The Barnstormer: Hockey’s Worst Year

The following can be found in its entirety on The Barnstormer. Link below.

Jim Hughson didn’t utter a word. As the final minutes of the 2011-2012 NHL season came to a close, CBC’s Hughson turned off his microphone, took a breath, leaned back in the booth, and did what more sports broadcasts should. He let the images tell the story. The game clock slowed towards its destiny. The crowd stood, and cheered, as crowds tend to do. But not with a desperate fervor, or the pain of relief, but by way of habit, and tradition. Gloves and sticks and helmets were discarded. Grown men, proud men, cried and embraced. An aging goaltender, a native Montrealer, left the ice for what may have been the final time. A smug commissioner, an enemy of hockey patriots, stepped onto the ice. He was not booed, which is a custom unbeknownst to a Southern California crowd. He handed the Cup, a sacred chalice, to a 27-year-old from Ithaca, New York, a grinder, a winger who plays with grit, with sandpaper, “the way the game should be played”. A character guy. He’ll drop the gloves, you know? The Cup, the oldest of its kind, gets passed from player to player to coach to trainer to general manager. Slowly, reluctantly, one-by-one, they left the ice. The crowd remained standing. The crowd remained cheering.

To an outsider, it would appear to be the culmination of a beautiful season, the peak of winter’s game’s crescendo. The anthemic refrain that fades to a contented quiet. But that would be false. It would be a lie. Because beneath the tears, the character, the hyperbole, the pageantry, is what the moment really was. This, was the end of hockey’s worst year.

It began as last season ended. It began with a death.

Continue reading on The Barnstormer.

Time for the CBC to Put Don Cherry to Bed

Hockey, and in particular the NHL, is at an interesting crossroads. After a nightmare off-season in which the sport’s flaws and failures were exposed, the coming season will be a watershed moment for Canada’s favourite activity outside of beer and weather discourse. With the NBA in a labour dispute the NHL has an opportunity to have the North American sporting scene to itself after the Super Bowl. And although hockey will never have ratings issues in Canada, the return of the Jets to Winnipeg and an improved Toronto Maple Leafs team should increase the sport’s national visibility to an all-time high. In consideration of this increased exposure it’s time the CBC took into account its responsibility as the rights-holder of the sport’s crown jewel, Hockey Night in Canada, and the crucial nature of the sport’s year, and fire Don Cherry and Ron MacLean.

Don Cherry has been espousing closed-minded ignorant childish opinions on the CBC for nearly 30 years. For a long while, it was somewhat amusing in a nationalistic way. It would never be seen on an American network. For that matter, it would never be seen on any other network. Anywhere. “Coach’s Corner” is ultimately very Canadian. It’s a caricature of sports commentary, an homage to the self-deprecating and humble manner in which Canadians can laugh at themselves and each other. “Coach’s Corner” would be a hit on Saturday Night Live. It’s a parody. Near brilliant comedy. The segment has a one-camera setup, because early efforts to teach Cherry how to manage multiple cameras ultimately failed. Cherry quite often gets players names wrong, notably Jarome Iginla (Igilina, or Ingila), Roberto Luongo (Lulongo), as well as the surname of every player born east of Newfoundland and west of Victoria. His suits are a national punch line, and would make Liberace blush. He cheers for the Leafs and the Bruins, openly, and hates the Canadiens and most things Quebecois. He sings the praises of tough players, players equipped with grit and sandpaper, players who hit and fight, and after the game drink beer and bed women. He uses the pejorative “Redneck” as a positive. He hates “Pinkos” and “Commies” and the sissies on the Left. When he isn’t on TV, he’s at rinks in Mississauga and Pickering and Ajax watching midget and peewee games, which would be creepy if he wasn’t Don Cherry. During the summers he sits on his porch on Wolfe Island with a shotgun and a Molson Canadian. He’s a War of 1812 buff. He supports Rob Ford and Stephen Harper. He’s had a series of female Bull Terriers named Blue. He hates cats.

His partner for the bulk of the 30 years has been Ron MacLean, who at some point was a sports journalist of sorts, who has deteriorated into and embraced the parodic nature of his role. He is Cherry’s straight man. Cheech to his Chong. Abbott to his Costello. Wayne to his Shuster. MacLean’s job is the simplest in pro sports broadcasting. He asks Cherry about, you know, stuff, and Cherry talks about it. Or yells about it, rather. Then MacLean makes a really bad pun, and the segment ends. The only exception being the segments where Cherry talks about fallen soldiers and policemen, and then cries a bit after calling them brave and beautiful. (Seriously. The fact that Lorne Michaels hasn’t pilfered “Coach’s Corner” as a running skit on SNL is beyond me.)

MacLean should act as a voice of reason. He should be Cherry’s conscience. Our conscience. He should verbally slap Cherry across the face, knock him down a peg or eleven. Over the past few years, and notably since his very public contract dispute with the CBC, MacLean has developed quite the ego. Though he still facilitates Cherry’s insanity, he speaks with more of an air of arrogance than he did before. He refers to players and management by their nicknames and first names. He takes every opportunity to discuss his minor league refereeing.  He speaks of the game’s issues in absolutes. Worst of all, he has a frighteningly diverse knowledge of Canadian Indie rock bands, and is taken to quoting lyrics in intros. Actually, I correct myself. Worst of all MacLean enables Cherry. He is a walking talking bottle of scotch with a straw holding a loaded syringe next to an addict. He completes the parody to perfection.

Except it isn’t a parody. Padgett Powell, the brilliant American writer, once told a writing workshop I was in that a parody requires the author giving his audience permission to laugh. And the problem has become that “Coach’s Corner” is no longer amusing. The CBC has been complicit in allowing the segment to continue, in allowing Cherry and MacLean a pulpit from which to preach to the masses every Saturday night. And the sermons are racist, ignorant, ill-informed, baseless, self-serving, childish, offensive rants that have no place on television, let alone on the public broadcaster. If the CBC took the two off the air tomorrow, there would certainly be public outcry, but not lower ratings for Hockey Night in Canada. Hockey is our scotch and loaded syringe. It’s our addiction by birthright. And in its most important hour, intelligent, informed, and thoughtful opinion needs to be at the forefront of the discourse. The CBC is wasting the forum, and insulting us all the while.

The best argument in favour of the dismissal of Cherry and MacLean, is that it is hard to believe that any other broadcaster would hire them. There is no competition for their services. And if no one else wants them, why should the CBC? TSN and Sportsnet and their various properties, while certainly not perfect in their approach to covering hockey, have at least taken to hiring progressive and informed voices. Bob McKenzie, Jeff Blair, Stephen Brunt, Damien Cox, Elliotte Friedman, Dave Hodge, Bruce Arthur, James Duthie, Pierre McGuire, Gord Miller, and Michael Farber, just to name a few, are professionals. They are keenly aware of the sports flaws, as well as cognizant of its evolution. They’re not perfect. They’ve been complicit themselves in ignoring some the sports issues like concussions and drug abuse. But they’re not xenophobes. They’re not troglodytes. They’re not racists. They’re not idiots. They’re not Cherry and MacLean.

Last night on “Coach’s Corner” Cherry pushed his antiquated opinions too far. After the suicides this summer of NHL enforcers Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak, and Rick Rypien several former fighters bravely came out and spoke openly and honestly about their own struggles with the role, as well as their addictions and troubles with drugs and alcohol that they feel were brought on by having to literally fight for their dinners. It was an example of selfless and generous humility in the face of tragedy that should have been (and was by many outlets) celebrated and commended. But not by Cherry, and not by MacLean. Instead, Cherry berated the former players, called them out as it were.

“The ones that I am really disgusted with … are the bunch of pukes that fought before: Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan and Jim Thomson.”

“[They say] ‘Oh, the reason that they’re drinking, [taking] drugs and alcoholics is because they’re fighting.’ You turncoats, you hypocrites. If there’s one thing I’m not it’s a hypocrite. You guys were fighters, and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did. You people that are against fighting, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You took advantage of that to make your point on fighting.”

- from The Globe and Mail

Anyone who has struggled with addiction or depression, or witnessed those struggles first hand, knows how difficult it is to talk about it, let alone talk about it publicly. What Cherry did was make the discussion about him. He changed the focus. He is a child who had an on-air tantrum. And at a time when pugilism in hockey and its connection to serious mental issues need to be argued by the enlightened and informed, Cherry and his partner MacLean have retarded the progress of an important discussion. The CBC needs to be a responsible public broadcaster and remove “Coach’s Corner” from Hockey Night in Canada. This is a time for serious discourse on a troubled sport, and the children need to be sent from the room so the adults can talk.

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Hit Somebody

Wade Belak, a 35-year-old former NHL player, took his own life in a downtown Toronto hotel yesterday afternoon. He left behind a wife and two children, a promising post-hockey career, and a hockey culture that has bred two other suicides this summer. Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien played similar hockey roles to Belak. They fought. They hit. They instigated and engaged. There was no power play time. They didn’t kill penalties. They were not on the ice for important face-offs. They were enforcers. Tough guys. Fighters. Des hommes fort. They played the role from their early teens right up to their deaths. And what we, the fans, are left with is trying to understand what role we’ve played in their unfortunate deaths. At the end of the day, the Canadian hockey community, its fan base, and the media that covers the sport are not responsible, but guilty.

Canadians pride themselves on being the gatekeepers to the kingdom of hockey. The protectors of its national sport; it is our obsession, our heart, our long Winters and early Springs. We are born into a culture that idolizes teenagers, that is taught to respect not just the offensively gifted and the defensively sublime, but also those with grit. Those with sandpaper to their games. Players who will stick up for their teammates. And we love a good fighter. Because those boys are the salt of the earth. The real hockey players. The real Canadians. They grow up playing on makeshift rinks on family farms. They shoot pucks at the barn until their mothers force them to bed. They wear hockey sweaters like skin. They’re everything we ever wanted to be.

This, of course, is all bullshit. This is the image of hockey that has been force fed to us by an all-powerful hockey community. These fallacies fill their coffers, fund their sport, and feed our national pride. It’s an image they need to portray in order to hide decades of sanctioned abuse of young boys who just want to play a game. How is it that we, as a populace, allow boys to be taken from their homes as young as 15-years-old in order to play hockey in a community they don’t live in. To be left in the charge of strangers with questionable motives and goals. Left with the Graham James’ and David Frosts’ of the world. Shame on us. Would Canadian hockey die if players were only allowed to play within a certain circumference of their hometown? Of course not, but that’s not a benevolent attitude that buys into the hockey monster.

And once removed from parents all too willing to allow the move (because after all who doesn’t want their child to be the next Gretzky or Crosby or Kordic?) what does it do to a teenager to be told by an adult to go beat up another teenager? How is that a tolerable culture? In any other setting it’s barbarism. It’s child abuse. It’s a horrific act withholding the tools children need to become adults. It’s teaching a culture of violence, a culture that dictates that the less talented, the less gifted, must resort to acts of pugilism elsewhere criminal in order to survive.

What happens to these boys when they become men in an adult world? When they are left outside the rink in places like Nashville and Atlanta and New York, and not Red Deer or Saskatoon or Sudbury? Places that do not worship at the altar of hockey, that do not ignore the right and just and sane for three more wins, for one more season, for a shot at a silver cup. I think we know what happens, and we need to look no further than John Kordic, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, and now Wade Belak. But what of those that never made it to the NHL, to the show? What about those who never made it past Red Deer’s penalty box? What happens to them?

Hockey has become a diseased culture, a deeply flawed community unable or unwilling to tend to its problems. And I believe the media; the ‘journalists’ who cover the sport have played a role in allowing the downward spiral of the game. The media is meant to be the fourth estate, meant to hold those responsible accountable. But the hockey media, and in particular the Canadian hockey media, have a long history of ignoring hockey’s flaws. It dates back to Alan Eagleson, and progresses right through amphetamines, the movement of Canadian franchises, the sexual abuse scandals, ignoring steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, concussions, and now the mental fragility of the players kept on the game’s periphery.

Too often the Canadian hockey media has been populated by fanboys, by those who yearned to move away from their parents at 15 and weren’t talented enough, so they turned to covering the sport they loved. And as much as they love the sport, they love feeling as if they are a part of it. They call players, coaches, and management by sports’ simplest collection of nicknames: Burkie, Collie, Ripper, Gomer, and so on. They report rumours and not fact, as if the rules of journalism don’t apply because they’re just covering hockey. They impose themselves on the discourse not to evolve it, but rather to be a function of it. To be a part of the culture. What should be the entity that protects the Rick Rypiens, and Sheldon Kennedys, and Theoren Fleurys, and Derek Boogaards, that should have held the sport accountable, instead has become the entity that allowed these atrocities under its watch. Shame on them.

After Wade Belak’s death was confirmed yesterday, there was an outpouring of sadness from the hockey community. There was a non-stop flow of stories about what a great guy he was. “Great in the room.” “A great teammate.” And from the ever ignorant and unaccountable media: “A great quote,” “Made our jobs easier.” And yet, who was being a great teammate to Belak in a broader sense? Who was making his job easier? There were certainly some calls for the NHL to be more accountable given the deaths of the three enforcers so close together. No one I’ve read was holding themselves, or the community at large in question. The only solace I could take, in moments away from my outrage, was that I was glad that it was the off-season. I don’t think I could have handled a Coach’s Corner on Belak. To watch the clown prince of hockey, Donald S. Cherry, talk about Belak and Boogaard and Rypien, and yet not hold himself or his jester Ron MacLean somewhat accountable in their blindness.

Cherry often talks about fallen soldiers and law enforcement officers, nearly coming to tears as he tells the audience of their untimely deaths. But what about the deaths occurring in his own backyard? What about those who are living within the philosophy that he espouses only to fall victim to its folly? It’s quite sad that Cherry seems totally oblivious to his power, to his standing within his community. A better man, a more responsible voice, would be leading the charge to reevaluate, to reconsider how all of us are a part of these deaths. But instead the community will pave over their graves with grit and sandpaper. And as typical Canadians we’ll soldier on oblivious and complacent, and we’ll quickly forget about three young men whose lives ended too early, because we’ve got dreams of Saturday nights, and hockey fights, and a vicarious run at the Stanley Cup. Shame on all of us.