronto wasn’t the only team to do so, because Don Cherry annoys a lot of people. And he has an unmatched soapbox to do so.

This particular episode saw Cherry to take it upon himself to solve the Maple Leafs’s woes — the lack of Ontario-born players. Cherry did it with his usual class — deriding American college players, and saying that the Leafs are the only organization that cheers “…When Canada loses.”

Because Cherry is a nonsensical old grandpa, he also said “We pay his salary” “…And finally they sing something at the end, and they are all bad,” and “Give me five bees for a quarter.”

Okay, not the last one.

Forget the personal attacks that follow this gem of a tirade. When Cherry yells “Get with it!” at Ron Maclean, remember the ‘It’ is 1977, and Cherry is coaching the Bruins to the finals, his suits are considered understated and we are all afraid of the Soviets.

But if Cherry was on the frontlines of the Bruins today, there would be no Zdeno Chara or David Krejci. So it’s a bit rich to call out Burke for limiting his talent pool.

But Cherry is also wrong: Burke has no aversion to Ontario-born players. Nazem Kadri, Stuart Percy and Jesse Blacker are all pipeline players from my home province. If Burke has missed out on other elite Ontario players, it’s because he does a good job of dealing his first-rounders, where the best OHLers usually go.

And further, the best players from every corner of the world now play in the NHL. We’re never going to live in an era again where some unlucky superstars are unable to play with the other superstars. The game is faster and better for it, and for Cherry to contrive a narrative where Burke is sinking the Leafs because he wants only NCAA players is simply nuts.

And this isn’t even like those befuddled and bitter scouts in Moneyball who are worried for their livelihoods during baseball’s statistical revolution — this is just an old man who can’t figure out why the Leafs don’t just draft all of the Markham Waxers.

4.7.2012 — I WAS TOLD BY WOMAN NAMED OLGA I LOOK LIKE A UKRANIAN EGGPLANT

It was about the time that Marc Crawford sent Ray Bourque over the boards to shoot on Dominik Hasek at the Nagano Olympics that a lot of people realized that Canadian hockey was floating off into space. I mean, I would blame Gary Suter, but still.

But Sidney Crosby’s ascendance shows that these things ebb and flow — if the best player in the world isn’t Canadian all of the time, he is at least for some of the time.

This is something to be celebrated — for reasons of patriotism, sure, but also as a testament to grass roots hockey in this nation. And Don Cherry is the first person to wrap himself up in the flag when it comes to Canadian greatness in anything.

And there’s nothing I can do to defend Crosby’s mastery against the carping of a VHS huckster like Cherry, besides that I think all of the best players in any sport are sort of malcontents. It just comes with the territory of having the most at stake.

Remember this clip from 24/7? I suspect Crosby feels like that all the time. And if that frustration manifests itself into chirping and shoving after the whistle, then so be it. We are all richer for Crosby’s comeback — let’s not let Grapes (or John Tortorella or Craig Berube) ruin that for us.

Viewed separately, all of these Cherry controversies could just be the last ravings of a mad man. But woven together, they represent something worse.

Not only is Cherry so far behind the times, but he also shows how quickly the old guard of the sport is to eat its own. Sandpapery players as the heart and soul of the game — until they start to speak their minds, and stray from the narrative that sells DVDs — then they are pukes. We want kids everywhere to grow up playing hockey — but when ego is on the line; only Ontario kids are worth defending. Canada is the world’s best hockey nation — but Canada’s best player better keep his yap shut.

But now it’s the playoffs — the stiffs will be stapled to the bench, unlikely players from unlikely backgrounds become just as vital as their most pedigreed teammates, and the most brilliant players will shine. Let’s let Cherry keep chasing the puck, while we celebrate what’s best about this game.

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