The Dryden Observer

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Part of ‘The Game’

I’m one of those people who have more of a physical response to the classic Hockey Night In Canada song than I do to our national anthem.

Just like the generation that played before us, we emulated announcers, Bob Cole and Harry Neale when we scored. We couldn’t imagine Saturday nights with anyone else calling the game. They were part of it.

Then Jim Hughson elevated the art and the celebrations on my street today sound a lot like him. Between periods, Ron MacLean grew into a lion-taming moderator and human hockipedia for both the game and the business.

Watching the game got better but the business would get the best of Hockey Night In Canada.

The NHL’s 12-year, $5.2-billion exclusive deal with Rogers will take creative control from a cultural institution in broadcasting. Jobs will be lost at CBC but there was only one job that came to anyone’s mind.

“Don Cherry is a great talent and a good friend, and obviously, he’s somebody we take very seriously as part of the game,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, whose own cartoonish supervillainy similarly caricaturizes him as part of the game.

Cherry’s persistence isn’t due to lacking evidence against him. He’s muffled his distain for Russians and Europeans but he’ll still have a go at female reporters, cyclists, socialists, francophones and pacifists from the warzone to the ice surface.

If this controversy were really about Cherry’s bigotry and refusal to serve as an ambassador for Canada’s cherished inoffensive values, the jury would have returned long ago. In truth, the pundit has become a lightning rod for a looming hinge in the game’s history.

Former NHL players filed a lawsuit in the same week to allege the league is leaving players vulnerable, invoking Cherry and his Rock’em, Sock’em videos by name as “examples of this violence-centred culture promoted by the NHL.”

A year after Cherry called retired enforcers “pukes” for speaking publicly about mental and physical anguish, they’re calling on the law to drown Grapes.

The NHL balances on the blade of lawlessness and that’s what sets it apart from the put-the-object-in-the-net games of the world. Either you play tough but fair or your opponent punches you in the face until you’re flattened with no shirt on and missing teeth.

“Fighting is part of the game,” has been the code of hitting to hurt, keeping your head up, protecting your goalie, then sending out a hitman when the other squad breaks the real rules of the game. But Cherry doesn’t say it that way. He says, “anybody who says they don’t like fighting in the NHL have to be out of their minds.” Then the CBC news broadcast seamlessly segues into weekly reports on the dangers of hockey concussions.

In the real world, you serve time behind bars for committing assaults that give you just minutes in the penalty box. That’s hard to explain but when the NHL has tried to crack down, hooking, diving and “drawing penalties” have taken centre ice.

Nobody in Don Cherry’s hockey draws penalties. They draw blood, like pistols at dawn.

The chorus of voices rising from local arenas is getting louder, however. It’s coming from parents who can’t rationalize cheering on their kids for getting into fistfights in front of the whole town. It’s coming from players who are giving back to the game but whose age has mellowed their bloodlust. Cities as big as Thunder Bay are having public discussions over whether they want to join leagues that play the classic Canadian scrappy style or cleaner ones with more finesse.

By making themselves “part of the game,” Rogers is donning the off-the-ice striped shirt and they’ll decide how this showdown will be narrated.

If they don’t fill HNIC’s boots and call the game right, the real fans on both sides won’t hesitate to drop the gloves and put them flat on their back.

 

 

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