Don Cherry: The Court Jester and His Foul Mouth

Geoffrey LansdellContributor IIIOctober 12, 2011

On May 13, 2011, Derek Boogaard (aka. The Boogeyman) was found dead in his New York apartment. 

It was subsequently revealed that after a stint in a rehab clinic to deal with his addiction to heavy-duty pain killers, Boogaard died of an accidental overdose of alcohol and oxycodone. 

A hugely popular teammate and fan favourite, Boogaard was one of the NHL’s most feared fighters, who stood 6’7” and weighed in at 260 pounds. He earned his pay by dropping the gloves and protecting his teammates. Boogaard was 28 years old.

On August 15, 2011, Rick Rypien (aka. The Rypper) was found dead in his home in Coleman, Alberta. Although the cause of death still hasn’t been made public, there seems to be enough information out there in this digital age to know that Rypien committed suicide.

Like Boogaard, Rypien was one of those guys that fans and teammates couldn’t help but love and admire. At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Rypien’s size should have prevented him from playing a tough game, especially at the NHL level. But like so many good Canadian boys, The Rypper wore his heart on his sleeve.

He played with reckless abandon, would fight anyone (and usually win while fighting up two or three weight classes), and had the speed and skill to make him a game-changing fourth-liner.

Unfortunately, just as he was making his mark in the NHL with his irrepressible moxie and ambidextrous fighting style, Rypien was granted long-term leaves of absence from the Canucks in consecutive seasons.

We now know that Rypien’s issue had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol, but that he had suffered from depression dating back to his junior days with the Regina Pats. Loved for his perseverance and charisma in Regina, Winnipeg, and Vancouver, Rypien’s suicide was the second shocking death for fans and the NHL fraternity to come to terms this summer. Rypien was 27 years old.

Then, only two weeks after Rypien’s death, to make a grim summer even worse, the recently retired pugilist Wade Belak was found dead in his Toronto hotel. As is the case with Rypien, although there has been no official media report confirming that Belak committed suicide, it seems clear from browsing a variety of social media tools that he took his own life.

According to all reports on Belak’s character, however, he had never battled depression in the way Rypien had, and most of his former teammates characterized him as a fun-loving, up-beat guy.

Clearly, though, the exterior persona was hiding something much darker that loomed on the inside that may have been triggered by the loss of identity that many athletes experience when their playing days come to an end. Belak was 35 years old.

We revisit these tragedies in large part because hockey’s most virulent verbal pugilist has brought the issue of fighting and head shots back into the mainstream spotlight. On opening night of the 2011-2012 NHL season, Don Cherry went to town on three hard-nosed players who, in various ways, have a vested interest in the NHL’s attempt to curtail the growing problem of concussions and head injuries the NHL has seen over the past 10-15 years.

Gone are the days when Scott Stevens could cut across the ice and drive his shoulder into your head as you fished for the puck in your skates. Of course, there will be an inevitable learning curve for players, officials, and league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan (and Rob Blake, who also plays a significant behind-the-scenes role).

But for a steadfast traditionalist such as Cherry, change is not easily accepted. Especially when experience has shown him that his salary, fame, and CBC’s ratings go through the roof the louder he speaks.

Over the years, Cherry has somehow turned himself into a Shakespearean fool. His suits have gotten gaudier with every passing year, and his popularity as a Canadian icon is due to the fact that he distracts us from the religious business of a game called hockey.

If the return of the Winnipeg Jets has proven nothing else about Canadians, it is that hockey is our “opiate of the masses”; and Don Cherry, in turn, is hockey’s self-appointed court jester who looks and acts like a buffoon, and for some reason we still tune in every Saturday as if he speaks the truth.

CBC knows all too well what a money-making commodity Cherry is, and so there is very little incentive for Cherry to curtail his booming opinion, even when he goes so far as to accuse former fighters (Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson, and Jim Thomson) of saying things they never said and brandishing them as ‘traitors’, ‘pukes’, and ‘turncoats’.

What exactly he read or heard or thought he knew in regards to these ex-NHLers beliefs about fighting remains something of a mystery.

For those who missed the October 6, 2011 edition of Cherry’s pulpit known as “Coach’s Corner”, here is what he had to say when prompted to respond to the notion that the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak may have stemmed from their common thread of being NHL fighters:

“You people that are against fighting, you should be ashamed of yourself. You took advantage of that [i.e. the deaths of Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak] to make your point on fighting. You should be ashamed of yourself doing something like that [...] But the ones that I am really disgusted with — and I hate to say this when the kids are listening — what Georges Laraque said about the…bunch of pukes that fought before — Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, and Jim Thomson — the reason, oh the reason that they’re drinking and drugs and alcoholics is because they fight. You turncoats, you hypocrites. There’s one thing I’m not is a hypocrite. You guys, you were fighters, and now you don’t want guys to make the same living you did.”

For the moment, let’s disregard the legal action Grimson (aka. The Grim Reaper), Nilan (aka. Knuckles), and Thomson are considering filing against Cherry for what would presumably be defamation.

For the moment, let us consider Cherry’s complete disregard for the growing scientific evidence that repeated blows to the head can lead to chronic traumatic encepalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative brain disease that has been linked to neurological problems including memory loss, confusion, dementia, aggression, and depression.

Let us also point out that Grimson battled through post-concussion symptoms that began in 2001 that plagued him for at least the next two years until June of 2003 when he finally called it a career.

As for Nilan and Thomson, both were fighters who have dealt with substance abuse, and for Cherry to label them ‘pukes’, ‘turncoats’, and ‘hypocrites’ is to ignore the larger issue that substance abuse and depression are very common side effects of repeated brain trauma, which can come from fighting or just from hitting and being hit repeatedly as happens in hockey.

Perhaps Cherry is merely foolish enough to have ignored such recent developments for the sake of saving his self-serving sermons. Whatever his excuse, increasing numbers of athletes in hard-hitting sports such as hockey, football, boxing, and wrestling are donating their brains (post-mortem, of course) to neuropathologists at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

The group of former hockey players to have had their brains analyzed by Boston University doctors includes Bob Probert, who died of heart disease in 2010 at the age of 45 after battling drug and alcohol abuse for the bulk of his adult life; Reggie Fleming, who died in 2009 at the age of 73, after suffering from dementia and other CTE symptoms for roughly thirty years; and most recently and surprisingly Rick Martin, who died of a heart attack in March of 2011 at the age of 59.

In all three cases, chronic traumatic encephalopathy was detected. CTE, it is worth mentioning, can only be detected by tests performed on the brain post-mortem. In the cases of Bob Probert and Reggie Fleming, both men were enforcers, which lends some credence to the idea that fighting can accelerate the onset of CTE.

In Martin’s case, he was an All-Star left winger known more for his scoring than for his hitting or fighting as he spent the bulk of his career in Buffalo on the team’s first line with Gilbert Perreault and René Robert.

Between 1972 and 1979, the line known as The French Connection was one of hockey’s most prolific trios. But of course hockey has always been physical, and it was during a game in 1977 that Rick Martin suffered his only diagnosed concussion, but it was a serious one.

At the time, Martin didn’t wear a helmet, and after a collision caused him to fall, his head hit the ice and sent him into convulsions. After suffering the injury, Martin wore a helmet for the final four years of his career.

It is believed that in an era much less conscious of concussions, Martin probably suffered other concussions in addition to the head trauma that can result from repeated blows to the head incurred by body checks, elbows, high sticks, and the rest of the wear and tear that goes with the life of being a hockey player.

According to Boston University’s co-director Dr. Robert Stern, “The brain doesn’t know the source of its hits. It doesn’t know the difference between a fist to the face or check to the board. A quick jolt to the body can result in a movement of the brain inside the skull.”

In other words, although absolute conclusions cannot be drawn from this preliminary work into brain trauma among professional athletes, Don Cherry’s ignorance in the face of growing evidence that any hit to the head, whether the fist, elbow, or shoulder is the point of contact, is not something to be taken lightly.

Cherry is of course from the hockey old school, but the fact that some players from the era he was coaching in have been diagnosed with CTE should indicate that there will be many more cases of this degenerative brain disease as time goes on.

Derek Boogaard’s brain has been donated to Boston University for scientific analysis, and although the results are still pending, one has to imagine that the increased size and speed of players, along with the hard industrial plastics that serve as armor on elbow and shoulder pads have all played a role in the growing number of concussions we have seen in recent years.

Finally, after years of sweeping the problem under the rug, in large part because fans love bone-crushing hits and a good hockey fight, the NHL is addressing the issue of concussions head on.

As Tony Gallagher of The Vancouver Province has recently pointed out, however, the NHL’s suspension policy remains somewhat hypocritical.

In his article “NHL approach to head-shot crackdown appears hypocritical so far”, Gallagher points out that the NHL’s medical policy for head-shot victims has advanced very little since Pittsburgh’s doctors and management somehow thought it was an ok idea to let their meal ticket return after David Steckel’s blindside hit in last season’s outdoor game on January 1.

Much has been made about whether Steckel knew what he was doing, but Gallagher is more interested in the league’s policy for protecting head-shot victims. His argument is that when a player drops to the ice the way Crosby did, that player shouldn’t be allowed to return.

I think every NHL fan who’s seen how a concussed player acts after a hit knew that Crosby was concussed. The hit he received was a prototypical blindside hit, and yet there he was, back on the bench to start the next period.

On the ice, he looked strange and disoriented, yet continued to play. And one has to wonder how much worse the concussion became as a result of playing the rest of that game and the next, when his presumably concussed head was hit again by Victor Hedman.

Either way, with no policy in effect regarding NHL victims, players continue to get clearance from doctors to return to the ice when they just don’t seem ready. And with the much-needed crackdown on head shots coming into effect, how long will it be before players start acting concussed?

If they do, shouldn’t the NHL have a policy whereby the player who is hit and draws a major penalty cannot return for the balance of the game? Because as it stands, the NHL and its teams still don’t have the player’s best interest in mind when they let concussed players play just because winning is more important than long-term mental health.

At the very least, the NHL has finally gotten serious about curbing the concussion epidemic, and we should be thankful for that. And we should also be thankful for the position of prominence Don Cherry occupies in the hockey world, because his inflammatory and derogatory remarks have accomplished two things.

He has forced the NHL community and the media to focus on his lunacy, which will raise questions about whether the CBC can continue to give Cherry a voice on public television. And if Grimson, Nilan, and Thomson pursue a lawsuit against Cherry, it will help the hockey world explore the reasons behind the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, and Wade Belak.

Preliminary studies into chronic traumatic encephalopathy have already demonstrated that hockey players have a high risk of developing this neurological disorder, and that is a reality players and the league can no longer ignore.

It’s like that rough period baseball went through when the sport was forced to acknowledge it had a serious drug problem it had willfully turned a blind eye to because steroids and human growth hormones were helping baseball players annihilate records, which was great for the game from a fiscal and a media perspective.

But it can’t go on. Even though people liked the records, steroids were ruining baseball. And even though fans love hitting and fighting, concussions will eventually kill hockey unless the epidemic can be stemmed.

As for Don Cherry, it’s pretty clear he has devolved into a jester whose “wisdom” applies to a different era in hockey.

But if the CBC continues to give him free reign to voice his opinion because it helps their ratings, then we as a society must ask ourselves how we can support a man who makes somewhere between $800,000 and $1 million (of tax payers’ money, mind you!), and who views addiction and depression among players who have dealt with a traumatic brain disorder as their moral offense.

Sadly, Don Cherry’s moral offense is his refusal to even consider that the game of hockey has changed. Every dog may have its day, but Cherry is looking more and more like a dinosaur on the brink.


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