Listening to Don Cherry's fans explain away his frequently offensive and misinformed rants is kind of like listening to me try to rationalize fighting in hockey to non-hockey fans: Lots of talk of "history," "part of the culture," and "it's complicated," with a good mix of "if you were there you'd understand why."
I can't count the times Cherry has made himself out to be a clown on air -- dealing with serious issues in a simplistic way that reminds one of modern politics' slogan-over-substance routine -- and it's not worth my time to catalog them. Cherry is what he is, and you either tolerate/like him (in decreasing numbers?) or you don't. As society slowly leaves him behind, he'll probably quit one day soon and people will return to remembering his good moments with nostalgia, and sweeping away his ugly moments like you remember your great uncle who used to talk about "those people."
But there's always the danger of him speeding his exit by touching the wrong third rail at the wrong time. Today I'm wondering: Did he do just that by betraying the hockey contingent that is his bread and butter?
He's no friend to players with visors, no friend to Europeans, and if he doesn't know your Canadian hometown he at least views you with suspicion. Last night though, he launched the 2011-12 season of Hockey Night in Canada with a rant that took on members of what you might call "his base."
Worse, he treated them like he treats so many of his soapbox topics: With incorrect information and offensive generalizations.
Puck Daddy has a thorough roundup of the saga, but in short Cherry tossed "turncoat" and "hypocrite" around at retired enforcers he thinks somehow betrayed the brotherhood. Except Cherry was so off the mark, those guys (Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson) are taking to the air today to rip Cherry, whom they considered a "friend." On multiple outlets Nilan has demanded Cherry issue an apology on the next HNIC.
His chastising of Brendan Shanahan for "taking hitting out" of the game is predictable and typically unrefined. That's the business as usual for Cherry and that's exactly what HNIC has him around to do, to continue feeding a certain segment of their audience while riling up the rest. Countless times people have pointed out that the guy with the loud clothes has, in fact, no clothes -- and each time it's explained away as Cherry just being a caricature or old uncle, so don't take it seriously. Certainly no one's going to force him out for upsetting people who think maybe the league should adapt its norms to the speed, size and brain scrambling of today's players.
(When Don Cherry coached "back in the day," did he ever see a player who could move as fast as Michael Grabner or who had as much mass as Zdeno Chara? No.)
But the workings of the NHL and mainstream media are an insider's game. It's not always about what you do, but whom you piss off and at what time. With him applying his usual loose research standards to a population that normally has his back, did he just move his employer and those who influence that employer one big step closer to saying, "You know what, Don? It's time."
In media, as in politics, stranger exits have happened.