Growing up in Ottawa, Noha Beshir, the daughter of Muslim immigrants from Egypt, first became a fan of ice hockey at the age of 11. Later, as a hijab-wearing teen, her deep knowledge of the game became her “Canadian badge”.
“When I fell in love with hockey a pleasant byproduct of this thing I was so obsessed with was it was so quintessentially Canadian,” said Ms Beshir, now 37, whose Twitter handle is @HockeyHijabi. And her guide in learning to analyse plays was Don Cherry, a coach turned broadcaster known for his gaudy suits and incendiary opinions.
This week, Mr Cherry, 85, was fired for taking a swipe at immigrants who did not wear poppy pins to support military veterans. “You people that come here,” he said during a hockey broadcast, “you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for poppies”.
Over his 38 years on the Hockey Night in Canada television show, Mr Cherry has regularly faced calls for his dismissal over his attacks on European and francophone players, “leftwing pinkos” and “pukes” who advocate for less fighting in hockey.
But the outrage over his “you people” diatribe was swift and fierce — unleashing a new chapter in the country’s culture wars and laying bare the identity crisis in Canada’s national sport at a time of sweeping demographic change.
Canada’s broadcast standards body was overrun with complaints. Canada’s Sikh defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, said “our fallen would be disappointed”. Jagmeet Singh, also a Sikh and leader of the left-leaning New Democratic party, posted a photo on social media of his great-grandfather who served in two world wars under the British.
“I know he’s just a sports commentator,” said Arunachal Subramanian, a Toronto hockey fan who immigrated from India as a child. “But he is a Canadian icon, and it’s another example of leadership failing us.”
Still, Mr Cherry, who refused to apologise for his statement, has no shortage of supporters. Shortly after his firing the hashtag #DonCherryForPM trended on Twitter in Canada. An online Change.org petition calling for him to be rehired gathered more than 200,000 signatures in two days. Many of the comments on the site rail against political correctness, liberals and the media.
The backlash against his dismissal has morphed into a political fight. A common refrain among right-leaning commentators was “What about Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos?” — a reference to photos that appeared during the election campaign of the prime minister wearing blackface make-up. “Until we can find photos of Don Cherry wearing blackface . . . he’s more fit than the incumbent to be prime minister,” wrote former conservative politician Derek Fildebrandt.
“An early adopter” of the type of rightwing populism now typified by US president Donald Trump, Mr Cherry’s view of the world is “rooted in a nostalgic memory of Canadian history that never really existed,” said Kristi Allain, an associate professor at St Thomas University in New Brunswick.
In one of the interviews Mr Cherry gave after he was fired, he insisted his traditional view of hockey as a bloody and bare-knuckle sport bred on the nation’s frozen ponds was alive and well. “In the small cities, Canada hasn’t changed at all, maybe in the big cities it certainly has changed,” he said.
Yet Canada’s small cities and towns have changed — at least in size. Between the 2011 and 2016 census years, one-third of Canada’s small urban centres experienced population declines. At the same time Canada’s larger cities have become increasingly diverse amid an influx of immigrants. “If you’re going to say hockey is Canada’s game, at the elite level it’s far from what Canada actually looks like,” said Courtney Szto, an assistant professor at Queen’s University in Ontario who has studied racism in hockey. Of 700 National Hockey League players in the 2017 season, she determined just 3 per cent were visible minorities or indigenous.
The pro-hockey establishment is aware it is out of step with the times and risks losing potential fans to more ethnically diverse sports such as basketball. Last year an NHL policy brief warned “hockey has a perception in some circles as being ‘not for some’ and ‘only for others’” and said hockey’s leaders needed to adapt to “the drastic demographic and cultural change that is coming”.
There are some signs of change. In recent years a parallel Hockey Night in Canada broadcast has gone out in Punjabi targeting the 500,000 native speakers in Canada. Hockey camps and training programmes focused on south Asian players have also sprung up in several cities.
Lali Toor — founder of one such organisation, Apna Hockey in Edmonton, Alberta — sees Mr Cherry’s firing as “a turning point” for the sport. “We’re letting go of the old,” he said. “If hockey doesn’t adapt, how is it going to grow?”
For hockey fan Ms Beshir, the Toronto Raptors basketball team’s championship run last spring opened her eyes to what an inclusive and diverse sport looks like. Complete newcomers to basketball, such as herself, were “invited to join and be part of the fun, whereas with hockey you have to prove your credentials”, she said. “Even someone like me, you may never fit in.”