Tales of Truth: Don Cherry, Violence and the Modern Fan

Kids imitate what they see. Jon Roy’s dad did this too.
Photo: Roger Gagnon/West Island Gazette

‘Tales of Truth’ is a new weekly column written by Patrick Johnston. The column will focus each week on a narrative which has cropped up. Patrick will go at the narrative from all angles, with the hope that the truth will be exposed…

So Don Cherry thinks we are all wimps, eh? He says that if we don’t like fighting, or borderline checks or other acts of reckless violence, we should just suck it up.

You know what, Don? You should suck it up. To clean up the game means accepting a few things – that there are going to be some brutish suspensions to begin with. There are going to be players and managers who are unhappy. Some ‘good guys’ are going to be out of the game. Instilling responsibility in players for their hits, just as we try to do for their sticks, is appropriate and the game will be better for it.

 We have all been told the expression ‘life isn’t always fair’ at some time in our lives. This is one of those times. Jody Shelley has been playing the game one way for a long time; now he’s being told,’no more’. He has plenty of reason to say ‘That’s not fair! The yardsticks shouldn’t be moved on me! I can’t play that way!’ Sorry Jody, but that’s tough. Your style of play isn’t wanted any more. Change in life, as much as we don’t want it to be so, is constant. Making the game safe and more enjoyable (to both play and watch) requires constant vigilance.

This is the third time I’ve tried to write this piece. Initially I sat down and wrote about the state of hockey, worrying about where the game was going after the Bruins’ victory in the Stanley Cup. The style of play which permeated the 2011 playoffs was deeply troubling. I wanted to be sure to not come across as being a whining fan, so I decided to wait a few days. When I looked to finish it, I was still feeling too numb from the loss, the riot, the awfulness of the reality I was facing. I set this piece aside for a while.

The second attempt came after all the rig-a-marole of the aftermath of Wade Belak’s death. Concern over the effects of hockey’s violent side was at the forefront of many commentators’ thoughts; I thought, perhaps now I can tie things together. A meaningful discussion about the place of ‘the rough stuff’ seemed to be going on, but even at that moment, I was hesistant. Now it was not me who was feeling raw, it was the body public. For this to be properly explained, I decided to wait for the coming of the new season.

Brendan Shanahan’s efforts to curtail awful acts from the game is remarkable. He has stood up, clearly with some sort of mandate, and said ‘enough’. The reaction from his exalted position has surprised me. This is a league which finally revealed its obsession with violence during the 2011 playoffs. It was regularly noted that the referees were not calling things as tight as they had during the season – any fan could tell you that the contrasting styles of the Canucks and the Bruins exposed the truth to the argument.

Where does the game go? One path follows Brendan Shanahan holding the league to a higher standard, one which values skill and clean hitting above all else. The other carries on with where things were last spring, with stars fighting to do what they do, and agitators, pests and thugs given free reign to practise their dark arts in plain view.

Fifteen or so years ago, rugby was facing a similar problem. The game had just turned professional. The new money men in the game wanted to sell their game to new fans. A concerted effort emerged to re-think how the game was to be played. Incentives were created to promote attacking, try-scoring play. Alongside, a new code of discipline was established which dealt harshly with foul play. What was once a game which regularly had punch-ups during the run of play quite quickly eliminated such activity . The players who had been picked mostly for their thuggery simply disappeared in just a few years. Anyone who has been watching the current Rugby World Cup will agree that this is still a brutally tough game. The loss of pugilism hasn’t harmed the game one bit. Rugby is still an immensely physical game, full of hard hits, with players who push the limits, with a swagger that wasn’t lost even though the pugilists were told to adapt or else.

For the entire 2010-11 season, Canucks fans had been blessed to watch a team which came out to win by being more relentlessly skilled than their opponents. They had grit as well and they didn’t back down when challenged, but when winning the game was on the line, the Canucks would simply press on in the face of agitation, believing it was better to win big on the scoreboard than let things stay close while leaving blood on the ice. Turning the other cheek was the preferred attitude because it garned power plays and the Canucks much preferred to punish the other team with goals than with fists.

Cue the playoffs. No longer were the Canucks being faced by far weaker opposition, desperate to keep things close through rough-and-tumble tactics. Playoff teams are there for a reason- they can play the game. Nonetheless, teams facing a team which has depth of skill as a strength have to play a game of risk-reduction: make it hard for the more skilled team to get to the scoring areas. The Predators were the most glaring example of this. Not having a great deal of scoring strength but possessing a good amount of actual hockey sense, plus a superb goalie, the Predators worked very, very to make things difficult for the Canucks’ scorers. If that meant extra hacks on the legs or lumber in the back or the odd shot to the gut, then so be it. All players try to get away with niggling harassment, but it was because this was all the Predators seemed to have that it was more noticed.

There’s no denying that the Canucks themselves weren’t guilty of this behaviour. Raffi Torres, Max Lapierre, Ryan Kesler and the like are no saints. They push the limits as much as anyone. The Preds’ tactics were noted, in their case because it seemed this was all they had, but so were the Canucks’, though for different reasons. The spotlight was always shining brightly on Alain Vigneault’s men and so when a highly skilled player did something nasty, we noticed it too.

Going into the final, it was well noted that this was to be a clash of contrasting styles. The Canucks, with their relentless swagger (which, to that point was their right) were terribly unliked but could score by the bucketful. The Bruins were somehow viewed as less villainous, and it was pretty clear that this was a very good hockey team playing in front of a goaltender playing at his greatest. Most figured that, despite the hustle and bustle of the Bruins, the Canucks’ already-noted depth of skill would prevail.

As we know, it was not to be. Instead the Canucks couldn’t score on the power play, making their desire to turn the other cheek seem pointless, Tim Thomas had a series for the ages, Roberto Luongo was alternately brilliant and awful and the Bruins relentless abuse of the Canucks’ stars was challenged but lightly by the officials. Brad Marchand’s unpenalized speed-bagging of Daniel Sedin is well documented and perhaps best exemplifies the way the rulebook was thrown out the window, but this is not the point today.

More basically, this was a series where the NHL’s valuing of its violence was vividly exposed. Who cares that one team was capable of scoring beautiful goals? The game being played in the mud, being soiled to the lowest common denominator, being a game where ruffians have their way, where rules are merely a suggestion, to be mentioned on occasion, that was what was wanted. Raffi Torres can run about, knocking the lights out of a player? That’s great! The fans want to see blood sport, just give it to ’em.

The NHL had become UFC on ice. There is a blood thirst which is evident in the attitudes of every UFC fan I’ve ever met. I don’t watch the UFC, but I understand its appeal. It’s a car crash, but with some structure. There are tactics, it’s more than a street brawl but in the end, the fans want to see the loser beaten to a pulp. The NHL spent the playoffs indulging in this reality. The Stanley Cup final was just the end of a long trail pursued by the league’s officials. Player safety and the beautiful aspects of the game were secondary. Blood, guts, fighting and the like, these are what the league valued.

How else can we explain why Mason Raymond broke his back? I don’t fault Johnny Boychuk in the hit, he was simply doing what he’s always been trained to do – take the other guy out. In fact, if the other guy is vulnerable, all the better, you won’t have to deal with him again for a while. But step back and ask the question: how was that hit even necessary? The puck was long gone. Raymond was way off balance. The answer is simple: Boychuk was finishing his check. He’s never been told to do anything else. Finish your check. That’s it.

The NHL clearly recognized that its marketing appeal could lie in the same place as that which the UFC was capitalizing upon. Blood lust is in their interest. Forget the stars, line things up as close to the LNAH as possible.

Speculate for a moment – if Boychuk doesn’t finish his check, what’s the difference? Not much. Raymond isn’t in a position to do anything. He’s already off balance, and likely doesn’t even know where the puck is. Boychuk had already done his job, he’d taken the space away, like a good defender should. But, of course,he’s been trained. Player’s vulnerable. Gotta finish your check.

What’s the alternative? Responsibilty. Instead of training our players to be reckless, constantly pursuing violence, let’s teach them to be responsible. Find the check that will be far more effective in stopping the player. Be more aware of where you are on the ice. It’s long been argued that as players have moved to better head and eye protection, a converse effect has been a reduction in awareness of one’s stick. It’s a constant refrain: gotta be more careful with you stick. Know where your stick is. Keep you stick down. Why can’t it be the same for hitting players?

Brendan Shanahan is apparently trying to introduce this into the league. If you are going to hit someone, you’d better be ready to accept responsibility for that hit. Hitting is fine, but you can’t do it willy-nilly. Raffi Torres and Johnny Boychuk must learn ‘why’ they are hitting. Hitting is absolutely about knocking the other guy down, but if there’s anything that can be done to control the consequences of hits, then it should be done.

The belief among many of  the old school is that the current drive against borderline hits will end up hurting the game, that somehow hitting will disappear. This notion doesn’t stand up to logic. Players are not being asked to stop hitting. They are being told to stop hitting dangerously. They are being told to hit smarter. You want to crush a guy? You are going to have to work for it.

The rugby analogy works here as well. Up until about five years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to tackle a player in such a way that he would be dropped upside down. After a couple rather serious injuries occured, the rules were revised to say that if a player is lifted off the ground in a tackle, it was the tackler’s responsibility to return that player safely to the ground. There are still plenty of huge tackles in every game; players have become better tacklers because of this limitation. It’s ludicrous to believe that NHL hockey players are incapable of such a alteration in behaviour.

When I saw Jody Shelley hit Darrly Boyce, I had the same feeling of dread as when Boychuk hit Raymond. One was far more violent than the other, but both players were in absurdly vulnerable positions. Both players doing the hitting were only doing what they’d always been told to do, but ‘finish your check’ as a simple instruction just won’t do anymore. This game is about skill and speed and agression, but we can no longer accept that these can tolerate reckless behaviour.

The other thing which baffles me about Cherry defending Shelley’s recklessness? He’s long been an advocate for players hitting safely. Pretty sure anti-checking from behind Don wouldn’t be a fan of the reckless abandon with which Shelley finished that check. Don, who’s the hypocrite now?

  • I’m a Canucks fan, and I tend to agree with your overall thesis, but I feel your Finals review comes off a bit as whining. The Bruins did goon it up more, but the Canucks were not innocent. I think the biggest factor in the Canucks’ demise was injuries, and that Thomas was better. My personal issue was with the way the entire series was framed by the media broadly as “old time hockey heros vs whining divers.” Having to watch here in the US, with the atrocious NBC coverage with the disgraceful likes of Milbury, where the bias was so obvious they didn’t even try to cover it up, was unbearable.

    In any case I don’t agree that the final was an example of the “NHL valuing violence.” If there was any ulterior motive it was that the NHL simply wanted the Bruins to win. Eastern team, American team, original 6 — better for marketing, better for sales, quite simply better for the NHL establishment. That said, I do not believe the fix was in; but I do believe it factored a bit in the whistles being put away and the Bruins being more allowed to play their game than the Canucks. Still, congratulations to the Bruins and their fans.

    Im not entirely sure I want fighting out of the game, even though it would certainly help the Canucks these days…

  • Mantastic

    first, the canucks could not score in the bucket full in the postseason, save for the SJ/WCF series where they actually outscored them by a fair margin, they failed very hard to put up many goals in the 1st and 2nd rounds.

    can’t believe you would only point out torres and boychuk and not edler and rome or any remaining canuck player for reckless hits. edler having an insanely dirty boarding hit during the SCF.

    and marchand was penalized for speed bagging daniel and you guys were given a PP from that scrum…

    i know you probably don’t watch much playoff hockey because the canucks never play too many but the playoffs have always been less penalized then the regular season, nothing changed last year. and i don’t see the NHL rewarding a team like boston for being rough and tumble, the canucks had a lot of chances on their many power plays they were given during the series because of boston’s style but failed to do so.

    and i’m also a MMA fan and i don’t care if the loser gets pummeled into pulp. very ridiculous and whinny article.

  • Mantastic

    “and marchand was penalized for speed bagging daniel and you guys were given a PP from that scrum…”

    Daniel got a 2 minute penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct on that play.

    In the end, Vancouver lost the series because the injuries caught up to them. No Hamhuis and then Bieksa suffered an injury during the final series. Both Ehrhoff and Edler were injured but played. You could see Ehrhoff had no upper body strength in that shorthanded goal in game 7. Those were the top 4 on the blueline, by the way. For the forwards, Kesler was hurt and is still out, Raymond was worse, and Samsuelsson never played a game against Boston. The three formed the 2nd line last season. The playmaker twin also had an injury making him less effective. The best checker in the league played after missing months from an eye injury. Higgins played through a bad (if not broken) ankle.

  • Mantastic

    just so you “the league hates the canucks” “fans” here’s the timeline of the penality on brad marchand.

    18:29 BOS Brad Marchand served by David Krejci : Roughing – 2 min

    18:29 BOS Brad Marchand : Misconduct (10 min) – 0 min

    18:29 BOS Shawn Thornton : Misconduct (10 min) – 0 min

    18:29 VAN Daniel Sedin : Misconduct (10 min) – 0 min

    18:29 VAN Maxim Lapierre : Misconduct (10 min) – 0 min

    the “unpenalized” speed bagging of daniel was actually penalized.