Brad Park, the Boston Bruins' All-Star defenseman, says that Coach Don Cherry makes life on the team "enjoyable." Some moments, though, are clearly less enjoyable than others. For example, early this season Cherry was angry that Park had lost the puck, enabling the Washington Capitals to salvage a last-minute 5-5 tie, so he threw a water bottle and three towels at Park. That happened just two days after Park had returned to the lineup following knee surgery. "Jeez, what did I do?" Cherry lamented. "Here a guy hurries back from an operation to help the team, and I get carried away."
Fortunately, Cherry doesn't get carried away—really carried away, that is—all that often. The NHL's most vocal and visible coach, he otherwise directs the Bruins with a studied mixture of sternness and malarkey. Cherry believes in hard-nosed, tight-checking hockey and he expects his players to go into the corners, never to back away from fights and to be fresher in the third period than in the first. "We don't win, my family doesn't eat," he growls. Happily for his loved ones, his team wins; a Stanley Cup finalist the last two years, this season Boston has been battling the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders for the league's best record.
But Cherry, 44, is not just another hockey tough guy. He claims that "Nobody in this game has more fun than I do." Cherry's fun takes different forms. He has been known to yell "Gong!" when removing errant players from games, and he incessantly carries on about Blue, his beloved bullterrier. Several photos of this valorous beast are on display in his cramped Boston Garden office, but none of his wife Rose. He enjoys telling his players that Blue is brave, mean and true—just as they themselves must be.
When his players' eyes glaze over at talk of Blue, Cherry spins inspirational tales of dreadnoughts and great naval battles. An avid reader of biographies of Lord Nelson, Sir Francis Drake and other heroes of the sea, he tells his men, "Always listen to your skipper. If you don't, you'll be thrown overboard."
January 15, 1979
Cherry is indeed a showman. "My hair, is my hair all right?" he frets at the start of television interviews. He needn't worry; every strand of his thinning mop is sure to be in place. By far the best groomed of all NHL coaches, who as a group are not known for sartorial splendor, Cherry sports a handsome and expensive assortment of mix-and-match ensembles that he tops off with stickpins, cuff links and chains. In hopes of looking thinner, before games the 5'11½", 210-pound Cherry squeezes into jackets at least a size too small. Thus girdled, he has the uncomfortable appearance of an urchin forced to dress for church when he could be stealing hubcaps.
The voluble Cherry is a favorite with writers and broadcasters, who consider him the best interview in hockey. When the Bruins traded Winger Ken Hodge to the New York Rangers for Rick Middleton three years ago, Cherry, who hadn't been a fan of Hodge's, said to the press, "I would have traded him for the Ranger trainer just to get rid of him." After several NHL trainers complained about the remark, Cherry declared in all apparent seriousness, "I should have said I'd have traded him for the Rangers' Zamboni driver."
Cherry's willingness to offend absolutely anybody was demonstrated beyond further doubt at the Bruins' recent Christmas party, which was attended by players, wives, kids and dogs. Blue was absent, and when the Boston Globe's John Ahern asked the reason, Cherry deadpanned, "Having Blue around these other dogs would be like bringing Raquel Welch into the wives' room." Next day, in his car after practice, Cherry asked Defenseman Mike Milbury, who was looking at a newspaper in the back seat, to read aloud Ahern's account of the Christmas party.
When Milbury finished, Cherry's jaw dropped. "He didn't print my line about Raquel Welch. That gutless...."
Probably the most audacious thing about Cherry, though, is the way he keeps his team rolling along. Now in his fifth year as coach, Cherry has conned, kidded and bullied the Bruins to three consecutive Adams Division titles as well as the two appearances in the Stanley Cup finals. They lost to Montreal both times, but last spring carried the prepotent Canadiens to a surprisingly tough six games.
The Bruins succeed even though they have few players anywhere near as colorful as Cherry. Unlike the dazzling Canadiens, the Bruins boast only two certified NHL stars, Park, who recently reinjured his knee, and Goalie Gerry Cheevers. The Boston lineup includes the likes of the aggressive Terry O'Reilly and defensive specialist Don Marcotte, both solid performers, but neither a Guy Lafleur. The rest of the roster is largely filled with retreads.
All of which is fine with Cherry. Calling the Bruins the Lunchpail Athletic Club, he emphasizes teamwork ("The ship comes before everybody") and the rewards Of patience and hard work. He admonishes the Bruins to play within their limitations, even the talented Park, who, paradoxically, became a full-fledged star only after Cherry prevailed upon him to forgo his rink-long rushes and concentrate on playmaking. The upshot—another paradox—is that some of the Bruins appear to be performing beyond their limitations.
One overachiever is Middleton, a swift winger who under Cherry's whip has overcome an aversion to back-checking and become a fine two-way player—and has made the Bruins glad they got him for Hodge rather than the Ranger trainer or Zamboni driver. Another is John Wensink, until recently nothing more than the Bruins' enforcer. When the bruising but heavy-footed Wensink, who had been released by St. Louis in 1974, scored a career-high 16 goals last season, hockey fans considered it a fluke. They know better now. Showing moves nobody dreamed he had, Wensink has 24 goals already this season.
Middleton and Wensink are two of Cherry's so-called "projects," the term he uses for players "you see something in but have to work like mad to get out."
Cherry's longtime nickname is Grapes, short for "sour grapes," but he is, in fact, contrary and convivial in fairly equal parts. On the one hand, he freely airs his players' shortcomings to reporters and works them so hard that when he slipped on the ice at practice one recent morning, somebody applauded and somebody else hollered, "Serves you right." Yet he is also a "players' coach," according to Marcotte. Cherry showers with the boys, joins them for beer and makes up for bad-mouthing them in one breath by praising them to the skies in the next. He doesn't believe in bed checks, curfews or fines, explaining, "If I can't trust my players, I don't want them on my team."
"Grapes is tough and buddy-buddy at the same time," says Park. "He pulls it off because the guys all know where they stand. If he's mad at you, he lets you know it. And he sticks to his guns. That's better than having to guess where you stand, the way it is with some coaches."
The Bruins placed only seventh in the league in penalties last season, but you wouldn't know it to hear their coach. He openly boasts about how the Bruins' Stan Jonathan, who stands 5'8", chopped down 6'2" Montreal Defenseman Pierre Bouchard in a fight during the fourth game of last year's Stanley Cup finals, and he pays the feisty Jonathan the supreme compliment of saying, "He reminds me of Blue." Similarly, Cherry enjoys relating how Wensink challenged the entire Minnesota bench to fight last season and had no takers.
"People talk about a crackdown on violence. That's ridiculous," Cherry snaps. "It's the intellectuals talking. The people who pay the dough love fighting. It's part of the game and sells tickets."
Cherry is also one of the few to speak out against the growing use of helmets in the NHL, a view shared, though not publicly, by most coaches and general managers. This season Cherry talked rookie Al Secord and veteran Mike Walton into discarding their helmets, and the Bruins now have only four players wearing them, fewer than any other NHL club. "I think hockey players are losing some identity," Cherry says. "Can you imagine Gordie Howe in a helmet? Or the Rocket? What gets me is the way some guys wear helmets that would stop a .44 magnum but they still won't go into the corners."
The suspicion grows that Cherry is deliberately taking on the world, hoping that his team will thrive on the resulting adversity. This would help explain his running battle with the Bruin front office. Unhappy that all 10 of the team's exhibition games and six of its first eight regular-season games were played on the road, Cherry complained loud and long about the "safari." When Secord scored his first NHL goal and Winger Bobby Schmautz his 200th, they were given the pucks as souvenirs—only to discover that they lacked the NHL insignia. Cherry fumed. He called Boston management skinflints for using "practice pucks" in games. He also complained that his $60,000 salary left him impoverished compared to certain other NHL coaches. Cherry's current two-year contract expires on June 15, and there have been persistent rumors that he will be coaching elsewhere next season.
Finally, three weeks ago General Manager Harry Sinden called Cherry in to clear the air. The coach promised to muzzle himself, and Sinden promised to have a new contract offer on the table before long. Sinden says, "I told Don he can promote his players, his trainer and his dog all he wants—but not at our expense. The same goes for his we-vs.-them approach. Fine. But I want to be left out of it."
Cherry concedes, "I was making Harry look bad and shouldn't have. I was going through some rough things and I guess I lost my cool."
The biggest strain on Cherry, certainly, was the serious illness of his 15-year-old son Timothy, an ordeal that made life suddenly less rollicking. The boy's kidneys failed last August and he was placed on a dialysis machine. However, he contracted anemia and high blood pressure, making a transplant advisable. Cindy Cherry, Timothy's 21-year-old sister, volunteered, and last October 10, Don Cherry's two children underwent what was apparently a successful transplant. Timothy has since enrolled as a freshman in high school, while Cindy has taken a job as a veterinary technician.
"The kids are fine, thank the Lord," Cherry said one evening in his den, the walls of which are covered with prints depicting various naval battles. Rose and the children were in the kitchen, where Blue was nosing around for scraps. "Jeez, it sure hit me when I saw Cindy, a healthy girl, going into surgery," Cherry went on. "And Tim, well, I thought about the times I could have taken him fishing but didn't. Now that I've got a second chance, we're going to get a sailboat and spend more time together."
But will Cherry ever hoist the sails on the boat? As Rose and the kids never stop reminding him, he has taken them on just one vacation, a 10-day trip to Hawaii during which he ventured out of his hotel room only at night. Cherry—or "Dracula," as Timothy has called him ever since—explains that he had enough sun, thanks, while operating a jackhammer every summer to flesh out his meager earnings as a hockey player. He played 17 years in the pros but made it to the NHL for exactly one game. That was in 1955 when Cherry, a scrappy 21-year-old defenseman, took a regular shift for Boston in a 5-1 loss to Montreal in the Stanley Cup semifinals. He was a plodding skater, though, and he languished ever after in places like Hershey, Pa., Springfield, Tulsa and Spokane.
Cherry's longest stretch as a player was with the Rochester Americans. Besides his usual summertime work with the jack-hammer, he tried selling cars in Rochester. That career ended the day a customer told him, "You car salesmen are all alike." Cherry grabbed the fellow by the lapels, pushed him against a wall and walked out. During the 1970-71 season when he was with Rochester, Cherry was eased out as a player and hired as coach but then was fired at season's end. As he cleaned out his desk, Cherry heard the team's PR man and his secretary laughing about his being sacked. A few weeks later the team was sold and the new owners hired Cherry as coach and general manager. The PR man and secretary were fired in quick order.
"I could taste their blood," Cherry says. "I let them squirm, then fired the publicity guy first, just so I could see the secretary cry. Then I let her suffer another week before I fired her. By that time, she wanted to leave."
Building a new team from scratch, Cherry guided Rochester to third place in the American Hockey League in 1971-72 and to the title the next year. His style of hockey was early Slap Shot, thanks largely to Wensink, who joined the team in Cherry's second year and was suspended twice for beating up opponents. Cherry, who in his spare time wore kilts and played tenor drum in the City of Rochester pipe band, was once arrested for assault after he went into the stands to battle some hecklers during an exhibition game in Barrie, Ontario. During the fracas a man decked Cherry and a woman in high heels kicked him. He kicked her back. He was convicted and given a year's probation. He later received a tearful call from his mother. "She wanted to know why I couldn't keep out of trouble," Cherry says. "What could I say? I'm like Popeye. I am's what I am."
In 1974 Sinden made Cherry coach of the Bruins, who had just lost to Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins had Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, but they had gone through three coaches in four years and were showing signs of wear. In Cherry's first season Esposito led the NHL in goals and Orr did the same in assists and points, yet the Bruins were upset in the preliminary playoff round by a mediocre Chicago team. Cherry winces when he talks about that season. "It was a team of successful but undisciplined players," he says. "The way they listened to me, I could have been Mickey Mouse."
Boston started slowly the next season and Cherry's job was in jeopardy. Then Sinden dealt Esposito and Defenseman Carol Vadnais to the New York Rangers in the big and immediately successful trade that brought Park and Center Jean Ratelle to the Bruins. Cherry doesn't waste too many noble sentiments on Esposito, who had indirectly criticized him the previous season by telling interviewers that Boston wasn't "mentally prepared" for many games. Nonetheless, Cherry vowed to keep his players mentally prepared from that moment on. It is a pledge he has fulfilled. Minus the traded Esposito and the injured Orr, the Bruins recovered from their slow start and finished the 1975-76 season atop the Adams Division, and they have resided there with few interruptions ever since.
Now a proven coach, Cherry is sitting pretty. He awaits Sinden's contract offer, secure in the knowledge that there are other NHL clubs that could use his services, too. "I could adapt if I went to another team," he says. "I've been moving around all my life, you know."
Could it be that combative, fun-loving Don Cherry suffers from a mild case of insecurity? Nawwww, he replies. Having bounced around all those years in the minors, he's sure not about to be insecure now. Might it be, though, that he has grown too attached to the Bruins for his own good? "I love the Bruins!" he blurts. "Those guys are like my sons." Coming from Boston's emotional skipper, the outburst means nothing—and everything. Everybody knows that if they displease him, Cherry would throw any of those players he loves overboard in a minute. Yet in a way, they are like his sons. After all, it's unlikely that any hockey team has ever been cast in its coach's image more perfectly than Don Cherry's Lunchpail Athletic Club.