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"It used to be, you'd get cut, you'd finish your shift, no matter what," Cherry says. "A guy like Tim Horton of Toronto, the blood would be coming down his face, and he'd finish his shift. You'd want to get up there to the NHL to be like Tim Horton. Now, you have a guy like Jaromir Jagr of the Penguins. Jaromir Jagr [who not coincidentally is Czech] is everything that's wrong with the NHL. He gets hit, he goes down and stays there. Get up!"
Who are these people who would change the game? Cherry has called McNall, the Kings' owner, Bruce McNutt. He points out again and again that Gil Stein, the league's interim president from June 1992 until Gary Bettman became commissioner on Feb. 1, instituted various rules changes in the past year but "never saw a hockey game until he was 39 years old." Should someone who never saw the game until he was 39 be allowed to tinker with something that has been a part of people's lives from birth? Is that right? These are people "who wouldn't know a hockey player if they slept with Bobby Orr." Bettman is a basketball man, the former senior vice-president and general counsel of the NBA. Cherry says he is withholding judgment on Bettman, but is there any doubt about which way he is leaning? He noticed that Bettman recently said he wants to "enhance the puck" so it can be seen better on television. What does that mean?
"They all want to change something." Cherry says. "They think if they change—if they take out the fights, do something different—hockey is going to become big in the U.S. The big TV contract. It just isn't going to happen. Face it, people in the U.S. would rather watch The Rifleman than a hockey game. It's almost sad the way our people try to market this game. Let it stand for itself. Let it be what it is."
The league boasts that fighting is down 33% this year and that the number of foreign players still is rising. As of last Friday a total of 767 players had appeared in at least one NHL game this season. There were 49 players from the former Soviet Union on the list, 29 from the former Czechoslovakia, 24 from Sweden, nine from Finland and 13 from other countries outside North America. The 508 Canadians and a surging group of 135 Americans—U.S. players are all right with Cherry because they grew up under a similar hockey system—still were in the majority, but the freedom of hockey movement clearly is in full force. There will be more Europeans before there will be fewer.
"Don Cherry is like Humphrey Bogart in the wrong movie," Winnipeg Jet assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, a Finn, says. "He's real, but he doesn't fit in all the different situations he's in."
"He's a total idiot," Calgary Flame defenseman Frank Musil, a Czech, says. "He's a goof. I ignore him. He accuses all European players of not playing physically, but not all Canadian and U.S. players have the same skills as the Europeans. You can't criticize these players for not fighting, because they never did it back home. If they grew up here, maybe they would be more willing to do that. What can you say? He's a goof."
"I think Don is very predictable," says Stein, who is now the NHL's No. 2 man. "I think he's fun, but he's always been who he is. I guess he likes goon hockey. Well, the public doesn't, and the league doesn't, and the people running the game don't. The league has a wonderful group of Europeans now, and an international character has already been established. That isn't going to change."
Cherry responds the way he always responds. Directly.
"That's really stupid," he says into the camera. "Isn't that stupid?
"The fans love fighting. The players don't mind. The coaches like the fights. What's the big deal? The players who don't want to fight don't have to fight. Do you ever see Wayne Gretzky in a fight? What's the big deal? I saw Winnipeg and New Jersey the other night, and they were just skating around. Skating around. It was like a tea party, like watching Sweden and Finland play."