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Don Cherry’s comments speak to the history of hockey and Canadian identity

Don Cherry speaking his mind, something not many Canadians do, has started a national conversation.
Jordan Goldstein Montreal, QC

Don Cherry’s role as national hockey oracle is over. After a three-decade-plus run as host of Coach’s Corner, a beloved 1st intermission segment on Canada’s most watched TV show, Sportsnet and the former NHL head coach are parting ways. This comes on the heels of Cherry’s impassioned Saturday night rant chastising Canadians, new and old, for not honoring Canada’s veterans by wearing symbolic poppies. It’s fair to say that Cherry’s choice of words, specifically “you people,” were bluntly delivered and any chance to clear up the confusion went by the wayside with Cherry doubling down on his intention and meaning.

Unlike the 2019 Canadian Federal election, Canadians are actually fired up about this. Those on all sides of the issue have flooded social media, radio call-in shows, and newspaper and web pages, covering all sides of the issue. If you don’t think hockey has a valuable role in dictating and projecting Canadian national identity, this is your lesson. You cannot find anybody in the country not discussing Cherry in one way or another. But what you haven’t seen is a historical understanding of why hockey matters so much, and specifically it’s relation to Canadian identity. It’s that story that I want to share, as I think it will help illuminate why Canadians of all stripes are burning up over Cherry once again.

Ice hockey emerged in Canada as a codified sport in 1875 and by 1892 it was already hailed as Canada’s national winter game. In my PhD dissertation (soon to be a book) I explored how a physical symbol, the Stanley Cup, represented a partial political solution to Canadian disunity, specifically its aid in promoting a unified Canadian national culture. Basically, sport provided a way for the disparate Canadian population to imagine themselves as belonging to the same national community. Ice hockey represented to many early Canadian nationalists the presentation of the values and virtues attendant the new and aspiring nation.

Parliamentarian and hockey player R.T McKenzie wrote in 1893 that “[Ice hockey’s] whole tendency is to encourage and develop in boys that love of fair play and manly sport so characteristic of the British gentleman. With so many advantages, both intrinsic and extrinsic, one of the most potent influences in building up a race of men, hardy and self-reliant, will, throughout the future, be by Canada’s national winter game.” This quote holds the key into understanding the current controversy embroiling Canada.

On one hand, it testifies to the endurance of hockey as a tool to teach Canadian values. Ice Hockey became grafted onto Canadian identity because it spoke to the experience of being Canadian during the formative years of the Dominion. As British colonists, Canadians laid claim to the inheritance of immense political and cultural capital but needed to break free of their British progenitors to form a new nationality.

The British themselves used sport, mainly Cricket, to explain their national character that emerged in the aftermath of the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution.  In the famous 19th century novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays author Thomas Hughes uses a scene between Tom and the Master to highlight this valuable connection.

“Come, none of your irony, Brown,” answers the master. “I’m beginning to understand the game [cricket] scientifically. What a noble game it is too!”

“Isn’t it? But it’s more than a game, It’s an institution,” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Arthur, “the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men.”

“The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think,” went on the master, “it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win, but that his side may.”

Ice hockey, with its connection to the wilderness best represented the Canadian permutation on British sporting nationalism. Canadians were British, but cleansed of the sins of the old world, namely hereditary aristocracy, lived a more egalitarian and more rugged lifestyle. Ice hockey perfectly captured that blend. For over 125 years, hockey has represented an image of Canadians that has endured longer than any other indigenous (originating within Canada) cultural association.

But ice hockey has also been a place to define difference and exclude. It began with Canada’s indigenous peoples and the working classes through the stringent Amateur code, upheld by White middle-class sportsmen. In Nova Scotia, Black hockey players created the Coloured Hockey League in 1895 because White players would not allow them to compete in their leagues. Once freed from the biological shackles used to restrict women’s athletic participation, female hockey players won over crowds but eventually could not sustain their momentum and after the 1940s the game remained closed to them for decades. Over time the game, in addition to Canadian society, evolved and welcomed many that could now claim to be integrated both into hockey and also Canadian culture.

Don Cherry represents both of these historical currents. His Canadian chauvinism materialized in pleas for Canadian’s to play a Canadian style, to honour our past British lineage through a reverence of the military and nods to Canada’s rural communities, but also could turn off those historically disconnected to those roots. His admonishment of European players as “soft” harkens back to a Canadian distaste for effete British games like Cricket.

Often, it’s the historical roots that provide justification for why a seemingly minor incident turns into a full-blown cultural crisis. Don Cherry was Canada’s only truly nationally condoned irreverent broadcaster. It’s not that he makes controversial comments, it’s the fact that this comment touched a nerve that stretches back to Canada’s founding. Hockey traditionally carries Canadian’s ideals about themselves. It’s clear they still do. No matter what side you fall on, Don has sparked a national conversation about what it means to be a Canadian today.

Just as the gameplay of hockey evolves, its meaning to the country does as well. If you think that Cherry’s remarks are only about racism and bigotry, you’re missing the issue. If you think that the reaction and firing are instances of cancel culture run amok, you’re also missing the issue. At its core, this is a battle over how a multicultural country reconciles glorification of a past that many in the country want to villainize.

Both sides have valid points. It’s an important conversation, one we need to have. We should thank Don Cherry. But such a complex issue demands nuance, attention to detail, accurate assessment of diverse viewpoints, and the ability to speak freely regarding one’s opinion. Cherry sparked the conversation by abstaining from the first three but nailing the final one.

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Jordan Goldstein
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