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The solution, in this case, is obvious: Stu Grimson must fight Don Cherry, the Hockey Night in Canada personality who maligned Grimson on the air. Grimson is a retired NHL enforcer with 217 bouts to his credit, Cherry a 77-year-old bloviator and former coach with a taste for garish ensembles and a loose command of the facts. To make it fair, Grimson would be required to don a blindfold and a pair of the jumbo, inflatable boxing gloves sometimes seen at children's birthday parties. Even thus handicapped, he might still beat Cherry senseless, which leads to the question: How could anyone tell?
In one of the semicoherent rants that have earned him comparisons to Abe Simpson (Bart's doddering grandfather), Cherry unloaded on Grimson and two other ex-enforcers—calling them "pukes," "turncoats," and "hypocrites" for what he interpreted as the trio's embrace of a ban on fighting in the NHL. On-ice fights, and the men who wage them, are a hot topic: Since last spring, three NHL enforcers have died.
Derek (the Boogeyman) Boogaard, a fearsome 6'8", 265-pound heavyweight for the Rangers, died in May of an accidental overdose of alcohol and the painkiller oxycodone. On Aug. 15, Jets forward Rick Rypien committed suicide; the 27-year-old, it was revealed by Winnipeg's assistant G.M. Craig Heisinger, had battled depression for 10 years. Two weeks later, Predators tough guy Wade Belak was found dead in a Toronto condo. Belak, who retired last March after 14 NHL seasons, had hanged himself. (While his death was originally reported as a suicide, his parents have since described it as accidental.)
The deaths fueled intense speculation about the hazards faced by these modern-day gladiators. Is there something about the emotional duress of brawling night after night—the neurological toll taken by getting slugged in the head for a living—that might predispose them to depression, addictive behavior, suicide? The discussion those questions provoked got Cherry's tartan knickers in a twist.
On his Coach's Corner segment on the CBC on Oct. 6, Cherry expressed "disgust" with Grimson and ex--tough guys Chris (Knuckles) Nilan and Jim Thomson. Their sins? Putting forward the theory that the deceased players had been "drinking drugs and alcoholic because they fight. You turncoats. You hypocrites!" he went on. "You were fighters, and now you don't want guys to make the same living you did."
Never mind that Grimson denies ever saying that the unique pressures endured by tough guys lead to addiction or depression. Nor is Grimson an advocate for a ban on fighting. Indeed, in an interview with SI two weeks before Cherry's diatribe, Grimson favored keeping the enforcer's role "vibrant."
"If you don't have that person on the roster, other teams will play you different," he predicted. "They'll take liberties with your skill players."
Grimson's old nickname, the Grim Reaper, serves him well in his new job as a litigation attorney with the Nashville firm Kay, Griffin, Enkema & Colbert, which on Oct. 11 issued a statement decrying Cherry's "baseless," "slanderous," and "damaging and inflammatory" comments. "Messrs. Grimson, Nilan and Thomson are considering further recourse."
We were going to suggest inflatable boxing gloves, but Cherry has since apologized, saying on Oct. 15, "I gotta admit, I was wrong on a lot of things. I put three enforcers, tough guys—my type of guys—and I threw them under the bus, and I'm sorry about it."
As wrongheaded as Cherry is in this instance, he speaks for many hockey fans worried about the direction of the game. They are adherents of a rugged, punishing, physical style of play that is, they fear, being legislated and fined out of existence. While the deaths of those enforcers reignited old debates about fighting's place in the game, Brendan Shanahan was busy whacking players in the pocketbook. Shanahan, the league's new Dean of Discipline (his actual title is senior vice president of player safety), took office with a mandate to crack down on head shots, and he did just that, suspending four players during the NHL's exhibition season for a total of 15 regular-season games and $595,369.15 in forfeited pay.