I remember a dimly lit rink with wood panelling, old wooden flip seats in the stands, and the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke hanging in the air. It was the early ’80s, and it was that night in the arena that I first felt the sting of the word “nigger.”
It was directed at my oldest brother who was a late-starting, first-year hockey player low on skill, but big in size. He couldn’t do much more than throw his weight around, which seemed to bring out the racial slurs from the opposing players with the quickness. On other nights, it was parents hollering the same names from the bleachers. On one occasion after a game, a few of them surrounded my brother in the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms before his coaches intervened.
My parents, who had immigrated from Jamaica 13 years earlier, had never seen anything like it. Not the names being hurled from spectators in the stands and spit across the ice by some of their children, and certainly not the violent retribution being encouraged against “that kid.” The mothers and fathers screaming for their kids to hit my brother with sticks and cut him with blades was the last straw for my parents. They made my brother’s first season his last.
My parents did what many immigrants did and turned their backs on the puck. Hockey became the bottom rung on our sports ladder, and for a long time whenever it played on our television — which wasn’t often — my brother’s lone season was the first thing we thought of. It was a thing.
Watch: Don Cherry Fired After Remembrance Day Comments About Immigrants. Article continues below.
So, when Don Cherry began his run as the face of Canadian hockey on television and VHS videos in the ’80s and ’90s, it was not a welcome sight in our home. He relentlessly served as a reminder of the prejudice and closed-door attitude that hockey had greeted us with. Cherry quickly became the face of our disdain.
Cherry’s whole act — from his bullish delivery to the talking designer suits — was meant to be in your face. He became so synonymous with hockey in Canada that if he offended you, hockey offended you. It was a cringeworthy embrace that excluded many from outside the culture, and bothered too few from within.
You felt it when he talked about a hit or a goal just as you did when he insulted and offended.
Cherry’s recent “you people” rant wasn’t out of the ordinary or surprising, but the swift reaction and his eventual firing was — even in today’s “cancel culture” climate. So little had been said and so much swept away for so long that there wasn’t a minority in Canada who believed anything would come of it, but social media reality hit the old-schooler hard.
A new voice for “you people” emerged with countless virtual witnesses spread across dozens of platforms that professional sports leagues don’t ignore. And while the axe dropped quickly, it took that voice a long time to find a way to be heard through the dark forest of hockey elitism and up a Mount Olympus of disconnect. A voice that finally did what the voices in Cherry’s earpiece over 38 years of broadcasting had failed to do.
Cherry was a man who talked like a guardian of the game, but kept it stuck in places it should have long freed itself from. Places like the rinks my brother was taunted in all those years ago. The power that comes to a sports league that accomplishes the task of inspiring the youth and uniting communities is immeasurable. Sports can do that. Hockey did not do that when Don Cherry represented it.
How often had he stopped hockey and the NHL from progressing? By having him stand at the gate for 38 years, how many people did he turn away with his ignorance? How many didn’t approach at the sight of him and his divisiveness? People like us? The “you people?”
Cherry’s gift was that you felt it when he spoke. You felt it when he talked about a hit or a goal, just as you did when he insulted and offended. One was just as animated as the other. We felt it when he disparaged foreign players and their people, his own countrymen, women and “you people” behind the shield of the CBC, then Sportsnet.
My oldest brother’s hockey life lasted one season, and not because he lacked skill or drive or the potential to be great. It was because he was different and feared, and that fear manifested itself into an ugliness all-too-present in hockey. How many others have exited in the same way, fighting while being pushed out the back door of an unwelcoming culture? How many, if given the same respect as their white colleagues, would have gone on the contribute to the game in a way that “you people” have in the other big pro leagues? How much more diminished is the game now because of those absences, those early exits? How much less evolved? How much less appealing?
My brothers and I went on to play other sports. We all made our mark in baseball early. The oldest stuck with it while the middle one played rep soccer and lettered in rugby. I fell for basketball and started for my varsity teams through high school. We were good. We enjoyed the games, and much of our love for them was transferred to our own kids. Our sporting traditions were built first as a detour around hockey and the roadblocks people like Cherry put up. Now, we’re long past the sport.
Still, when Don Cherry was fired, I did think of my brother the hockey player, but they were unexpected thoughts. After years of recalling how disappointing a time that was, I thought instead about how hard it must be for the other side to understand the impact of that experience on a sports family — on parents in a new land and kids who just want to play. How it cut many of us “you people” so deeply, and how Cherry was a constant reminder of the wound.
These painful cuts made all over this great country for far too long on ice rinks, in dressing rooms and through televisions can finally begin to close.
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