Don Cherry, Poppies, And Patriotism

I do not admire Don Cherry. I do not admire his traditionalist beliefs about hockey. I do not admire his Coach’s Corner segment on Hockey Night In Canada on Sportsnets and CBC. I do not admire his massive influence on hockey culture. I admire hockey and the National Hockey League (NHL), but I admire it less than I did five years ago.

And Don Cherry and the people like him within the National Hockey League and the hockey media is largely why I’m losing interest in hockey.

I became a hockey fan immediately after I immigrated from Ghana to Montreal. Watching hockey games helped me learn French and the Canadian culture faster than most of my immigrant peers. The National Hockey League introduced me to some of the major fabrics of Canadian culture: the Canadian national anthem, Wayne Gretzky, the Montreal Canadiens, Hockey Night in Canada, and Don Cherry.

However, I also learned that Canada’s supposed multiculturalism isn’t reflected in its most popular sport. Hockey culture is notoriously conformist. It refuses to adapt to different personalities and cultures. It maintains that the stoic personalities of Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry’s favourite, Bobby Orr is the only acceptable personalities for NHL players.

A writer from the New Yorker once said: “The conformist power of Canadian hockey culture is such that even New Englanders and Swedes, after a few years of inhaling North American Zamboni fumes, will come to adopt a Manitoban prairie lilt.”

To be fair, this makes the NHL more attractive to some, especially in light of the unhelpful ways big personalities in the National Football League and National Basketball Association (NBA) have introduced social justice into their respective leagues. Nevertheless, the cultural diversities within International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and the NBA is the major reason why they are two of the most popular sports leagues in the world.

The NBA has it’s traditionalist media personalities like Charles Barkley and it’s more open-minded media personalities like Nick Wright. And it’s had it’s traditionalist teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. But it’s also embraced it’s more progressive teams like the Golden State Warriors and Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns. That kind of diversity in the NBA and other sports leagues make them more appealing to different kinds of people across the world.

The National Hockey League’s refusal to embrace diversity is one of the major reasons why the league isn’t remotely popular outside of Canada and some sections of Northern America. And over the last forty years, Don Cherry has made many offensive remarks against French Canadians, Americans, and Europeans with impunity.

That however changed on last week’s segment of Hockey Night in Canada, when Cherry criticized Canadians–particularly immigrant Canadians–who do not wear poppies on Remembrance Day to honour Canadian soldiers who sacrifice their lives for our freedom.

Don Cherry said: “You people [that come here]… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” Cherry said Saturday night. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

Because of those comments, particularly the two words–you people–Sportsnet fired Don Cherry after forty years as the key personality of Hockey Night in Canada.

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Don Cherry shouldn’t have singled out immigrants. He probably should have articulated himself better. He probably should have been more gentle in his approach. He’s acknowledged that. However, I’m more disturbed by his suggestion that patriotism is evidenced by wearing a poppy.

The poppies are a great and traditional way of remembering Canada’s fallen and surviving soldiers, but it isn’t the only and necessary way for Canadians to show our love for our country and our soldiers.

With that said, as much as I dislike Don Cherry’s persona and his influence on hockey culture, I am disappointed by how many Canadians have reacted to his words. Frankly, I am not convinced that if Don Cherry made offensive remarks against French Canadians and Russians last Saturday night, the way he’d done so throughout his entire career, that it would have produced the kind of reaction that his latest comments received.

However, it seems to me that Don Cherry’s comments became more controversial not necessarily because of the content of his words, but because of whom his words were directed at. I find it interesting that on social media, people perceived Don Cherry’s words as an attack on non-White immigrants, not immigrants as a whole.

And in recent interviews, Don Cherry mentioned that his colleagues and Sportsnet didn’t give him any indication that they were disappointed by his words. It’s apparent that Sportsnet fired Don Cherry after his comments proved to be controversial on social media and the mainstream media.

I am not suggesting that Sportsnet shouldn’t have fired Don Cherry. Nor am I suggesting that Canadians shouldn’t be displeased by Cherry’s choice of words. I just find it concerning that Sportsnet and Canadians as a whole are outraged by Cherry’s words because it’s trendy to be outraged by his words.

We’re upset by his words because others are upset by his words. We all know who Don Cherry is. We all know he makes offensive comments almost every week. But apparently, we weren’t outraged because other people weren’t outraged. We weren’t troubled by his words when he made offensive remarks about people on a higher end of the intersectionality scale.

And maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but Don Cherry isn’t entirely wrong. Wearing a poppy doesn’t prove our patriotism or our appreciation for military. Nevertheless, he’s right that Canadian immigrants are generally less committed to Remembrance Day than many of our neighbours.

This is largely because Remembrance Day is deeply connected to the First War. We Canadian immigrants to Canada do not have deep ties to that war. We do not have relatives or friends who lost their lives or survived that war. We do not have pictures of our relatives who served in that war.

And the Canadian educational system has failed to adequately teach all Canadians about Canada’s vital and heroic efforts in that war. And unless that changes, most of the Canadians who wear poppies on Remembrance Day will be Canadians whose families have lived in Canada for over hundred years, not immigrants.

But since we’ve cancelled Don Cherry, we’ve probably cancelled the opportunity to have real important conversations about the state of immigration, the educational system, and patriotism in Canada.

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