This didn't start out to be a book review column, but I received the new Don Cherry book, Hockey Stories and Stuff, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. It was a quick read full of memories and anecdotes as transcribed by legendary hockey writer Al Strachan.
Now, Strachan's role was more than just transcription, collation and fact checking. He kept the language pure Cherry; meaning the English language sometimes takes a back seat to Grapesian syntax. Cherry rolled on the stories and Strachan added insight into the many references while correcting the pronunciation of Cherryesque versions.
The pair did make a conscious effort to clean up any profanity so the read would be kid-appropriate, but that doesn't mean this book is for everyone. English professors might want to avoid it. Same thing for anyone who is offended by violence in sports, or those of you out there who have a dim view of drinking and carousing as a way of life. But for the rest of us, this book is pure joy -- a little piece of guilty hockey pleasure.
In that sense, it represents Don Cherry extremely well. He's not for everyone, but he is hard to ignore. After all, outside of a couple of iconic players -- namely Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux -- no one has sold the NHL product to the public over the past 25 years, particularly in Canada, more than Grapes. In this collection, Cherry covers his career as a minor league pro, a successful coach of the Boston Bruins, and a staple on Hockey Night In Canada with his first-intermission segment Coach's Corner.
With all that, there are glimpses into the man behind the persona -- what drives him, touches him and ticks him off, with a few honest, heartfelt admissions of regret along the way. Cherry never apologizes for his controversial -- and what more than a few people feel is racist -- contempt for European players, but he does wish he hadn't ripped Kings coach Barry Melrose during a 1993 playoff series against Toronto for wearing his hair long and greasy to bug his father. "What kind of guy does that?" Cherry asked on the air. As it turned out, the CBC had Melrose's dad watching the broadcast with Maple Leaf Wendel Clark's father.
Cherry cites a relentless litany of players and teams he alienated with his merciless tongue, among them Jaromir Jagr's Penguins. Seeing Jagr injured and prone on the ice, Cherry wondered if the shaggy Czech would be more motivated to rise for his hairdresser or his jeweler. Referring to Jagr as "Yammy" and "Lemieux's daughter" also went a long way to makng Cherry persona non grata in Pittsburgh.
The ribald and at times self-deprecating humor keeps Cherry's personal musings about his mother (he was very close to her), beloved late wife and trademark dog Blue from becoming maudlin. The real beauty of the book is in the sweeping travelogue history of the game of hockey, from Eddie Shore ("a mean and nasty guy") to the use of today's composite sticks ("should be banned like aluminum bats in baseball").
In the end, what resonates is the hardscrabble cultural roots of hockey. Cherry recounts playing junior hockey for the notorious Hap Emms --"Hap was mean and cheap, meaner than Shore if you can believe it, but he was the smartest coach I ever played for, and you feared him, and I'll admit I respected him, he was a hockey guy through and through" -- and there are a couple of stories that are telling historically and with a moral for kids.
In one incident, the teenaged Cherry tried to help cover for a pair of star teammates who had been caught drinking under age. Believing that everyone else on the team was going to make the bogus admission that they, too, had been drinking -- and thus dilute the stars' punishment -- Grapes ended up catching the coach's wrath when no one else stepped forward. The root here is about making choices and how those choices can impact one's future. In Cherry's case, it became the seminal moment in defining the difference between being a team player and standing up for your convictions and being your own man.
I think we know how that turned out in Cherry's case, but there is so much more to discover in this little gem. If you love hockey, there is something here for you. His recounting will no doubt take you back to episodes in your own lifetime -- memories he calls, "moments to live forever." Grapes has had a lot of moments, not all of them pretty, but they make for a sweet read.