Has Don Cherry gone too far?

JAMES DEACON May 18 1998


Has Don Cherry gone too far?

JAMES DEACON May 18 1998

Ian Cobby and James Harris are excited as heck. Down from suburban Georgetown, they’re spending Saturday night at the main CBC building in Toronto, and they’ve talked their way into meeting Don Cherry. Grapes! The two boys, both 10, and Ian’s dad, John, follow a CBC staffer into a private lounge adjacent to the Hockey Night in Canada set where Cherry, preparing for “Coach’s Corner,” is resting before going on camera. The kids step into the dimly lit room and, wham, it hits them. “Hi guys, how ya doin’?” comes the familiar bellow. It’s Don, all right, loud and proud. He’s wearing grey flannels, red blazer, red shirt and red tie—can’t miss him.

Cherry usually keeps to himself before his between periods sessions with host Ron MacLean, but for the boys he makes an exception. He likes kids, and they like him. ‘You hockey players?” he asks, rising to greet them, “/am,” says Ian, explaining he plays on an atom team. “That’s great,” says Cherry. He’s too distracted for small talk, but he signs a pair of postcards of himself with his beloved English bull terrier, Blue. “Thanks for stoppin’ by,” he says, “and enjoy the game, eh?” The door closes and the boys pause behind the set to examine their freshly minted autographs. James says it was cool meeting the big TV star. ‘Yeah,” agrees Ian. “My mom doesn’t like what he says, but I think he’s great.”

Out of the mouths of babes, eh? The 64-year-old intermission icon is one of the most-watched men in Canada thanks to a remarkable talent for simultaneously entertaining and appalling millions of viewers who tune into Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights in season. With hockey on nearly every night during the playoffs, his exposure is tripled—since mid-April, he has been on every second night, and that will continue until the Stanley Cup is awarded in June. The appeal? Watching Cherry is like watching a bonfire burning next to a barn full of hay. Will he keep the blaze contained, or will all hell break loose?

Cherry on female reporters In the locker-room, 1996: “If you want to be treated like men, then when you do get treated like men, you can’t whine. If you can’t stand the heat, then stay out of the dressing room.”

Cherry, of course, thinks fighting is a good thing; European players are stealing jobs away from hardworking Canadian boys; Americans are ruining the NHL; and anyone who thinks differently is un-Canadian or an intellectual, or both. He has a strong rapport with players from atom to the NHL. “There’s not a better guy to have on your side,” says Toronto Maple Leafs’ tough guy Tie Domi. “When he talks on TV, a lot of people listen.” And when Cherry drops the bombast, he is a keen analyst who can pick apart a videotape replay to show how a goal was set up by an event at the other end of the ice. “Don’s strength is dealing with the game,” says Hockey Nights executive producer, John Shannon, “and when he sticks to that, everyone is happy.”

But he doesn’t stick to the game. He is notorious for his right-of-Reform rants on pet peeves ranging from taxes to immigration. And as for Quebec, well, don’t get him started. He claims he is simply taking aim at the separatists, but more often than not national unity feels the pain. His tirades often sound anti-French rather than anti-Bloc—at the Winter Olympics last February, he took a cheap shot at Canada’s opening ceremonies flag-bearer, 1994 Olympic gold medallist Jean-Luc Brassard, calling him “a French guy, some skier nobody knows about.” The truth is, Cherry had never heard of Brassard, and knows nothing about freestyle skiing. Later, he compounded the insult, calling separatists “whiners.” Réjean Tremblay, the prominent La Presse columnist, says Cherry appears to be crossing the line between nationalism and racism. “Don Cherry is a mystery to me,” Tremblay says. “The man I’ve known personally for 20 years seems infinitely more warm, more open than the guy that we see on television.”

Perhaps Cherry is self-destructing. He isn’t sure himself. The death of his wife, Rose, of liver cancer last June nearly killed him, too. “And he’s still not in great shape,” worries Shannon. Cherry concedes his attitude about what he will or will not say on camera has changed since Rose died. “I don’t give a shit now, I really don’t,” he says, his voice falling to a whisper. “Why should I care? People say, ‘Don, you’ve gone too far now,’ but I don’t care.”

He is used to people challenging his politics, but lately, they’ve been questioning something more sacred—his impact on the game.

Cherry has come to symbolize Canadian-style hockey—which is to say, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em hockey, the name of Cherry’s hugely successful video series—at a time when Canada’s finest have suffered soul-searching losses at the World Cup in 1996 and the Olympics last February. Cherry says the problems are overblown. ‘To me, there’s nothing wrong,” he says. “I wish we handled the puck a little more, but that’s it.” He cannot stomach the oft-repeated suggestion that Canada take a lesson from the slick-stickhandling Europeans . "We're teaching kids to block shots, hit, —God forbid fight—we’re teaching them all the fundamentals,” he says. ‘The Europeans  just go out and and score. As long as you get 50 goals, you’re a superstar.'

But in the post-Nagano world, Canadian officials and parents have acknowledged that on size and so-called system hockey than on imparting puck-handling and skating skills. At the NHL level, the shortfall in skills translates into a scoring race dominated by Europeans, who did not come up in a similarly stifling hockey environment.

Nor are the Europeans’ successes limited to scoring. Despite Cherry’s insistence that they cannot match Canadians for playoff competitiveness, it was a pair of imports, Russian Alexei Yashin and Swede Daniel Alfredsson, who led the small but swift Ottawa Senators to a stunning first-round playoff upset of the big, intimidating New Jersey Devils. (The Senators were among three Canadian teams to score first-round upsets—the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers advanced as well.) Alfredsson did duck a direct question about Cherry, but it was clear he and the other targets of Cherry’s derision were thrilled the Senators beat the Devils. “It feels great to come through like this against New Jersey,” he said, “because they’re the toughest team out there. Ask any of the other teams—no one wanted to play them.”

Howie Meeker, the man Cherry replaced between periods, says Canadians should have begun rethinking the way hockey is taught years ago. “I’d say 1972 was the time to start taking it more seriously, after the Russians showed us how to play the game,” Meeker says. The need for that reassessment may have been lost in the euphoria surrounding Paul Henderson’s momentous last minute goal that saved the series for Canada. But now the reformers are having their day, and there is no escaping the shadow of Cherry. His bigger-is-better, has become gospel to minor hockey coaches and players. build a generation of competitors who are long on work ethic and size, but short on the stick skills and creativity that define truly great players.  “That influence can be detrimental, particularly for people who hang on his every word,” says Murray Costello, president of the Canadian Hockey Association. “And there are many who do.”

Roy MacGregor, the respected Ottawa Citizen columnist, author and one-time minor-hockey coach, says he could see the Cherry effect on kids. “His thinking, and his extraordinary influence, has been the single most destructive influence on the development of Canadian hockey,” MacGregor says. He adds that Cherry has that power not just because of TV, but “because hockey means so much in Canada, and because people believe in him.”

All the outrage and controversy have built quite a little empire. While some may dismiss Cherry as an annoying but harmless redneck, like the loudmouth at the end of the bar who might shut up if people just ignore him, it is a mistake to underestimate him. And even for committed hockey haters, it is almost impossible to escape him. He has an enormous audience—CBC’s Saturday night games attracted an average of 1.5 million viewers this season—and he has been allowed to hurl his Cherry bombs unopposed, except when the affable MacLean, the host since 1986, can get a word in edgewise. His Rock ’Em Sock ’Em videos—the series now numbers nine—have sold over a million copies and counting. He does a nationally syndicated radio show and lends his name to a 12-restaurant chain, Don Cherry’s Grapevine. Then there are his commercials— for several companies, including Nabisco’s Mr. Christie products and Campbell’s soup. Don Cherry—the self-styled voice of the regular guy—is a very rich man.

The fact is, Cherry’s schtick is not buffoonery. He has an agenda. His high-decibel, over-the-top delivery may be TV-driven theatricality, much like his wardrobe, but the opinions, the issues he tackles, the edge, are genuine Cherry. He does not take calls on game days, using the time to put together a “game plan” for that night’s show—“just like when I was coaching.” He arrives late to the set so that Shannon and MacLean do not have time to rehearse. He does his own version of the old TV detective Columbo, playing dumb but speaking straight to his core audience— “my people,” as he calls them. “He’s just giving viewers what they want,” says Shannon. “Don would not say the things he says if he didn’t think they would be well received. And he knows his constituency better than most politicians know theirs.”

Cherry did all the wrong things on his way to the top. A native of Kingston, Ont., he was a career minor-leaguer who laced up his skates for exactly one NHL game—no goals, no assists. He retired from the American Hockey League Rochester Americans at 33 to work on a construction crew at the Kodak plant there. Laid off, he became, by his own admission, the world’s worst Cadillac salesman. He fell back on the only thing he knew—hockey—mounting a comeback with the Americans at 35. In mid-season, the general manager fired the coach and gave the reins to Cherry. Within 3V2 years, he was running the Boston Bruins. “I was coaching Bobby Orr,” he says, still incredulous. “Me.”

He nevertheless squandered that windfall. Never one to button his lip, he feuded—foolishly, he now admits—with Boston general manager Harry Sinden and got fired after five seasons. He later coached the Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils) and was fired there, too. Ralph Mellanby, then the producer of Hockey Night in Canada, got him a job as a color commentator and, Cherry says, “I was in trouble all the time.” He was saved from the unemployment line by Mellanby, who paired him with then-host Dave Hodge between periods. “Coach’s Corner,” and a star, were born.

On whether ballet dancers could play in the NHL, 1990: “If Swedes and Finns can play, anybody can play.”

On his political views, 1998: “What I say is right. It's not politically right, but I think it's right.”

A controversial star, of course: his scornful comments about Brassard, and remarks he made during the January ice storm about Quebec’s language laws, prompted Bell Canada to pull its sponsorship of “Coach’s Corner” in Quebec in April. But it goes against the TV grain to muzzle Cherry—the more outrageous he gets, the higher the ratings go. “The interesting thing about ‘Coach’s Corner’ is that we set out to cre"ate intermissions that were entertaining,” says Shannon. “What we’ve done is create programming that is actually more viewable than the games.” Ross Brewitt, a Cherry booster from Mississauga, Ont., says “it’s his penchant for blurting out what he thinks that has made him a national figure. And 95 per cent of the time, he’s right.” That may be a stretch, but Ken Dryden, the former goalie who now is president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, agrees that Cherry has much to offer on the subject of hockey. “There is a lot of wisdom, a lot of knowledge, in what Don says,” Dryden concludes.

The way critics see it, however, Hockey Night in Canada has allowed its star to get away with what might otherwise be seen as on-air conflicts of interest. He has worn a hat on camera with the logo of his soon-to-be-launched Mississauga Ice Dogs, a major-junior A team that is busy selling season tickets (and that will not include a single foreign player, Cherry vows). He recently supported NHL owners who were making pleas to Ottawa for tax relief that could ultimately help the profitability of his own team. He defends fighting in the game, yet he includes replays of two major fights in each Rock ’Em Sock ’Em video to boost sales. “Is that correct?” asks MacGregor. “The CBC would not stand for that in any other aspect of their business, presumably.”

Worse for the game, says Bruce Dowbiggin, national sports correspondent for CBC Radio, is that Cherry has been allowed to deliver his one-sided message on how hockey ought to be played without rebuttal. “Kids take their messages straight,” Dowbiggin says. ‘That’s why I hold Hockey Night in Canada accountable. They do not offer a counterpoint. I’m not saying ‘Take him off the air.’ I’m just saying they should put someone on with a different point of view, someone who will say, ‘Don, you’re a clown.’ ”

Sitting back on an old sofa in the studio lounge, his on-air duties done, Cherry is watching two different playoff games on a bank of TV monitors. He’s mad at MacLean, who inadvertently wore the same color tie. “It’s the first time that’s happened in 12 years,” Cherry says grumpily. This has not been a happy time for him. It has been a year since Rose died, and he has not yet fully absorbed the hit. He struggled when he and MacLean took their show on the road, to Vancouver for the all-star game in January and to Nagano, Japan, for the Olympics. “I’ve been lost now for awhile, but I seemed to be more lost over there,” Cherry says of his time in Japan. “I used to call Rose every morning, wherever I was, at 8:30 on the nose, and....” He doesn’t finish the thought.

The real-life Don Cherry—the soft-spoken, painfully private guy rattling around in his now-too-big house in suburban Mississauga—does not want to talk about Rose. Or at least, that’s the word before the interview begins. “I think it’s a tender subject,” explains CBC publicist Susan Procter.

“And it may be that way for a long time.” But Cherry brings it up himself.

She was his best friend, the centre of his daily existence far more than work or hockey. All his adult life, he left the rink or the construction site or the car lot and went home to her, and now she’s gone. He hardly knows what to do with himself, says fellow broadcaster Brian Williams, who delivered one of two eulogies at her funeral.

“Rose,” Williams says, “was his life.”

Cherry’s children, Cindy, 41, and Tim, 35, both live nearby, which is a help. Cindy has taken on Rose’s old job, sorting the huge pile of mail that arrives daily via the restaurants and the CBC. She is also working with a group in Milton, Ont., on what they’re calling Rose’s Place, a hospice Cherry is helping to fund for families with terminally ill children. Keeping busy helps, but Cherry’s loneliness is palpable. “I’m a lone guy. I don’t go out. I, ah, I always. . . .” His voice trails off.

“When I got out of hockey, I never hung around with anybody. I still don’t. I don’t have a guy to say, ‘Let’s go fishin’ or somethin’.’ Maybe Tim, my son, but I don’t have a friend like that. If I ever had advice for anybody, it’s to have other friends, and don’t isolate yourself or just stick with your wife all the time.”

Then he remembers a story that cheers him up. Rose, among other things, was Don’s censor. “One time on ‘Coach’s Corner,’ I told Ron to shut up,” he says. “Rose just hated it.” She wouldn’t talk about it when he got home that night, but he heard about it at breakfast. “She said, ‘You are, without a doubt, the most ignorant human being. I’m embarrassed.’ ” Cherry laughs a little at the memory. But the smile soon fades.

Without Rose’s moderating influence, he has been more provocative on “Coach’s Corner,” more out on the edge politically. He says he’s just saying aloud what other people—his people—are thinking. “As far as Quebec’s concerned, it’s not fair,” he says. “Everybody knows it’s not fair, but they’re afraid to say it. We have French signs, and they don’t have any English—is that fair? Is it fair that you can’t speak English down there anywhere in government, and we have to speak French for our government in Ontario? Everybody says the same thing. They whisper to me, ‘If they want to leave, let them leave.’ ”

Cherry has turned his attention to the third period of the Montreal Canadiens-Pittsburgh Penguins game. His jacket is off, his tie is loosened, his three-storey collar is undone, and he’s ripping into Jaromir Jagr, the gifted Czech centre who led the league in scoring this season, not to mention helping his country win Olympic gold. Jagr is the kind of guy people pay to see—six-foottwo, a powerful skater and larcenous stickhandler—but Cherry claims he’s everything that’s wrong with the NHL. ‘The guy can’t hit, and never back-checks,” Cherry sneers. ‘The joke is that he has to go down and introduce himself to his goaltender. But he’ll get all the trophies and stuff like that.”

While his private style is toned down from his TV persona, his opinions remain the same. He really does think European players are cowardly, that they take dives to draw penalties— conveniently ignoring the fact that “good, hardworking Canadian boys” do the same. The Philadelphia Flyers’ Bill Barber was arguably the most prolific diver in NHL history, and he came from Callander, Ont. Czech defenceman Frank Musil, now with Edmonton, once called Cherry “a total idiot” for painting all imports with the same brush. Cherry has softened a little—he professes to like a pair of Russians, the Senators’ Yashin and the Vancouver Canucks’ Pavel Bure. But he is adamantly against imports on his junior team. ‘They call me a racist because I don’t want any Europeans coming to play for my Ice Dogs,” he says. He doesn’t mind depriving his team of a young Yashin and Bure? “If a kid comes over here and becomes a Canadian, I’ll put him on in a minute,” he says. “But I will not parachute him in so that he can grab the money and run.”

On the prospects of NHL expansion into the Sun Belt, 1990: “The only thing those people know about ice down there is when they put it in their drinks.”

That, says Dryden, is where Cherry goes wrong, not just in political correctness, but in hockey, too. By declaring that the oldstyle Canadian game is best, and that all others are unworthy, he denies his players a chance to learn from the Europeans. “Don gets himself into a box,” Dryden says. ‘The National Hockey League is a far, far better league now that the best players in the world all play here.” Harry Neale, a former coach who has become CBC’s top game analyst, agrees. “Anyone who thought that Canada was going to be the only supplier of NHL players had blinders on,” Neale says. “It’s a global game now.”

Friends who have watched Cherry take ever-greater risks on camera wonder if he’s trying to get himself fired. At times, he seems tired of the effort it takes to be Don Cherry, tired of the constant criticism. “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t wear me down,” he says. “You wake up in the morning, you’re half-asleep, and you look at the paper and they’re ripping you. I like to say I laugh it off, but it gets to me, it bothers me.”

His approach to hockey and life, however, were forged years ago in the minor-league ice wars. Asked if the Cherry-bashers made him want to quit, he scoffs: “You don’t understand— nobody understands. I don’t care what they think. It’s like a fight—I thrive on it. He leans forward, and suddenly his weariness and sadness are gone. He is again the guy on TV, pugnacious defender of all things Canadian, and of all things Grapes. “When somebody criticizes ‘Coach’s Corner,’ ” he goes on, “I’ll come back twice as strong. That’s what I did as a player. If I knew going into a game that the best fighter was on the other team, it got me pumped. I knew, sooner or later, him and me would be at it. It’s the second-best rush in the world, fighting. You know what I mean? It keeps life going.” □