The televised forum given to Don Cherry to explore hockey issues — and often topics outside Canada's favourite game — may be working to shape a "tougher" Canadian identity, but perhaps at the cost of multiculturalism, a new study suggests.
The study from two political science PhD candidates from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., looked at whether Cherry's Coach's Corner segments, which often focus on Canada's military as much as hockey, could carve "an understanding of Canadian identity through the lens of hockey analysis."
Co-author John Nater says the view of Canada often espoused by Cherry in his broadcasts seems to be restrictive in some aspects and essentially offers a one-sided view to millions of people each week.
"His view of Canadian identity would appear to be a limited one, focused very much on traditional Canadian immigration from western Europe and the United Kingdom," Nater said Tuesday. "The concern is it does exclude a large segment of the population . . . from non-traditional ethnicities. He is entitled to represent these views and put out his understanding of (national) identity, but the challenge with his position is they are not challenged. He is presented as a hockey commentator and there's no challenge function to what he says on non-hockey related issues."
Nater and co-author Robert Maciel spent about 10 months working on the study, which looked at every Coach's Corner segment from the 2009-10 NHL season. Their analysis found that Cherry's support of the Canadian Forces was very prominent and the reach of his views could extend far beyond Canada's massive base of hockey fans.
"On a consistent basis, he is almost as likely to talk about the military than he is to talk about hockey itself," Nater said. "It's tough to gauge the impact of how that affects the general public, but Hockey Night in Canada is one of the top-rated programs throughout the season. His audience is huge, he has a very large following independent of hockey, so the impact is likely very widespread."
The study, which is still in progress and pending academic review, is titled The Wrath of Grapes: Don Cherry and the Militarization of Hockey. It was presented Tuesday at the Canadian Political Science Association convention at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
Nater, who noted that he and Maciel are both fans of Hockey Night in Canada and feel Cherry was fairly represented, said the study presented Tuesday is hopefully the first step in a two-part study. The second part will look at how much Cherry actually influences viewers and how much weight is given to his comments on topics outside hockey analysis.
The popular commentator was not contacted as part of their study, and neither Cherry nor the CBC wanted to comment on Tuesday.
Nater said that through analyzing a full season of Cherry's segment that the words "troops," "battle" and "war" appeared nearly as frequently as references to hockey teams.
Despite many Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts centring on the Toronto Maple Leafs, the study found that during the entire season, "Leafs" was mentioned 11 times, while "troops" crossed Cherry's lips 12 times. The "Princess Pats" — in reference to Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry — was mentioned nine times.
The most mentioned word, with 47 references, was "fight," "fights" or "fighting."
The authors said the popularity of Cherry could be indicative of a shift in the Canadian politics as well.
"This very much reflects a lot of the things that are happening politically," Nater said. "You look at Toronto (with the election of Mayor Rob Ford), you look at nationally now, it seems to be a shift to more of a small-c conservative point of view. I think Cherry reflects that — going to traditional values, the support for the Canadian Forces, the support for a strong questioning of patriotism or one's love of country," he said.
"It's very much a strong view that Canadian identity rests on a tough image, a support for the troops and (goes) back to an older era — an idealized era — that looks at how you see Canada being a traditional British Anglo-Saxon country."
Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor of political studies in Kingston, Ont., said one of the main things Cherry brings to the table is a voice typically not heard in Canadian media in a sea of experts and pundits.
However, he doesn't feel Cherry's views during his weekly segment are changing the Canadian image.
"I think it's tough to have a lasting impact on Canadian identity or Canadian culture if you don't exhibit a vision for a country or . . . platform that you're advocating for where the country should head, and why," said Leuprecht, who has affiliations to both the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen's University.
"If there is an impact he has is he broadens the debate and he is able to introduce to mass audiences perspectives that are not either commonly heard or commonly presented in the way he does. He does add a very valuable dimension of public speech to Canadian public discourse because it is an angle that is not widely represented," he said.
"That's the most important (difference) he makes. (Cherry) gets us thinking about things in a slightly different way and he gets people talking about things in a way that provides for broader public debate on issues that perhaps we should be having broader public debate."
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