Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Poppies

I can’t believe I’m typing these words, but: Let’s talk about Don Cherry.

Full Disclosure: I’m not a hockey fan. For most of my life, I have only been tangentially aware of Don Cherry’s role in Canadian popular culture. Unlike many fans for whom Cherry’s rants are a beloved tradition, I have no skin in the game.

I have been trying to empathize with said fans — to look at the squinty, scowling, leather-faced troll with endearment, or even respect. It’s not easy, but I can sort of see how one might, over time, grow to appreciate having him intrude upon your weekly pastime — a bit like a streaker at a soccer match, inappropriate but mildly amusing, I guess? Except this streaker has been on the payroll, flapping his gums (instead of his junk) for 40 years.

There, my biases are all on full display. If you keep reading, chances are you’re already on my side of Grapesgate, or whatever this tiresome controversy will end up being called. If you’re a die-hard Don Cherry fan, you’re probably not reading this in the first place. But for some reason, I feel the need to preach to the choir.

First of all: what a Canadian clusterf*ck, am I right? Hockey, check. Respect our Troops, check. Cultural diversity, aka “the immigrant problem,” check. The only way to make this more Canadian would be if Cherry had been astride a moose when he said [checks notes]:

“You people that come here… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that… These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

Cherry fans were screaming, “What’s the big deal?” before the clip was even over. It’s hard to track sides of an argument on the internet, but it really felt like the defense was in place long before anyone voiced their complaints. But voice them they did; in fact, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council received so many complaints about Cherry’s words that they broke the phones. Within 24 hours (and in the middle of Remembrance Day), Sportsnet announced they were letting Cherry go. Unceremoniously, he went from all of Canada’s bigoted, loud-mouthed uncle to just another bigot.

Or is he?!? He didn’t mention immigrants specifically! He didn’t single out immigrants of colour! And in any case, it’s all in defense of veterans, and nothing is more important than respecting our veterans

I’m not going to engage with any of that. This incident was important, for reasons I’ll get into shortly, but there’s little value in picking apart this particular offense when it should be obvious to anyone, especially his fans, that the guy has had it coming for a long, long time. Don Cherry’s Wikipedia page has more text devoted to “Political Views and Controversy” than it does to “Opinions on Hockey” — despite the fact that he has been paid to opine about hockey for four decades. No one should be surprised that he got canned for mouthing off. That’s his whole schtick.

And it’s what his fans love about him, I guess (it ain’t his fashion sense). When you happen to share the views of a loudmouth, then his rants can be deeply satisfying. Not only do they provide confirmation of your own ideas (from a national celebrity, no less), but they also come with a built-in exemption valve, because, hey, Grapes is nuts. Chill out, snowflakes. Nobody takes him seriously.

Putting controversy aside for a moment, here are some perfectly valid reasons why Don Cherry shouldn’t keep appearing in Hockey Night in Canada:

  1. He is 85 years old, and has been doing the same job for 38 years.
  2. He doesn’t actually do his job (i.e. talk about hockey).
  3. In the 38 years since he started Coach’s Corner, hockey has changed substantially, while his views have not.

Yet combined, I’d say those three arguments form a profile of Don Cherry fans: older, conservative Canadians who, I’ll grant, probably know more about hockey than I do, but who also want hockey to symbolize something beyond just a friendly game.

Don’s fans love him because he is combative — just like the hockey he loved, and the hockey they loved. They cling to him as perhaps the last visible remnant of a part of Canadian identity that rarely rears its ugly head these days: hoser culture.

In fact, I think it’s no coincidence that “hoser” had its 15 minutes of fame in 1982, the year SCTV featured “Bob and Doug” segments in every single episode (by the time their film, Strange Brew, came out in 1983, the bubble had burst). 1982 was the same year Cherry began doing Coach’s Corner. Back then, being a semi-literate white dude with a chip on your shoulder was… well, not exactly “cool,” but at least reasonably harmless.

But it’s 2019. And (circling back around to poppies and immigrants) being an angry white male in 2019 is dangerous — not because you’re liable to get fired for saying something “politically incorrect” (or, y’know, factually incorrect). Rather, it’s dangerous for others. Cherry’s “you people” attitude is exactly what Canadians don’t need in an age where nationalism and even separatism are extant threats to our own citizens’ well-being.

Strip away Cherry’s sound & fury, and his core message Sunday night was about who gets to be Canadian. From his perspective, true Canadians respect their veterans — and they do so in a highly specific and symbolic way, by wearing a poppy. And people who don’t wear the poppy aren’t merely “immigrants.” As his defenders point out, he never used the word. Instead, he used a far more insidious phrase: “you people.”

“You people” means that, to Don Cherry, in 2019, anyone who fails to perform Canadianness in his prescribed manner is not one of us. He didn’t say “immigrants” because he meant invaders.

Now, I don’t know if a judge would classify what he said as hate speech. I’m glad we have strong legal constraints in place for controlling hate speech, even if those laws compromise that other, ambiguous concept, “freedom of speech.” And I’m very glad that plenty of Canadians spoke out against Cherry’s inflammatory chauvinism, rendering a long-overdue public (if not official) ruling: if the only reason you play the game is to pick fights, then you need to be benched, for good.

Did I use good hockey talk there? He shoots, he scores!

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