The Canes have taken a stand in the name of silliness, and have ended up winning a battle of values in a league that often takes itself too seriously
Among the unexpected victors emerging from the bizarre first-round of this years Stanley Cup playoffs were a bunch of jerks playing for the Carolina Hurricanes. On their way through, these jerks members of a team that hasnt seen the post-season since 2009 upset the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, and swept their next opponents, the New York Islanders, to move on to the conference final. These jerks are playing good hockey. The only problem? These jerks and their fans are apparently having too much fun.
Throughout the regular season, the Hurricanes (who squeezed into the first wildcard slot with a 46-29-7 record) turned their post-games into a rally. It started back in October, after a win against the New York Rangers. The team lined up along one blue line, then skated together the length of the ice and threw themselves into the glass it was quickly dubbed the storm surge. Soon, it became a more elaborate carnival, with the team adding staged elements, like a game of duck-duck-goose, mock baseball and bowling, as well as, uh, Quidditch.
As Hurricanes captain Justin Williams told NHL.com in December, the point was to make it a fun time to interact with us and our fans. Yet, even by that point, the antics were causing concern. In November, former NHL coach-turned-commentator Brian Burke told a sports radio station in Toronto: I dont like it. I dont think it belongs in our league I think its absurdly amateurish pee-wee garbage stuff.
But Burkes personal annoyance was overshadowed weeks later, when another, more famous, former NHL coach-turned-broadcaster took aim at the fun.
These guys, to me, are jerks! Don Cherry, the longtime CBC commentator and human exclamation point, shouted during his regular Saturday night segment, Coachs Corner, in February. I know what Im talking about! Never do anything like that! Theyre still not drawing [a crowd], theyre a bunch of jerks as far as Im concerned!
The Hurricanes immediately saw an opportunity. The team coopted Cherrys remarks to build the narrative of underdog pluck. It had the sneer emblazoned on t-shirts, and fans were equally swift to appropriate the derision as a badge of honour. It was they to whom Cherry addressed his latest comments this past weekend, dismissing Canes supporters as front-running fans in other words, band-wagoners.
In response, the Hurricanes duly updated their playoff t-shirts Monday:
That Cherry doesnt like something new is unsurprising. The 85-year-old usually takes immediate umbrage at any variety beyond his own flamboyant wardrobe, which he shuffles constantly, showcasing a vast array of garish suits apparently cut from discarded reams of upholstery. But what Cherry often articulates, perhaps even without knowing it, isnt just cantankerousness, but rather a kind of unintentional airing of the NHLs core principles.
If Cherry does anything well, its broadcasting values hockey still holds dear those of tradition and normalcy and, subsequently, opposition to (and bewilderment at) change beyond mere aesthetics.
These are the same values he projected in 2016, for instance, when the NHL faced a different kind of fan-pleasing spectacle that of John Scott, the low-scoring career grinder who was elevated in a collective lark to the leagues All Star roster via an online public voting mechanism. In response, the NHL grumbled its recognition of the validity of the fan vote, but then seemed to disappear the actual vote totals from its website. After Scott reportedly refused the leagues request to bow out of the All Star Game, he quickly found himself suspiciously traded from Arizona to Montreal, where he was immediately tossed down to the AHL. At the time, Cherry again upbraided the fans, accusing them of ruining Scotts career by denying him an NHL salary. You jerks! he shouted.
In the end, Scott played in the All Star Game and was unquestionably its hero. The collective joke turned into a genuine feelgood story. So, of course, when the game was all over, in lock-step with the spirit of Cherrys rant, the NHL quickly disbanded the public voting tool altogether, lest the fans have any more of the same fun again.
The values Cherry transmits are also the same that coloured testimony NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave last week to parliamentarians in Ottawa researching concussions in sport. Asked directly about thegrowing evidence of a link between CTE a degenerative brain disorder that has been found in young, deceased hockey players and concussions, Bettman characteristically demurred. Im not sure that the premise that the link is clear now is one that the scientific and medical community has embraced, he remarked, echoing his previous comments on the topic.
Where braggadocio often hides timidity, frivolity can be a sign of deeper confidence. So it is in hockey. So it is with the NHL, a league that takes itself so seriously that it frequently cant recognize, or simply dismisses, the seriousness of its own fans whether its when theyre actually enjoying themselves, or when theyre simply asking for the league to live up to expectations. The NHL hasnt stopped Carolinas celebrations, and it likely wont, presumably as long as they dont spread; the NHL cant really take a joke, after all. Which is maybe all the more reason to laugh at it sometimes, like a bunch of jerks.
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