CLOSE-UP: DON CHERRY

The fans’ favorite

MORTON RITTS June 1 1987
CLOSE-UP: DON CHERRY

The fans’ favorite

MORTON RITTS June 1 1987

The fans’ favorite

CLOSE-UP: DON CHERRY

When he stopped playing hockey after more than 17 years as a hardworking journeyman in the minor leagues, Don Cherry found work selling Cadillacs in Rochester, N.Y. That job in 1970 was one that Cherry, then 36, said that he hated. “Believe it or not, I was so shy I used to pray it would rain just to keep the customers from coming into the showroom,” he said. The problem, added Cherry, was that he was heartbroken at being separated from the game he had worshipped ever since he was old enough to lace up a pair of ice skates in his home town of Kingston, Ont., and pretend that the whole world was Maple Leaf Gardens. As it turned out, Cherry survived his brief two-year exile from hockey and went on to become a colorful, outspoken sports personality. Indeed, throughout this year’s televised National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs, Cherry has been a regular color commentator, sharing with millions of fans the knowledge acquired during his on-ice career.

The enduring theme of Cherry’s life has always been his love of hockey. Initially, he translated his experience into coaching jobs, in the minor American Hockey League (AHL) and then in the NHL. He was later fired amid much controversy from his two major-league coaching jobs with the Boston Bruins and then with the now-defunct Colorado Rockies. But in 1980 he became a commentator on TV’s Hockey Night in Canada—a job that he continues to hold. And as host of Don Cherry's Grapevine, a weekly sports program on Hamilton’s CHCH-TV, and cohost of Grapeline, a syndicated radio show, Cherry has never been closer to the game that has been the focus of his life. Nor has he ever had so many fans. Declared veteran Toronto Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell: “Don Cherry is the hottest hockey commentator in in the country.”

Cherry was born in 1934 into a proud, working-class Kingston family. His electrician father, who died in 1962, had a penchant for dressing with style and the conviction that having the right attitude was everything in life, he remembers. “My father could walk into any place and nobody would stop him,” said Cherry. From his mother, who still lives in Kingston and whom he visits every few weeks, Cherry learned the virtues of directness and honesty: he vividly remembers being marched back to a local variety store as a youngster to pay for a stolen chocolate bar.

Always more interested in hockey than school, Cherry dropped out of high school in Grade 9 to devote himself to the sport. As a defenceman for such teams as the AHL’s Hershey Bears in Pennsylvania and the Springfield Indians in Massachusetts, he was given the affectionate nickname of Grapes— short for sour grapes, because of his continual complaints about having to pay his own hockey fines. Cherry also

acquired more than 400 stitches in a face that is, surprisingly, baby-smooth. He attributes that dermatological outcome to the sage advice of an oldtimer who advised rubbing cocoa butter into the skin whenever it was cut.

Two years after ending his playing career, Cherry briefly returned to the ice in 1972 with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League. His years of experience led to a coaching offer from the team’s management. In 1974 his success with the Americans—who finished first in the league’s standings that year—caught the atten-

tion of the NHL’s Boston Bruins, who offered Cherry the job of head coach. In Boston, Cherry inherited a Stanley Cup-class team that lacked drive. There, he moulded his players into tough, disciplined workers who had to prove their worth or risk being benched or traded. Impressed sportswriters and broadcasters began referring to the team as Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins. Said former Bruin superstar Bobby Orr: “Don got every ounce from his players and they all loved him. My only regret is that I only played part of two seasons for him because of my injuries.” During Cherry’s five years as the Bruins’ coach the team made it to the Stanley Cup finals twice.

Still, Cherry’s refusal to defer to authority brought him into constant and well-publicized conflict with management. At the end of the 1979 season he was fired. A year as coach of the lowly Colorado Rockies followed, with the same result. But Cherry had always enjoyed good relations with the media, and his transition to TV commentator was a smooth one. Stints on Hockey Night in Canada in 1980 led to a spot as a regular between-periods analyst— a job that has continued through this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

Cherry attributes his popularity partly to his blunt, provocative outbursts. His commentary is delivered in what he calls his “construction worker’s English.” Said Cherry of a player on one occasion: “He come fightin’ back, he never quit.” As well, Cherry invites controversy: last January he appeared on numerous radio and TV shows to defend the Canadian national junior team, which had engaged in a bench-clearing brawl with the Soviet team at the World Junior Championship in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, Cherry claims that he is only voicing the thoughts and emotions of the average Canadian fan watching the game in his local tavern.

Often the featured speaker at sports banquets, Cherry also appears in Bridgestone tire commercials with his bull terrier, Blue. And with partner Rick Scully he operates an expanding string of popular restaurant-taverns called Don Cherry’s Grapevine. The Hamilton Grapevine is used as the set of his TV show. All of those interests have made Cherry a wealthy man, although he claims that his wife, Rose, looks after his business matters and he has no idea of the extent of his wealth. But, declared the 53-year-old, “I still act like I’m 38”—the age at which he finally stopped playing hockey. Cherry added, “If I suddenly lost everything, I still think I could lose 20 lb. and make a comeback.”

MORTON RITTS

in Hamilton