Tuesday marks the first of two meetings in three days between the Capitals and Hurricanes, a preview of a potential first-round playoff matchup that, should it come to fruition, might cause one of “Hockey Night in Canada” commentator Don Cherry’s garish suits to spontaneously catch fire.
To the curmudgeonly 85-year-old Cherry, who openly despises most forms of on-ice expression, Washington vs. Carolina pits one “jerk” against “a bunch of jerks,” and if the Capitals or Hurricanes don’t invite Steve Martin to drop the ceremonial first puck before a postseason game, it’ll be a missed opportunity.
On Saturday, Cherry took aim at Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov for daring to do his signature celebration, “The Bird,” after he scored the game-tying goal in the final minute of regulation last week against the Lightning. Washington would lose in overtime.
“Watch the jerk here now after he scores a goal, this a very important game right here,” Cherry said of Kuznetsov during his “Coach’s Corner” segment with Sportsnet co-host Ron MacLean. “This is like the two best teams here. Now he does the jerk thing like this. Now watch the overtime goal [Tampa Bay defenseman Victor] Hedman gets . . . [Kuznetsov] is deep in the [Capitals’ zone]. Watch Hedman get the goal. Remember, kids, Hockey Night in Canada. Karma hockey, they always come back. [Kuznetsov’s] not even in the [play]. He is a jerk, and he inspires the other team, and remember, kids, never inspire the other team."
Cherry’s comments made their way to Kuznetsov, who has 20 goals this season.
“If he want to say something, he can call me or he can meet me, but to call me jerk on TV doesn’t make him look good, you know?” the Capitals forward said Tuesday. “But whatever he said, my parents teach me a lot of good things when I’m young, and I’m not going to say anything bad about a guy who’s much older than me.”
Saturday wasn’t the first time Cherry criticized Kuznetsov for doing “The Bird,” which the 26-year-old Russian borrowed from the popular FIFA soccer video game series. In January, Kuznetsov broke out the move in front of the Columbus bench after scoring the game-tying goal with just over a minute remaining in regulation. Blue Jackets players got the last laugh, mocking Kuznetsov by doing their own rendition of the celebration after Artemi Panarin scored the game-winner in overtime.
“You do not make fun of a team when you score,” Cherry said of that playful incident during a subsequent “Coach’s Corner” segment.” “You play the game. That’s the Canadian way. You listen to me. Don’t listen to anybody else.”
Kuznetsov, who said his young daughter loves his goal celebration, brushed off the Blue Jackets’ mockery.
“That’s fine,” he said at the time. “It’s nice to get some people that think about me, same as in April last year.”
Last April, the Capitals defeated the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs en route to winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. Kuznetsov led all players in points and signature goal celebrations during Washington’s postseason run, but Cherry chose to focus on the latter total.
"I don’t like the Birdman,” he told ABC 7′s Erin Hawksworth last June. “Everything in Canada, we always react like no other sport . . . You can celebrate. [Alex Ovechkin] can celebrate. The only guy I don’t like is Birdman. Whatever his name is.”
All fans at Tuesday’s game will receive bobbleheads of Kuznetsov doing “The Bird,” and someone should make sure Cherry gets one.
“That wasn’t my idea, so the people who’s behind it, that’s pretty cool,” Kuznetsov said of his bobblehead. “I hope every player on the team can get one of those. I mean, not mine, but their own.”
The Capitals’ opponent on Kuznetsov’s giveaway night is fitting. The Hurricanes, who are closing in on their first playoff berth since 2009, have drawn Cherry’s ire by celebrating home wins with choreographed, on-ice routines this season. Carolina’s hilarious postgame “Storm Surges” have included limbo, human bowling and human dominoes. After Saturday’s win over Minnesota, the team got into the March Madness spirit, with defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk dunking a basketball through a hoop rolled onto the ice.
“These guys, to me, are jerks,” Cherry said last month. “ . . . And I’ll tell you one thing, they better not do this in the playoffs . . . This is a joke. Young men expressing themselves for joy of winning. You don’t do this thing in professional hockey. What are these guys? Jerks or something? I know what I’m talking about. You never do anything like that. They’re still not drawing. They’re a bunch of jerks as far as I’m concerned.”
The Hurricanes have embraced the moniker, selling “Bunch of Jerks” T-shirts at home games. Two different Kuznetsov T-shirts inspired by Cherry’s recent comments were released this week.
Kuznetsov is a fan of the Hurricanes’ celebrations, provided they don’t come at the Capitals’ expense, and while he was raised to not criticize his elders, the Capitals’ Birdman couldn’t resist squawking back at Cherry.
“You know, that’s what hockey should be for, for fun,” Kuznetsov said. “Fans like it, and you know, the way [Cherry] talk, it doesn’t make him look good, right? If he thinks he’s good, he should check his record when he was coaching in the CHL and that’s it, he should shut his mouth.”
Cherry went 11-47-10 in his one season as head coach of the Mississauga IceDogs in 2000-01.
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