Don Cherry is like licorice: you love or you hate him. But while licorice is judged according to its primary function as food, Cherry’s work as an actual hockey analyst is ignored by critics who focus on him as a political and cultural symbol. They take for granted that he is a tawdry bombastic caveman, representing nothing but abject savagery in the game. Most don’t watch his segments, but they read his headlines, and they’re outraged.
This is a shame, as no analyst enlarges our understanding of hockey like Don Cherry. He should be judged primarily by this.
In the bland, banal world of professional hockey talk, what passes for analysis is often merely praising a sequence of events we know in advance leads up to a goal. Only Cherry’s “Coach’s Corner” is pedagogical, featuring plays that don’t necessarily amount to goals. Bolstered by video evidence he teaches his viewers, explaning how to defend a two-on-one, how to block a shot, how to absorb a hit properly, and more.
Cherry alone sees trends in advance. For years, he campaigned against hitting from behind, no-touch icing and elbow pads that don’t double as weapons. Now that Cherry’s old pet ideas are gaining mainstream traction, he also has new warnings: recent Coach’s Corners convincingly suggest players are adjusting to a recent crackdown on head hits by hitting lower, dangerously close to the knees. There has been a rash of these hits, unseen in years. But in an age of unprecedented hyper-concern over player safety, many mainstream analysts avoid criticising any rule aimed at enhancing player safety for fear of being branded cavemen. Cue Cherry, the fearless, eagle-eyed paragon of hockey wisdom, our contemporary Cassandra, a besmirched prophet we ignore at our peril.
Yet Cherry’s critics are increasingly hostile, believing his attitude is responsible for the rash of concussions in the NHL (even though the vast majority of sidelined players aren’t fighters). They say the game has passed him by to an unacceptable degree. They falsely believe Cherry stands for goonery over skill. These critics can’t reconcile Cherry’s gaudy persona with his nuanced moral code: Cherry loves tireless skaters, shooters, hitters, and defenders. He demands accountability: don’t commit cheap shots if you’re unwilling to fight. Keeping this balance requires both honest forwards who don’t fight and fighters. Crucially, Cherry also demands his fighters score. His segment features fighters fighting and scoring. Don knows hockey is tough without fighting, as is explained by his love for Yzerman and Gilmour. Also consider that Cherry recently singled out the skill of diminutive forward Stephen Weiss. Cherry’s favourites aren’t just blood-thirsty kill machines. They’re tough hockey players—prototypical Canadian players.
Whatever you think about his loud suits, or his political or military opinions, it shouldn’t distract from the substance of his superb hockey analysis. If only those calling for Cherry’s retirement cared as much about hockey as he does.