For next season, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that six Swedes won’t be back. The bad news is that nine Russians are cornin’.
—Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada, May 25, 1989
Here, in three brisk sentences, is the heartfelt credo of the owner of the most opinionated, refreshing, ungrammatical, entertaining, funny and outrageous voice in the normally bland world of televised sports. Don is widely known as Grapes (if his last name were Grapes he’d likely be known as Cherry), and he dislikes Swedish hockey players because it’s his conviction they won’t drop their gloves the way red-blooded Canadian boys do. He resents the presence of Soviet players in the National Hockey League because they’re filling boots that otherwise would be occupied by Canadian and American nationals. Grapes is forthright but not malicious.
Back on the tortured airlanes for another hockey season, Grapes at 55 has followed his outspoken, impulsive and often outlandish public outbursts to riches well beyond the modest dreams of a boy who left school in Grade 9 to play hockey and then plodded through a minorleague career that was mediocre at best and must at times have seemed endless.
Suddenly, though, eight years ago, television discovered him, and through it a syndicated daily radio show with sportscaster Brian Williams, a weekly half-hour television program, and a growing chain of restaurant bars called Don Cherry’s Grapevine. The money is rolling in.
“How much, Grapes?” I asked him the other day in one of his restaurants.
“The last time I told a guy, the next day
A veteran sports journalist, Trent Frayne has been a Maclean’s contributor since 1941, when he wrote an article on Toronto Maple Leaf goaltender Turk Broda. This is the first of the monthly columns that Frayne will write for the magazine.
A Grade 9 dropout and former professional hockey player, sportscaster ‘Grapes’ Cherry has made himself rich by being outspoken
there is this guy in from the income-tax department lookin’ at my books. Can’t you just guess a number?”
“Well, I’ve got no idea. Maybe twofifty?”
“Yeah, like that,” Grapes said. “Twofifty, three hundred thousand. In there some place.”
On the air, Grapes is never so reluctant. He blurts his opinions. “I can’t do anythink twice,” Don says (he puts ks on some words that end in g). “I react. If I have to do it twice, it’s no good. One time, at Rochester, I’m playin’ for Joe Crozier and I say, ‘Joe, I think and Joe says, ‘Grapes, don’t think. You’ll hurt the club.’ ”
Grapes played for 3VÎ years on teams owned by Eddie Shore, a man he calls “the meanest guy I ever played for,” and remembers once being compelled to skate for four hours and 20 minutes, around and around the rink, because Shore had caught him glancing at a clock as the end of a practice neared.
As anybody who watches televised hockey knows, Grapes is the Beau Brummel of the airlanes, wearing velvet jackets, phosphorescent vests and shirts with monogrammed cuffs and a high choke collar remindful of Sir Wilfrid
Laurier. But in his playing days, he was a roughneck.
“I was a tough, stay-at-home defenceman,” he says. “I was a plugger. I could fight and I was a sucker-puncher. Once when I was 19 and playin’ for Hershey, Bobby Baun hit me with a sucker punch while I was watchin’ a fight. Nobody ever suckered me after that. I was the gunfighter. If a guy went runrún’ at Bronco Horvath of our club, I took care of him.”
In a professional career that stretched from the fall of 1954 to the spring of 1972, he played only one game in the NHL, a brief playoff appearance with the Boston Bruins in 1955, and the rest of the time he rattled around in buses for teams in Hershey, Pa., Boston, Springfield, Mass., Trois-Rivières, Que., Sudbury, Ont., Kitchener, Ont., Spokane, Wash., Tulsa, Okla., Vancouver and Rochester, N.Y., his last stop as a pro.
After making $4,500 in his rookie year in Hershey and for seven years after that, his salary was cut to $4,200 in his ninth year and then he got $5,200 in Rochester, $6,000 in Rochester and, finally, when he was 37 years old, married and the father of a son and a daughter, $11,000 in Rochester.
His wife, Rose, was with him every step of the way. They met in his rookie year in Hershey. “I was 20, she was 18, the first girl I ever went with. We got married two years after. I’ve never heard her whine once. She runs everything my whole life.”
She was with him in 1960, when Shore sent him to Trois-Rivières. “We didn’t have any money, and the kids had to sleep on the floor,” Grapes says. She was with him two years later when Shore sent him to Sudbury, where “it was so cold, you had to wear a blanket to go to the bathroom in the basement.”
For a long time, Grapes had this dopeylooking dog, a female English bull terrier named Blue, that he’d talk to. Once, Blue bit Rose and it caused a lot of consternation. “You’re gonna have to get rid of her,” a friend told Don.
“I guess you’re right,” Grapes said. “Me and Blue’ll sure miss her.” Eventually, Blue died and Don bought a new English bull terrier, Baby Blue. “She acts more like a Swede, she loves everybody,” Grapes says. “Blue was a Bruin.”
The Bruins fight, and Grapes admires that. “I know the word fighting turns people off, but when you eliminate fightin’ you encourage vicious stick-work,” he claims. “You get crosscheckin’ into the boards and serious neck injuries. I’d rather drop the gloves than get a stick in the mouth.”
And the arrival of nine Soviet players on NHL rosters? “I worked in construction for 25 years while I was playin’ and after. I know what it’s like to have somebody take your job.
“And listen, when a Russian gets $700,000 to play hockey here, $350,000 goes to the Russian federation to make their hockey players better. It’s like Wayne Gretzky says, nobody ever gave his folks anythink.”
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