Someone needs to call Don Cherry out on his childish xenophobic rants. Regarded as a legendary ice hockey analyst and Canadian icon, Don Cherry is known for his often inflammatory and controversial remarks, but it seems that the general public recurrently lets his ethnocentric diatribes slide rather than holding him accountable.
For years, Cherry has been characterizing European players as “cowards” for not understanding the “Canadian way” of hockey. When asked to comment on why he didn’t have any European players on his junior team, he said, “They call me a racist because I don’t want any Europeans coming to play for my Ice Dogs. If a kid comes over here and becomes a Canadian, I’ll put him on in a minute. But I will not parachute him in so that he can grab the money and run.” Cherry took similar jabs at the dazzling Czech center, Jaromir Jagr, accusing him of being “everything that’s wrong with the NHL. He gets hit, he goes down and stays there. Get up!” In the same interview, Cherry compared Jagr to another hockey legend, Tim Horton, a player who, according to Cherry, would stay on the ice and finish his shift even if “blood would be coming down his face.” Apparently, Cherry thinks only Canadians know how to play “tough.”
So what’s eating at Don Cherry these days? See number 8 on the Washington Capitals, a remarkably talented Russian left-winger named Alexander Ovechkin. Actually, to say he is “remarkably talented” is an understatement. The guy is a magician with the puck and arguably the most exciting player to watch in the NHL today. Playing in his fourth season, Ovechkin not only led the league in goals, but he has also earned his place in the pantheon of hockey superstars. Cherry’s beef? Ovechkin’s goal celebrations are too “over-the-top.” That’s right. Ovechkin’s enthusiasm is too much for Cherry’s “Canadian” standards.
On CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry complained that Ovechkin was acting like “those goofy soccer guys” by “jumping up and down” after scoring goals. In pure dogmatic fashion, Cherry pointed at the screen and lectured Canadian kids not to act like Ovechkin. Instead, he tells kids that they should behave the “Canadian way” and act like Joe Thornton, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Jarome Iginla, and Bobby Orr (all Canadian-born players). I didn’t realize the NHL had a “Canadians only” stamp on it.
What’s more disturbing is how ethnocentric and racist Cherry’s presentation is. He shows clips of dark-skinned international soccer players jubilantly celebrating on the field, calls them “goofs” and says, “Look at this! This is what we want our hockey players to act with?” Then he shows clips of Ovechkin’s celebrations and yammers, “Look at this! Does he not remind you of a soccer player?” For those who missed it, here is the clip:
Cherry receives plenty of criticism for his remarks, but the problem is not just his unapologetic ego, it’s also how the media and the NHL simply brush off his words as if they don’t generate negative and stereotypical perceptions of European players (or any player who is not from North America). On the CBC Sports website, Cherry is showcased for his opinionated views, no matter how bigoted or how xenophobic, but the line needs to be drawn somewhere. Cherry undeniably crossed it right here (and it isn’t the first time either, he once went as far as saying Russian players have “zero heart”). Not holding him accountable is to ignore the weight of the issue altogether.
Around college campuses and street hockey courts, I hear hockey fans debating about Ovechkin’s exuberant celebrations. I’ve been watching ice hockey since 1997 when the Philadelphia Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals (and were swept by the Detroit Red Wings), and I’ve never heard this kind of debate before. It’s no doubt that the “celebration controversy” was generated by Don Cherry’s commentary, but whether people realize it or not, it reinforces this new idea that there is a Canadian/North American “unwritten law” on how hockey players are supposed to celebrate goals. When Ovechkin scored his 50th goal of the season, Cherry ripped on Ovechkin’s “hot stick” celebration and had these words for the young star, “Have a little class and do it right.” In other words: Be Canadian, otherwise you’re “threatening” the “Canadian way” of hockey and aren’t worthy of admiration or praise. It’s sort of like the Bush administration on ice.
The fact of the matter is that many aspiring hockey players admire Alexander Ovechkin, not because of his nationality, but for his extraordinary display of talent and leadership. What worries me is how people like Don Cherry want to make Ovechkin’s nationality an issue. It seems that he wants us to perceive Ovechkin’s style of play as “foreign” and “un-Canadian,” while making us forget the fact that Canadian-born players such as Theoren Fluery, Tiger Williams, Wayne Gretzky, and countless others have also displayed plenty of dramatic celebrations in the past.
Dictating how NHL players should celebrate their goals isn’t so much about hockey than it is about fascism. Calling all European players “cowards,” accusing them of having no “heart,” and then comparing them with “goofy” dark-skinned soccer players is not about hockey either. It’s called racism. If Don Cherry is not held accountable, then what’s to stop him and other sports commentators from making racially charged statements about athletes outside of North America? What’s to stop the xenophobia and ethnocentrism from spilling out on the ice? Everyone remembers what happened to that other Don (Imus), right?
It’s funny because amidst all this controversy, whether its Cherry yapping on about the “Canadian” way of hockey or our generation’s hockey fans engaging in superficial debates about goal celebrations, a simple truth lies beneath it all: Alexander Ovechkin is one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.
Great athletes don’t always have to be North American.