“What I try to do is teach kids the Canadian way.” These are the words of Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry - one of the country’s most beloved and recognizable figures - in reference to the celebratory tactics of players in the National Hockey League. Disgusted with the goal celebrations of Russian-born NHL superstar Alexander Ovechkin, Cherry launches into a segment that is alarmingly xenophobic by juxtaposing Ovechkin with a number of foreign, dark-skinned soccer players swinging their jerseys over their heads, posing for the camera, and, as Cherry proclaims, acting like “goofs.” As a result, Ovechkin is seamlessly coded as “other,” framed with the “goofs” that Cherry admonishes for their overly-enthusiastic goal celebrations. Then, just as seamlessly, Cherry recites a list of Canadian players who celebrate appropriately in what could only be termed “the Canadian way.”
While Cherry was ripped for racial insensitivity in the media after his appearance, his bias towards European hockey players has long been documented, frequently referring to foreign players as being soft or (in some cases) “everything that’s wrong with the NHL.” Therefore, his criticisms of Ovechkin are not surprising - nor is his threat of imminent physical harm upon the Russian.
However, the debate over goal celebrations and “the Canadian way” underscores a discourse in sport that questions the prioritization of individualism. In other words, is Cherry just an “old-schooler” who can’t handle a new sportsmanship aesthetic (Cunningham, 2008) that embraces individualism? Is he the victim of nostalgia? Or is there supposed to be something uniquely dispassionate about Canadians?
Sports leagues deal with the issue of individualism in different ways. While soccer’s governing bodies are tolerant of exuberant behavior, the NFL fines its players for elaborate touchdown celebrations (the NHL, MLB, and NBA lack standardized celebration penalties). Therefore, is it simply an outdated notion that drives the punishment of Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens for harmless celebrations like proposing to cheerleaders or shaking pompoms after they score? Because, even if you believe Ovechkin is acting like a “goof,” he is also primarily responsible not just for revitalizing hockey for the Capitals in Washington, D.C. (attendance figures and TV ratings are the highest ever for the franchise), but throughout the entire league as the excitement and passion he brings to the game resonates with fans and often places him on sports’ front page or as SportsCenter’s lead-in (an extreme rarity for the NHL in recent years).
Responding to Cherry’s comments on the CBC broadcast, Ovechkin said, “Old people don’t like [it] when people show energy and emotions. So they are like robots.” While Cherry may take pride in instilling a robotic disposition to Canadian athletes, the NHL needs the entertainment value that a dynamic Ovechkin brings to the game. Ironic, it seems, that some 30 years after the “Miracle on Ice,” that a Russian would be chided for showing too much emotion - essentially - for being human. But as long as Ovechkin’s celebrations refrain from being derisive, what’s the harm in having fun?
Cunningham, P. L. (2009). "Please don't fine me again!!!!!": Black athletic defiance in the NBA and NFL. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 33, 39-58.