Maple Leafs’ Nikita Zaitsev Calls Don Cherry a Clown: Is He Right?

In an interview published in Russian a couple of weeks ago, but just this week coming to light, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev went off on his time playing in Toronto and how he didn’t like how coach Mike Babcock used him. For good measure, he added critical commentary about the team’s defense, and then reviewed Toronto’s fan base.

Auston Matthews, Nikita Zaitsev
Nikita Zaitsev (right) recently asked the Maple Leafs for a trade.
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The answer to the multiple-choice question, “Which of those comments were wise?” is obviously, “None of the above.”

However, the one thing he said that seemed to cause the most stir with Maple Leafs commentators was that Hockey Night in Canada’s resident “coach” Don Cherry was a “clown.”

Related: Maple Leafs’ Patrick Marleau: Taking One for the Team?

What Zaitsev Said

Specifically, Zaitsev noted, “I’m amused that clowns like Cherry have a very big emphasis in our country as real experts. (What he says) will immediately be on the websites, as if this is a serious person of some kind.”

The defenseman’s statements might have been general comments about what he found different between playing hockey in Russia or playing in Toronto, or they might have been a personal reaction to Cherry’s Coach’s Corner critiques of his play earlier this season.

Don Cherry, Ron MacLean, Hockey Night in Canada, Hockey Broadcasting
Don Cherry and Ron MacLean have been a staple in hockey broadcasting for decades. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

In one notable rant, Cherry declared that Zaitsev didn’t know what he was doing on the ice, made Jake Muzzin (the best player when he was on the Los Angeles Kings) look bad, and was a forward trying to play defense. That can’t be fun to hear, but it’s typical of the kind of bluster Cherry engages.

So, What Is a Clown?

When I first read Zaitsev’s comments, I had two immediate thoughts. First, a young man had to be really frustrated to go off as he did. And, second, is he right? Is Don Cherry really a clown?

Related: Zaitsev & Ozhiganov: The Maple Leafs “Quiet” Russians

So, I thought I’d have some fun. First, let’s define what a clown is:

A clown is an entertainer who wears funny clothes, usually has a painted face, and makes people laugh by intentionally behaving in silly ways. Most people are familiar with clowns because, as part of a circus, they emerge to fill the space between the main acts and create a diversion so onlookers won’t notice set changes.

Don Cherry
Don Cherry (Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE)

Clowns are seldom the main act but provide secondary amusement. In general, clowns engage in a routine of over-the-top buffoonery to make audiences laugh.

In truth, clowns are pretty successful. Most of what we know about clowns grew during the 1950s and 1960s, when clowns were used to entertain children. Those of us who grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons remember Bozo the Clown as a children’s show. The idea of happy clowns worked so well that in 1963 McDonald’s created the loveable Ronald McDonald to be its hamburger icon.

Is Don Cherry a Clown?

When we compare the definition of what a clown is to what Cherry does on Coach’s Corner, there’s no question: Cherry fits the classic definition of what a clown is.

First, does he wear funny clothes? How can anyone doubt the answer?

Related: Don Cherry’s Impact on the Colorado Rockies

Second, does Cherry make people laugh by acting silly? Of course he does. I know hockey fans are polarized when they consider Cherry. Some simply despise him. Some fans probably believe his every word.

I can only answer for myself that I usually enjoy what Cherry does and I think he and partner Ron MacLean have a nicely practiced shtick. MacLean occupies the second chair and gets Cherry going. Then Cherry almost comes out of the screen at viewers – only to be pulled back by MacLean’s verbal leash. Cherry blusters, he rants, and he puffs up.

Don Cherry and Ron MacLean get ready for Hockey Day in Canada (Steve Carty)

Third, is Cherry the main act or a secondary diversion between the main acts? Cherry isn’t the main event. His work on Coach’s Corner is a diversion between periods so the Zamboni can clear the ice and the players can take a break. If the main acts were not present, there would be no need for his work.

In short, by the classic definition, Cherry is a clown.

Why I Like Don Cherry

That said, I like Cherry and I look forward to listening to him and MacLean during Coach’s Corner. They are playful and extroverted. They don’t engage in nuance. Cherry’s opinions are on display for people to love or hate. His puffery in dress and language is so self-promotionally subjective that no reasonable hockey fan could take it literally.

Far from being critical of the role he plays on Hockey Night in Canada, I enjoy him. And, ironically, I admit I enjoy him for the same reason I have enjoyed the Carolina Hurricanes “Surges,” which of course Cherry hates. For me, it’s the kind of over-the-top entertainment that I think adds to the fun of the game – especially for those who haven’t grown up watching hockey within the cocoon of Canadian hockey culture.

Don Cherry
Don Cherry poses for a photo (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

For me, it’s all fun (but, I’m not a player getting roasted either). Yes, Cherry is a clown. He engages in buffoonery and slapstick. He’s good entertainment between the periods of the main event. In fact, I even think he sometimes shares interesting insights.

Related: Hurricanes Let ‘Jerk’ Fans Wear Cherry’s Words

Then again, sometimes he simply wears funny clothes and makes a lot of honking noise. When that happens, I enjoy that too. But I don’t take it too seriously.

Where Zaitsev Went Wrong

I’m pretty sure Zaitsev didn’t mean “Don Cherry is a clown” in the way I’ve outlined here. In fact, I’m certain he meant that Cherry was foolish and incompetent.

Zaitsev’s problem was that he took Cherry seriously. And, because he took Cherry seriously, he probably reacted out of pride and pain. Now, he’s asked to be traded for “personal reasons.”

Nikita Zaitsev Maple Leafs
Nikita Zaitsev of the Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I have to believe there’s more to Zaitsev’s personal reasons than Cherry critiquing him on television. But, it’s also too bad when a young hockey player from a different country and culture feels picked on in public by a person he feels has so many people’s attention.

The perfect reaction to Cherry’s antics came from Carolina Hurricanes fans. His recent rivalry with the Hurricanes over their Surge routines is simply silly. He called the Hurricanes players and management “a bunch of jerks.” Hurricanes fans went with it, had t-shirts made, and turned Cherry’s goofy name-calling into a way to bond as fans.

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Where We Are Now?

Zaitsev is probably soon to be an ex-Maple Leafs player. There are a lot of hockey reasons to trade a player from one team to another. Sadly, in these days of the salary cap limitations, so many of those trades aren’t really about a player’s on-ice abilities.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Prospects, Marner, Zaitsev, Contract Talks

Sad, too, that Zaitsev didn’t have a friend on the team who might have convinced him to wear Cherry’s critiques more easily.

I think it’s too late for someone to say, “Listen, Nikita, let it go. No one really takes Don Cherry seriously. He’s a clown.”