I admit to cheering (almost crying) when Tommy Douglas was announced as our Greatest Canadian on the popular CBC show. Hey, it’s gloomy times for the Left, and we take any victory we can get, no matter how small. Yet my celebrations were cut short when host Wendy Mesley conveyed the bad news: Don Cherry ranked seventh in the contest, just pipping Sir John A. and Alexander Graham Bell. I’ve always thought that the Rock’em Sock’em videos make a great contribution to nation-building, but surely they don’t surpass Confederation or the telephone?
Cherry has made his living as a mouthpiece for all that’s wrong with our national sport (I know it’s really lacrosse, but who are we kidding?). Gretzky, number 10 in the poll, is known for his finesse, skill and sportsmanship; Cherry is known for his buffoonery, xenophobia and serious lack of dress sense. So, to what do we owe the love that Cherry receives from coast-to-coast? It’s not just the flawed methodology of The Greatest Canadian, which has registered his popularity. One cannot watch Hockey Night in Canada without seeing some fan holding a sign stating “Cherry for Prime Minister.” And the man is mobbed at public appearances across the nation, from Orillia to Moose Jaw.
There’s something deeper at work, here. Cherry has a history of voicing right-wing, anti-Quebec, sexist opinions. He’ll often refer to players he doesn’t like as shooting, checking, skating or any other number of actions “like a girl.” Cherry advocates for public displays of violence in hockey, behaviour that is banned in almost every other sport. In the lead-up to the Iraq war, Cherry couldn’t contain his support for the Bush regime and his disdain for the Liberal government. Wearing a stars-and-stripes necktie on his long-running “Coaches Corner” segment, Cherry laid into co-host Ron MacLean for being neutral on the war and criticized the Montreal fans for booing the American national anthem in a game earlier that week. Cherry’s anti-French vitriol has been on display more than once, whether he is mocking the language, refusing to pronounce Qu b cois names correctly, or calling Quebeckers “whiners.” He’s railed against the “foreign” influence in the NHL ever since European players started making their way across the Atlantic to ply their trade in the world’s top league. Cherry doesn’t like European players taking jobs from good ol’ Canadian boys: “I worked in construction for 25 years while I was playin’ and after. I know what it’s like to have somebody take your job,” he once said.
Cherry represents all that is wrong with Canadian hockey. Go to any rink on a Friday night and you’ll find much of what Cherry espouses being put into practice. Fighting amongst young boys who are playing out certain masculinities that equate strength and worth with violence and intimidation. This behaviour spills over into the stands, as parents yell and often physically confront one another. Players who shy away from a body-check are called “girls.” And, as testaments from a number of players of colour reveal, Canadian hockey is rife with racism and discrimination (the informative CBC radio documentary, Black Ice, documents this).
There’s no doubting Cherry has become an icon for the country’s hockey faithful. But he represents the worst of our game and - more than that - the dark side of our nation.
This article appeared in the January/February 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Indian Country).