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The New World We Live In

The Leafs — and Hockey Night in Canada — Are in Town. They’ve Rocked the Game of Hockey in the Past 3 Weeks

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

This story first appeared on Page 5 (The Five Hole) of the Dec. 7, 2019 edition of the St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside of every Blues home game. For more information or to subscribe, email gtbradlee@gmail.com

When the Maple Leafs come to town, the whole traveling circus that is Canadian hockey media comes with them. Even better, when they’re here on a Saturday evening, the spotlight of Hockey Night in Canada glares upon us. Even better than that, this time around, the broadcast that echoes in every corner of Canada will open with a shot of a championship banner that is really hanging, for real, from the Enterprise Center rafters.

As more viewing options have popped up, HNIC is no longer the weekly equivalent of the M*A*S*H series finale or the Super Bowl. But make no mistake: There’s no bigger regular season stage in the sport.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you know the program made a big change recently: Don Cherry, Canadian icon, after 38 years filling HNIC’s first intermission with his “Coach’s Corner” segment, was fired. You’ve probably read more than you ever cared to about what he said, what he might’ve meant, the firing, and the backlash. The reality is, politics aside, he was no longer a good commentator; he was growing less coherent as he aged, his mistakes becoming more frequent, and his outfits more caricature of his former self than true character. (Even so, “Coach’s Corner” remained undeniably compelling TV.)

But we can’t change the past, and we shouldn’t try. We laughed at Louie CK’s comedy. We watched Woody Allen’s movies. And for many of us — probably the same ‘90s kids the Clown Suit campaign was aimed at —Don Cherry’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos were crucial to our love of the game. For me, they were a gateway. Even during the dog days of baseball season, I could go to Blockbuster and rent (or tell my mom to rent) Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em. Just ask her how many times she paid $3.95 to rent those things.

They’re on YouTube now. They’re still great, full of highlights you won’t see anywhere else. If you wanted to teach someone new to the game about what hockey used to be, there’s no better educational tool. (Where else can you see Brett Hull, as a Flame, fan on a pass, fall down, cough up the puck, and watch his team get scored on?)

What Don Cherry said doesn’t change that. You can love Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em, you can love Don Cherry and you can think it was a shame the way his broadcasting career ended, without agreeing with what he said or liking the caricature he became.

Five thoughts from a radioactive, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn.

1. The Cherry scandal kicked off a wild few weeks in hockey.

Eight days after Cherry was canned, Mike Babcock was gone too. The decision made sense: The Leafs were playing poorly, Babcock had public spats with Toronto management and it was clear the players didn’t like him.

Of course, it’s said about Scotty Bowman that players hated him, too — 364 days of the year. The other day, they received their Stanley Cup rings. It was no treat to play for Bobby Knight or Bear Bryant, either. Michigan St.’s Tom Izzo caught hell after viciously and aggressively yelling at of his players during the NCAA Tournament this past March.

But Babcock wasn’t winning, and he was probably overrated. He owns three Cup rings, sure, but winning the Cup with Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, and winning gold medals with a roster full of NHL all-stars probably doesn’t require as much high-level coaching as he was given credit for.

2. What happened next is where hockey culture took a sharp turn.

Former players emerged with accusations about how Babcock treated his players. In particular, his telling Mitch Marner to list the players, in order, who tried the hardest … and then releasing that list to the players ranked at the bottom (apparently, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri) was an abuse of power and trust.

3. Then, of course, came Akim Aliu’s bombshell about Flames coach Bill Peters.

4. The deluge against Babcock roared on.

He prevented Mike Modano from reaching 1,500 career games. He tried to scratch Chris Chelios for the Winter Classic in Chicago, where Chelios was born and played for nine years. Why would a coach do that? Apparently just to show that he could — that he was in charge, that his power was unquestioned.

5. Power is nothing if it’s not used every now and then.

If a muscle isn’t flexed, it weakens, and if a power goes unexercised, it eventually will diminish. So it’s no surprise that Babcock, Peters, and probably other NHL coaches, exert their authority in disturbing ways. From now on, though, it won’t be a surprise when players fight back.

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