RALEIGH, N.C. – Oh boy, here we go!
It’s finally time to throw a couple of cents – no, how about a dollar’s worth of input regarding the reactions to comments made by Don Cherry and Brian Burke throughout this past season with reference to the Carolina Hurricanes and the Storm Surge.
Rather than jump on my Twitter feed to share it all in a fragmented mess, I’m putting it all in one spot, and then I’ll feed it into the social media meat grinder and let it churn from there.
Why not? It’s another off-day before the Hurricanes hit the ice for practice in preparation of their upcoming NHL Eastern Conference Final.
Plus, it’s right on the heels of Cherry’s latest Coach’s Corner segment holding to his original controversial take on the Canes postgame celebration.
Warning: Willingness to understand different points of view advised. You will agree, disagree, vehemently disagree, or stop reading here according to your already made-up decision, preconceived disregard for the subject, or objection to hearing points from both sides. That’s okay. Hockey’s just a game, right? Just like two teams competing on the ice we can go at it, play hard – fairly and unfairly – and by the end of it all shake hands and say, ‘Good game, eh? See you next year’.
On SportNet’s Coaches Corner on Saturday, host Ron MacLean pointed out how Cherry’s comments from earlier in the season made “Raleigh, the Hurricanes, you – everybody rich and famous”.
“This is unbelievable – The Jerks phenomenon,” MacLean continued as the camera panned to shots of Bunch of Jerks signs and towels that fans in attendance were holding prior to Carolina’s 5-2 win to complete their four-game series sweep of the New York Islanders.
“I don’t understand…or I’m told the owner said entertain the crowd,” Cherry said as he jumped in, fully in his boisterous on-air character.
“And they still grabbed 13 to 14,000 people. And these people that are in here now that they’re winning – frontrunning fans as far as I’m concerned – that’s what they are, frontrunning fans.”
As MacLean quipped, “hard not to embrace it, isn’t it?”, Cherry held strong to his original take.
“Listen, I said they’re a bunch of jerks, being a fish on the water, a bowling ball – this is professional hockey and no sport in the world does it except them, and it comes down from the top, ‘I want you to entertain the fans’. The fans there now, the 17 and 18,000, they’re frontrunners, they’re there because they win – not because they act like fish. Okay, that’s it! I’ve got my little say on that!”
So, if I’m listening to and understanding what Cherry is saying, he’s making sure to point out that the team’s play is why the fans are there now, in record numbers too, and not because what the Storm Surge produced.
If so, he’s absolutely 100% correct.
This Canes squad which was questioned as being a ‘playoff team’ by many before the beginning of the season, including myself, have earned every win and every achievement to be where they are.
They have won and lost games and made the postseason because of the efforts made by the players on the ice as led by the coaching staff.
The fanbase has rallied around that too – an important component of the overall mix of operating a successful franchise in any hockey market – traditional or non-traditional.
Burke jumps in
The point where Cherry and Brian Burke, who has been on SportsNet talk shows and HNIC broadcasts offering intermission commentary, stomped their individual and synchronous ‘foot to the ground’ came when Carolina’s activities off the ice were highlighted more than what the team was doing on the ice.
NHL hockey in their opinion didn’t need a promotional and marketing gimmick to sell the game that way, overshadowing what effort and energy the players and coaches put in every day, working to compete and produce wins.
They made that clear and held their line.
Other pro leagues, considered lesser than the NHL could resort to those gimmicky practices to attract attention and fans according to Burke, but a league franchise didn’t need to, referring to it as ‘Pee Wee garbage’.
“I don’t need a reason – I don’t like it,” Burke said on a segment with host John Shannon on SportsNet.
“I like the slow clap, I don’t like the Surge. The clap’s fine – the Pee Wee stuff I don’t like. I don’t think it’s professional. I don’t think it belongs in our league. The people in Carolina like it – great. I’m not saying the league should abolish it. I’m not saying no one should enjoy it. I’m saying, I don’t like it. And I don’t care if you agree or understand that viewpoint. Enjoy it, have fun. Watch it – I’m not gonna watch it. I turn the TV off when they win. I switch to another game. I think it’s absurdly amateurish Pee Wee garbage. If they like it, terrific, stay and watch it. Clap, have another beer and watch them swim or canoe or whatever they’re gonna do next. I’m not watchin’.”
Opinionated and self-anointed guardians
As I’ve absorbed the comments made by both Cherry and Burke and all the blowback that they’ve created over the past few months, it’s taken me a while to assimilate a sensible thought process to understand and share why each man would say what they did and why so many have taken such offense to them.
At this point I’m not going to ‘hockeysplain’ the Canadian/American dynamic of understanding or not understanding the game – an insulting practice to fans of any team, not just Caniacs.
Both men have been part of the sport and the NHL for decades and have influenced much of what the NHL has been and currently is, for better or for worse.
Yes, Cherry at 85 (born in Kingston, Ontario) and Burke at 63 (born in Providence, R.I.), have been raised in earlier eras, but have earned the right to judge on what they feel is good for the game or not.
Take it or leave it, they say what they believe, and stand by it no matter if it’s popular or not.
What I interpret and understand their comments to stem from is a guarded approach to protecting the integrity and the history of the league and how the NHL is interpreted and understood, particularly by new fans from everywhere – traditional or non-traditional hockey markets alike.
Change for the sake of change is the denial.
Understanding the prime focus of why the league exists and appreciating its traditions and history is paramount before adding and enhancing it the ‘right way’ is just as critical.
What’s the big deal?
Theatrics like the Storm Surge have never been needed or implemented by NHL teams to draw fans – particularly with the players leading it.
That’s the marketing department’s job, not the players’ responsibility.
Maybe in other pro leagues – AHL, ECHL, European, etc. – those practices haven proven successful in increasing interest and attendance, but not in the marquee assimilation of the sport’s best players from all points worldwide.
The efforts of coaches, players and all others involved in preparing teams to compete for the most storied championship trophy in sport, the Stanley Cup, are genuine and real.
Exceptional skating, passing and shooting skills resulting in impressive offensive and defensive displays, bruises and cuts accrued daily, blood spilled from high sticks and fights, as well as tears dropped following crushing defeats aren’t orchestrated or planned.
It’s all real, so an excessive postgame celebration following just wins, and during the regular season seemed a bit much.
It approached becoming theater more like professional wrestling than illustrating the true elements of serious sport and competition.
Cherry and Burke presented it as such.
A little too serious? Sure. But their comments were intended to be taken seriously.
The Bunch of Jerks phenomenon didn’t do it, the team’s play did
Cherry however made it personal and referred to captain Justin Williams and the players as a “bunch of jerks”, a moniker that ignited Molotov cocktails launched on social media ever since and still to this day.
Reaction in Raleigh and throughout the Hurricanes fan base was organic, swift and the organization took advantage of it.
The Bunch of Jerks label was transferred to a T-shirt that many purchased (with income reportedly approaching $200,00-plus) and increased discussion and interaction on social media.
It successfully led many more to see what was going on at PNC Arena.
Cherry acknowledged all of that when he made his latest comments.
However, he was sure to point out that it was the team’s success on the ice that eventually created the increase in attention and attendance, not the Storm Surge.
To that point he is correct.
Unintended consequences avoided
If the Hurricanes did not make the playoffs, the Storm Surge would have just fallen by the wayside as a failed attempt trying to market the team to success rather than the opposite.
Who knows if many who purchased one would have thought twice to wear their Bunch of Jerks T-shirts so proudly if the team didn’t make it to the postseason.
The name would have spoke volumes of the organization’s identity which would have still been tied to losing.
However, that’s not how it’s turned out so far.
Icing a winning team sells tickets and builds interest.
That is what Cherry referred to on Saturday.
Head coach Rod Brind’Amour has led a roster of players that many predicted would not get as far as they have to sitting eight wins away from the club’s second Stanley Cup.
Right up to the final week of the season, when it was apparent Carolina would finally end its playoff drought, the team still hadn’t earned the respect even in the opinion of the NHL’s own cadre of writers.
They wrote much of the Storm Surge but didn’t feature as much of the team’s dominant winning trend and play since Jan. 1.
I tweeted as much about the lack of articles in daily league email digests during the season and got the response that the Hurricanes hadn’t yet arrived and wouldn’t get that attention until they did more – i.e. make the playoffs.
Let me introduce you to Nashville, Tampa Bay, Columbus. These teams generate lots of coverage. From my perspective it’s not market related, it’s success related. Carolina hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) February 27, 2019
It seems that the first team to qualify for the Conference Final round of play with an unexpected sweep of the Islanders has finally got noticed by NHL.com which had no less than three writers pumping out content daily from Brooklyn and Raleigh.
The Hurricanes are for real and have earned the attention they’re getting.
And it all would have been fine with Cherry’s comments, take them or leave them, if not for his reference to fans as ‘frontrunners’.
Here we go again – sigh.
And here we are
Like many, my perspectives on hockey come from a combination of playing, refereeing, and coaching the game at various levels while also adding media work and observations covering the Hurricanes over the last eight years.
As a Canadian growing up playing minor hockey in small towns north of Toronto, I grew up watching CBC’s (now SportsNet) Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) and Cherry coaching the Boston Bruins against my boyhood idol team the Montreal Canadians, and local favorite Toronto Maple Leafs.
Memories I cherish watching games with both my mom and dad.
As you can tell, I wasn’t and never have been a super fan of any one club, but held very strong feelings for a handful.
My family didn’t have a lot of extra money to go watch NHL games live at Maple Leaf Gardens, so watching it all on TV was the best way to feel like I was there.
The production and presentation of Hockey Night in Canada instilled in me the pride of being Canadian.
Hearing the build-up in the theme music and footage leading into broadcasts even today gets me revved up to watch a game on TV.
I look forward to the intermission period analysis and features, including Coach’s Corner.
After he retired from coaching following his stint in Colorado, Cherry got his segment in 1980 and I’ve watched it when I could ever since.
That’s nearly 40 years – from childhood through to near middle-age.
So, I feel like I understand where Cherry and even Burke are coming from, and have agreed with them in many ways and disagreed in a few as well.
The underlying reason for resentment
Burke being as straight a shooter as he is stated why he didn’t like the Storm Surge off the hop.
In making his comments, he never made disparaging remarks in reference to players or fans.
That is where I wish Grapes had been better – even to apologize for it.
He didn’t, nor did anyone want him to – at least that’s what team owner Tom Dundon said when I asked him.
I believe Cherry said what he did for a specific point of attention and it was targeted at the Hurricanes majority owner.
Many in the NHL world – former and current players, executives, coaches and media members – will never forget or can forgive Dundon’s handling of former GM and Hall of Famer Ron Francis’ dismissal.
Though the full details of how it came about have not been revealed or reported, there is an undercurrent of soreness of a wound that cut deep and may never heal.
I include myself in that group.
Will the slipper fit?
For many, seeing the team’s success highlighted and recognized more for a marketing ploy rather than the team’s play on the ice was the ‘wrong’ type of success to celebrate.
Luckily, the cessation of the Storm Surge as announced by Williams before the regular season ended helped to correct that.
In my opinion, Cherry’s criticism of the organization and recent update of his stance on the Hurricanes was to ensure Dundon did not receive the credit, but rather that the team did.
The coach, the captain and the players proved they deserved to make the playoffs and earn the success they have, and the outspoken former coach and analyst made that clear.
However, for Cherry to call the fans ‘frontrunners’ was wrong.
Who wouldn’t jump on a bandwagon powered and steered by a ‘special group’ of players as Brind’Amour has referred to them as?
It seemed that the comment was made more to foreshadow what the future should hold for the Carolina Hurricanes.
At this point, there are those who refer to the Canes as playing with ‘house money’.
That is true.
Following this season’s success which may end with or without a Stanley Cup, the future moves that Carolina’s ownership makes will speak volumes of all of this speaking in code that’s taken place.
Is assembling a periodic, one-hit wonder good enough, or will icing a perennial Stanley-Cup contending team become the norm in Raleigh?
Of course, we all want the latter, but we’ll just have to wait and see how this part of the Cinderella story ends first.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport