Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Don Cherry

I don't think there is anyone else alive in Canada who commands as much affection as Don Cherry. Nor as much animosity. Not being raised in a hockey family myself, I never had much of an opinion on Don Cherry- perhaps a mild liking, but no more. The thing I couldn't quite understand was the distaste he stirred up in so many people. There seem to be two sorts of people who dislike Don Cherry.

Firstly, there are those who are ashamed that so violent and perhaps more to the point, uncouth a game as hockey would be Canada's national sport. Don Cherry is a symbol of all they wish wasn't a part of the game: the hits, the fighting, the missing teeth, the elevation of guts and hard work above skill & technique.

Secondly, there are folks who can't stand his local patriotism- the kind that gets him into hot water with the CBC brass when he slights European or Quebecois players. More than that, Don Cherry is a very visible Canadian of a type rarely seen anymore- the English Canadian, proud of his side of the nation, and joyous in its virtues. Don Cherry represents those Canadians who thought Canada was great before Trudeau as well as after; great not merely because of its niceness or gentle role in the community of nations, but also on account of what it has done and will do. Don Cherry is the problem, such people hold, to which multiculturalism is the answer.

What is most remarkable about these reactions is how much they show the inability of some to get over the differences a prior age represents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grapes turns out to be a much more interesting person than that imagined by either his admirers or detractors. An excerpt, but it's worth reading all of it:

The first historical book Cherry read was a novel. Golden Admiralby F. Van Wyck Mason tells the story of Francis Drake and the Armada... From historical novels (James Clavell was another favourite) Cherry turned to history itself, particularly accounts of Drake, whose mixture of toughness and kindness, not to mention an intuitive knowledge of his crew, he found irresistible. Drake’s gift, Cherry realized, was his ability to reduce everything to a personal, individual level; in a way he was the ultimate player’s coach. It didn’t hurt that the navigator was also a career rebel. Eventually Cherry read “pretty much everything that’s ever been written about Drake.” He also fell under the spell of T.E. Lawrence. ”I’ve been trying to get other people to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but they get bogged down at the start, because his description is so detailed, he talks about the sky looking this way or that for pages. I had the same reaction when I started myself, but I said no, there must be something there, this book’s still selling 1,600 copies a week worldwide a hundred years after it was written. You really have to work at it. And so I did, and halfway through, it was like he was talking to me.”

In the 1990s, when his finances permitted, Cherry started collecting original editions of Lawrence’s work, as well as other historical tomes. Today his son, Tim, who runs Tim Cherry Enterprises (which oversees the production of Don's hockey highlights tapes) regularly visits a rare books shop in downtown Toronto to pick up books for his father. Cherry recently had a rare edition of Lawrence’s work, one of the last “two or three left from the 1920s,” shipped from London. His home outside Toronto is filled with books, largely historical non-fiction. Like many academics (most of whom, mind you, have more than a Grade 9 education), he now considers novels a waste of time. “I think, there are too many good books to read, what am I wasting my time on novels for?”
I would bet that when Don Cherry dies, they'll have to open all the arenas in this country to have memorial services.


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