Somewhere in that adolescent transition between The Land Before Time and Trainspotting, I discovered the Rock’em Sock’em series.
It was the summer of ‘98 and I was at the peak of my interest in Canada’s national game, and my Dad – eager to feed the puck frenzy – had picked up a used copy of Don Cherry’s 1996 effort at a local firesale.
The jacket was frayed and scarred from use, but Cherry’s grinning mug and his trusty pooch were still visible. The tape itself was a wreck. One particular Mario Lemieux scoring play was so obscured by grain and tracking bands that it took a TSN special years later to make me realize its brilliance.
But despite the despicable quality of the thing, I was struck. Cherry’s compilation had everything that a young sports fan needed. The dekes, the hits, the saves and even the friendly health and safety advice handed out with that trademark gruff paternalism. It all resonated with me.
And for many years that early identification was enough to keep my faith with Grapes. When I met him at the age of 15 – at a meaningless midseason Hamilton Kilty-B’s game – I stammered through an autograph request like any other pubescent Canuck. Cherry was still an immortal for me.
But there’s only so long that one can ignore the man’s flaws, so loudly blared as they are on national television. Eventually the continuous bigotry and old-guard stubbornness contaminate even the most high-minded of messages.
My personal process of disillusionment with Cherry had been ongoing for several years, and I’ve long since stopped reading Coach’s Corner as gospel. But on Saturday night, Grapes embarked on a rant that truly put the final nail in a coffin I’d been steadily sealing.
That night, Cherry took his customary seat beside Canada’s favourite yes-man with his verbal guns fully cocked. In his teleprompter sights was Leafs General Manager Brian Burke and a supposedly insidious recruiting policy that neglected Toronto’s teeming local talent pool in favour of the hated Yank.
And for nearly five minutes he fired away, spewing a perversely patriotic and unnecessarily aggressive rant devoid of logic and held up by only a single meaningless number: Zero. The number of Ontario-born players currently lacing up their skates for the Blue and White.
You see, Don has found the source of the Buds’ longstanding and well-documented struggles. It’s not the green goaltending tandem that shies away from a puck as if it bore leprosy. It’s not the defensive unit with the attention span of a seven year-old at Halloween.
In fact, the cancerous element at the heart of Toronto’s continual struggles is their lack of talent from their home province. Why does this inherently matter? Well, because as Don loudly points out, everyone else has someone around who calls Ontario home.
After all, even the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins – located dead in the centre of the United States’ blue-blooded hockey belt – had seven Ontarians on their active roster while they raced to the title.
Cherry goes further, and leans on the staid tenets of the tried-and-true “Home Cooking Theory.” Because as Grapes and a legion of fellow amateur psychiatrists the world over argue, players are more driven to perform in their home markets.
With Granny and the rest of the tribe in the stands, an athlete supposedly feels more obligated to perform and his or her efforts are bolstered by the increased pressure and scrutiny.
Lastly, Cherry postulates that the Maple Leafs under Burke are cruelly robbing Ontario’s hoard of aspiring hockey players of crucial local role models. How are the province’s young puck-herders supposed to strain toward greatness when their beloved Buds are conspiring to keep them from donning the Blue and White?
Let me address all three of these grievances with a little more argumentation than I offered upon first witnessing Cherry’s diatribe (when my only recourse was a broken-record chorus of the term ‘horsesh**t’).
In rebuttal of the first, numerically derived complaint let me offer a few figures of my own. Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, in a Puck Daddy blog post regarding the rant on Monday provided a plus/minus rating for each NHL team in which an Ontario-born player was an addition and an American one was a subtraction.
The most successful teams in the NHL at the time of writing were the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks, the leaders of the Eastern and Western Conference standings respectively. Both squads find themselves in the minus column, with the Rangers boasting a minus two (six Ontarians versus eight Americans) and the Canucks a minus one (five Ontarians versus six Americans).
How about a team actually located in the province? The Ottawa Senators, the Leafs perennial opponents in the “Battle of Ontario” are also a minus squad (five Ontarians versus six Americans).
Wonder why? Because general managers are aware of a very basic biological fact: talent on the rink is not the sole genetic property of residents of Ontario. Some very promising hockey players hail from across a large body of water known as the Atlantic Ocean. Others even call the United States (gasp!) home.
What about the assertion that I’ve derisively billed as the “Home Cooking Theory?” I find this whole concept a little confusing on a basic psychological level. One’s friends and family are – by any conventional definition – the people most likely to be supportive of one’s endeavours.
Excluding those players with lingering Daddy issues, why should an athlete be particularly motivated to perform by the presence of those who already adore him or her for earning millions of dollars to play a game for a living?
Doesn’t it make somewhat more sense that playing in a place where members of the national media practically outnumber the sell-out crowd might provide a more propulsive source of pressure? How can a person plying their trade in a place that bills itself as hockey’s Mecca require more motivation?
Now to Cherry’s last complaint, the idea that Burke and his organization are somehow failing their community by virtue of not parading an Ontario resident around the ice. This concept makes a fundamental assumption that I cannot accept.
That basic tenet is that a person in Burke’s position has an inherent obligation to the area in which he serves to provide inspiration for its residents in the form of locally bred role models. Being a lifelong fan of the Blue and White (and incidentally, masochist) and longtime hockey player, I have to argue otherwise.
I had two primary hockey idols as a young and aspiring goalkeeper, only one of whom was a Maple Leaf and neither of whom was Ontarian by birth. The first was the acrobatic Felix Potvin, who, while he donned the Blue and White for several seasons, was as French by extraction as the road signs in his native Chicoutimi.
The second was an American (gasp!) who had the good sense to never cross the border and quite naturally won a Stanley Cup. That man was Mike Richter, whose inspirational force in my case derived from his Yale education and the dogged playing style that saw him succeed despite his size.
Never did it cross my mind to idolize a player simply because I could walk down the block and shake his father’s hand, or play shinny on a Sunday with his younger brother. Because that’s not how idols are chosen.
We look up to those we choose to on the basis of individualized criteria, ones that aren’t geographically or ethnically driven. We do so because something in them resonates with us.
That’s why I simply cannot idolize Don Cherry any longer.