HE KNOWS THE END WILL COME SOMEDAY. Maybe someday soon. Maybe tonight. He is pushing, pushing, pushing the limits too far, saying too much. One final piece of outrage will bubble from Don Cherry's high-volume mouth, and that will be that. Ka-boom! He will self-destruct in full public view, the carnage strewn across the living rooms of an entire country, from the Maritimes to British Columbia. Ka-boom!
"I can't keep saying these things." he says. "How can I keep saying these things?"
Things like what?
"Like asking someone to break [Pittsburgh Penguin defense-man] Ulf Samuelsson's arm," he says. "How can I say that on television? I asked someone to break Ulf Samuelsson's arm between the wrist and the elbow."
March 29, 1993
He cannot help himself. The lights come on, 4½ minutes to fill on a Saturday night, a tidy little show called "Coach's Corner" between the first and second periods of Hockey Night in Canada, and he might as well be holding a lighted stick of dynamite while he gives his commentary. How can 4½ minutes, once a week, be so dangerous? He will say anything, do anything. He will tweak noses, pick fights. He will ask for the arm—if not the head—of a Penguin defenseman he doesn't like.
Four-and-a-half minutes. One week he suddenly unfurled an eight-foot-long Canadian Hag and talked about the "wimps and creeps" who opposed Canada's participation in the gulf war. Another week he was wearing sunglasses and an earring in his left earlobe and talking with an exaggerated effeminate lisp. Wasn't the subject supposed to be the opposition of Los Angeles King star Wayne Gretzky and King owner Bruce McNall to hockey violence? Wasn't the subject supposed to be hockey? Couldn't he simply say what he thought? An earring. A lisp.
Cherry still can't believe he did that. He could not help himself. "I come off after wearing the earring, and I'm just shaking, eh?" he says. "I was just so pumped up. Scared. I was just shaking."
Everything has become so much bigger than he ever expected. He says these things—says anything that comes into his head—and the entire country seems to stop and listen. He is 59 years old, moving hard on 60, and he has become Canada's Rush Limbaugh and Canada's Howard Cosell. All in one. He is George C. Scott and Willard Scott and Randolph Scott. He is John McLaughlin and Dick Vitale and Bobby (the Brain) Heenan and Roseann Roseannadanna and Cliff Clavin, mailman, and George Will and Henry David Thoreau and maybe a little bit of Mighty Mouse, here to save the day.
Polls have shown that he is the most recognizable figure in the country, more recognizable than any pop star, any politician, even any of the hockey players he discusses. He is so big that he cannot walk on any street in Canada without drawing a crowd. He is so big that he doesn't do banquets anymore, can't, because the demand is so great. He is so big that there have been petitions to put him on the ballot to replace the retiring Brian Mulroney as prime minister. Prime minister? How did this happen?
"Tomas Sandstrom," he said once on the air about the Kings' forward. "A lot of people think he is Little Lord Fauntleroy, but Tomas Sandstrom is a backstabbing, cheap-shot, mask-wearing Swede." Actually, he's a Finn, not a Swede.
Is that something a prime minister would say? The words just came out.
"I was watching from the stands in the first period," he said another week. "There was a tipped shot, and I had to get out of the way, and it went over my head and hit this poor lady in the face. I'm telling you, when you come to the game, ladies, keep your eye on the puck. I've seen some awful smacks, and it's always a woman, just talking away, not paying any attention."
Is that any way to get the women's vote?
"The NHL is expanding to Anaheim and Miami," he said on yet another week. "Disney is in Anaheim, and the video guy [Wayne Huizenga, owner of Blockbuster Video and the Miami franchise] is in Miami. O.K., two heavy hitters like that come knocking, you'd better open the door. But TELL ME THIS. WHERE ARE THEY GOING TO GET THE PLAYERS? Would you mind telling me? You already got Ottawa. OTTAWA! Tampa Bay. San Jose, sinking fast. WHERE ARE THEY GOING TO GET THE PLAYERS?"
Did he have to shout?
Educators decry his misuse of English, his fractured syntax, his mangled pronunciations, worrying that he will breed a future generation that says "everythink" and "somethink" and won't have any idea how to make verbs agree with nouns. Hockey executives often paint him as a Neanderthal, out of touch, arguing for violence and against style, trying to defend a frontier that already has been opened wide to the arrival of international talent. Interest groups pick out one outrage after another, the shelves beginning to shake as soon as he speaks, carefully constructed politically correct ideas falling to the ground one after another as if they were so many pieces of cut glass or bone china. Oops, there goes another one.
None of this matters. The Canadian public simply can't get enough of him. He points. He shouts. He sneers. He laughs. His clothes come from the wardrobe of some road company of Guys and Dolls, flashy suits and fat-checked sport jackets, custom-tailored, elongated shirt collars starched to the consistency of vinyl siding, riding high above his Adam's apple. His head juts out like a hood ornament in search of a collision. Put on a small screen, he is a larger-than-life terror.
"My wife, Rose, wants me to quit," he says. "She stays home and just worries. She hates the show, hates it. She knows I'm going to say something sometime that's going to send everything up in flames. Probably some of the political stuff. She hates the political stuff. You know, though, she's my best critic. If I go home and she won't talk to me, that's when I know the show has been really good. The best ones are the ones she hates most."
It is a problem. The best things he says are the worst things he says. The danger is everything. The danger is the attraction for the public. What next? What will he do? He always is one F word, one outrage away from extinction. What will he do? He holds on to the stick of dynamite and watches the wick burn shorter and shorter. This is his 11th season. He cannot let go as the inevitable approaches. Ka-boom!
The first time he was paid to be on television was during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs. He had been fired following the regular season after a one-year run as coach of the now-defunct Colorado Rockies. His mouth had hastened his dismissal, an acrimonious ending. A year earlier he had resigned as coach of the Boston Bruins, another acrimonious ending, another problem with his mouth. He wasn't really looking for a job, but when the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the producers of Hockey Night in Canada, offered $1,500 a shot, plus expenses, he took a chance. Why not? He might as well make some money with his mouth instead of losing it because of his mouth.
He was on his way. His champion was Ralph Mellanby, then the executive producer of Hockey Night. Mellanby liked the way Cherry filled out a television screen, the way he talked in blunt terms, naming likes and dislikes, naming names. Cherry was different. He was a guy from the corner stool at the neighborhood bar, from the back room at the firehouse. His bad grammar was a plus, not a minus. His passion was a definite plus. He was people.
"I met him when he was in his last year as coach of the Bruins," Mellanby says. "That was when I first started thinking about him for TV. The Bruins were playing the Canadiens in the semifinals. He was coaching, and I was producing the games. After the second game he came up to me all mad. There had been a fight. Stan Jonathan of Boston had beaten up someone from Montreal. Cherry had seen a tape of the game and saw that we hadn't replayed the fight. He wanted to know if it was because a Bruin had won the fight. I told him it was our practice; we didn't replay fights. The Boston station did, but our policy was not to replay fights, to hold down the violence.
"During the fourth game there was another fight. This was at the Montreal Forum. Mario Tremblay won the fight. He beat up someone from the Bruins. We're doing the game from this little production room at the Forum, and suddenly we can see on one of the monitors that Cherry isn't behind the bench anymore. Where'd he go? This looks like it might be a story. Suddenly he's in the production room. In the middle of a Stanley Cup game. He's talking to me, telling me that we'd better not replay this fight either. He was worried because a Montreal guy had won. I remember thinking. The middle of a game. This guy is interesting."
The truth was that he always had been interesting, always had been flamboyant, wearing the flashy clothes and speaking his mind, but until he coached the Bruins, no one had noticed very much. He was a minor league guy, condemned to the back roads of hockey for most of his life. The logbook of former Montreal general manager Sam Pollock, tilled with notations on every player ever under contract to the Canadiens, even listed him that way: "Confirmed minor-leaguer."
As a slug-it-out defenseman and high school dropout from Kingston, Ont., he played 16 years in the minors. He played in just about all the way stations to the top. His career ran from 1954 to '72. This was the era of the old NHL: six teams. 120 players, everyone else locked into the netherworld at the bottom. The money in the minors was short, maybe $4,500 a year, the conditions awful. Cherry played in Hershey and Springfield and Sherbrooke and Spokane and Jacksonville and a long list of other places. He estimates now that he and Rose moved 53 times in the first 26 years of their marriage. For most of the time, they kept their possessions to a minimum. Unplug the stereo. Unplug the television. Put them in the backseat of the car next to Don's clothes. Gone. Don't mess up the clothes.
He played one game, total, in the NHL. It was a playoff game. He played for Boston, actually getting on the ice for a few minutes against the Canadiens in 1955. He thought then that he would be in the NHL forever. Alas, he separated a shoulder during the off-season, playing baseball, and never was in the big league again. His talent wasn't the greatest—and his mouth never helped.
"I guess I always had something to say." Cherry says. "I remember one time I was with Montreal in its camp. I was dressing with all of those great players. Jean Beliveau. Boom Boom Geoffrion. All of them. All the guys were complaining about the cab ride to the practice rink in Verdun. The club was picking up the cab fare, but the guys had to provide the tips. That was 50 cents each way, a buck round-trip. Everybody was complaining. Toe Blake, the coach, came in the locker room one day. Toe Blake won all those Stanley Cups. He asks if everything is all right. Not a word. I get up, a nobody. 'Well, Mr. Blake, all the guys have been wondering about the cabs...." I was gone the next day."
He retired after the 1968-69 season, but two years later he started working out again and tried playing for one last season with the Rochester (N.Y.) Americans. Midway through the season an amazing thing happened. Doug Adam, the Americans' coach, resigned. Cherry was named as Adam's replacement. Three years later he was in Boston, coaching Bobby Orr.
Rose remembers thinking. How can we go to Boston? We're confirmed minor leaguers. I'm going to be sitting next to Bobby Orr's wife? I have nothing to wear. Don didn't have that problem. He always had the good wardrobe. Now he finally had a proper place to wear it.
His live years with the Bruins were some of the happiest times of his life. His strategy called for simple, workmanlike hockey: throw the puck into a corner, beat up anyone in your path, get the puck out of the corner, shoot the puck at the goalie as hard as you can. He had a team of big players who could do that. The Big Bad Bruins. He was the ringmaster at their hockey circus but also a star performer. He walked the dasher as if it were a tightrope, pumped on adrenaline, howling at all perceived injustices. He quoted Lord Nelson and Popeye to the press. He treated each game as if he were sending knights of honor off to an icy plain to defend the honor of the poor city of Boston. He had fun.
"I don't think any team had more fun than that one," he says. "I remember one night we're playing L.A., and Hilliard Graves hits Bobby Orr from behind. I went crazy. I grab a guy, Hank Nowak, send him over the boards, screaming, 'Get him. Get him, Get him.' Poor Nowak, he skates to the blue line and turns around. 'Get who?' he asks."
There was the time when Stan Mikita of the Chicago Blackhawks committed some transgression. Cherry threatened to have the Bruins "send him back to Czechoslovakia in a pine box." Reporters wrote that down. Put it in the papers.
There was the time when Bruin winger Rick Middleton arrived at training camp overweight. Cherry said that Middleton "looked like Porky Pig." Reporters wrote that down, too. There was the time...there were a lot of times.
By the end, when he was feuding with then general manager Harry Sinden and assistant general manager Tom Johnson, calling them Ben and Willard, after the cinematic rodents: when he was decrying management for using "cheap pucks, no logo on the top, dime-store pucks that a rookie would be ashamed to keep if he scored his first goal in Boston Garden," he had developed a fullblown notoriety. His pet English bullterrier, Blue, subject of so many of his stories, had become famous. Blue was even doing commercials. The Bruins might not have won a Stanley Cup during his time, but they always were in the hunt, finishing first in the division four times.
Then Cherry was off to Colorado to coach the expansion Rockies. He was working with a ghostwriter on his autobiography. "Three years ago I couldn't spell author." he said on the first page when the book was published at the end of that expansion season. "Now I are one."
He was ready for television.
"There was controversy about him from the beginning." Mellanby says. "We decided that being a color commentator wasn't the right vehicle. He had too much force. It was too much of him. We came up with "Coach's Corner." In and out. Don't overwork it. A lot of people didn't think he was right at all, wanted to get rid of him right away. Luckily, I was in a position to have some control. He stayed."
The first shows were scripted and rocky. Cherry soon threw away the scripts and simply talked. Another broadcaster at the anchor desk fed him straight lines and subjects. Cherry talked. Talked? Cherry shouted, ranted, commanded the screen. An interesting statistic evolved: CBC executives noticed that between the first and second periods of Hockey Night in French-speaking Quebec, the ratings were going down for the French version of the broadcast while the ratings for the English broadcast were going up. What was happening? People were switching channels. They wanted to hear Cherry.
"I go with him to Montreal," says Ron MacLean, the broadcaster who now shares the CBC anchor desk with Cherry. "This is 1986. I had just started. This is our first trip together. We come out of the airport to catch a cab to the city. The first cab in line is this little cab. It's one of those Russian cars. A Lada. The starter tells us to get in. Cherry looks at the cab and goes crazy. What kind of cab is this? He isn't going to ride in a cab like this...this Communist piece of crap. He is screaming. There's a whole big scene. We get a new cab. A bigger cab.
"Same trip," MacLean continues. "We're at the studio. Don likes to arrive late. He likes everything to be spontaneous. I'm doing some work, and I notice the director is speaking in French. He's counting down, 'dix, neuf, huit, sept....' O.K., we're in a place where the people speak French. Their language. No problem. Don comes in. The director starts the same thing. Cherry goes crazy. 'What is this einz-freinz crap? English! This is a program in English." The director begins again: "Ten, nine, eight.' "
The original 4½ minutes have grown. They are still the foundation—4½ minutes every Saturday night, plus other nights during the playoffs—but now Cherry also does a weekly taped half-hour interview show on The Sports Network, the Canadian equivalent of ESPN, and a daily 3½ minute radio show that is heard on more than 100 stations. He writes a monthly column, longhand, for 12 newspapers. He writes columns for two hockey magazines. He has done a commercial for a government-sponsored hockey lottery in three provinces.
The bars are another success. The set of a bar was used for the first season of the taped show. And someone suggested that maybe a real bar with Cherry's name on it would be a good business venture. There now are 15 franchised Don Cherry's Grapevine bars across Canada, three more soon to open. Then there are the videos. For four years he has issued annual highlight videos, featuring KOs and random collisions. There have been more than half a million copies sold. Then there is the rap video. The rap video? Cherry did it for charity, wearing a red trench coat, black fedora and sunglasses, saying, among other things, "Probert, Probert, what a man; we see him, it's slam-bam. Let's go." Cherry wrote those words about Detroit Red Wing enforcer Bob Probert. The video was shown on Much Music, the Canadian equivalent of MTV.
"People always ask me what he's like off the air," MacLean says. "I tell them, he's no different. What is on the screen is what he is."
His passions are as visible as his neckties. That is his attraction. He is a neon light on a bland landscape. How many men say what they think, what they really think? How many are strong enough, maybe even crazy enough, to disregard possible consequences? How many are able to do it on TV? He is real, a real face from a real world. That is what makes him unique. He says what he thinks.
"I thought I'd do this two or three years, and then I'd fade away," Cherry says. "That's what happens to guys when they leave the game. Two, three years on television, then they're gone. This...I don't know. For some reason, people respond to me. I had a letter from the parents of this five-year-old girl who is hearing-impaired. She never had talked, never said a word. Every week, though, she watched the games, watched the show. One week, for some reason, I wasn't on. She turned to her parents and said. 'Where's Don?' The first words out of her mouth. 'Where's Don?' "
The essence of his blustery message is his love of tradition. Why can't things be the way they always were? Where is the honor? What has happened to the virtues of hard work? His is the voice calling for the return of Latin to the Sunday Mass. for the preservation of the neighborhood variety store, for the past against the troublesome future. If hockey is his country's national religion, then he is the keeper of the faith.
His two main crusades are for Canadian kids' keeping jobs in the NHL and for fighting to remain in the game. Keep everything the same. Why change something that has worked for all these years? Every week he talks about the increasing number of foreign players on the league rosters. Who needs them? Every week he talks about the people who would change the game to a wide-open, violence-free exhibition of skating and puck-handling skills. This is supposed to be hockey?
"They talk about all the things the foreign players have brought to the game," Cherry says. "Well, let's see, what have they brought? The helmet. The visor. The dive. Lying there and letting on that you're hurt, the way soccer players always do. I guess, you look at it that way, these people are right. The foreign players have brought a lot to the game."
What is better now? New NHL commercials are being filmed, backed by classical music, to portray "the majesty of the game." Cherry scoffs. What majesty? The game is hits and grunts and hard work. Majesty? How many touchdowns does the NFL show in its commercials in relation to hits and grunts? The game of hockey is a question of valor, of not being afraid. The majesty of the skating and the puck handling is that they are executed in an atmosphere of violence. This should be a man's world, men dealing with men. The new world is a world of parking tickets and regulations and show business.
"It used to be, you'd get cut, you'd finish your shift, no matter what," Cherry says. "A guy like Tim Horton of Toronto, the blood would be coming down his face, and he'd finish his shift. You'd want to get up there to the NHL to be like Tim Horton. Now, you have a guy like Jaromir Jagr of the Penguins. Jaromir Jagr [who not coincidentally is Czech] is everything that's wrong with the NHL. He gets hit, he goes down and stays there. Get up!"
Who are these people who would change the game? Cherry has called McNall, the Kings' owner, Bruce McNutt. He points out again and again that Gil Stein, the league's interim president from June 1992 until Gary Bettman became commissioner on Feb. 1, instituted various rules changes in the past year but "never saw a hockey game until he was 39 years old." Should someone who never saw the game until he was 39 be allowed to tinker with something that has been a part of people's lives from birth? Is that right? These are people "who wouldn't know a hockey player if they slept with Bobby Orr." Bettman is a basketball man, the former senior vice-president and general counsel of the NBA. Cherry says he is withholding judgment on Bettman, but is there any doubt about which way he is leaning? He noticed that Bettman recently said he wants to "enhance the puck" so it can be seen better on television. What does that mean?
"They all want to change something." Cherry says. "They think if they change—if they take out the fights, do something different—hockey is going to become big in the U.S. The big TV contract. It just isn't going to happen. Face it, people in the U.S. would rather watch The Rifleman than a hockey game. It's almost sad the way our people try to market this game. Let it stand for itself. Let it be what it is."
The league boasts that fighting is down 33% this year and that the number of foreign players still is rising. As of last Friday a total of 767 players had appeared in at least one NHL game this season. There were 49 players from the former Soviet Union on the list, 29 from the former Czechoslovakia, 24 from Sweden, nine from Finland and 13 from other countries outside North America. The 508 Canadians and a surging group of 135 Americans—U.S. players are all right with Cherry because they grew up under a similar hockey system—still were in the majority, but the freedom of hockey movement clearly is in full force. There will be more Europeans before there will be fewer.
"Don Cherry is like Humphrey Bogart in the wrong movie," Winnipeg Jet assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, a Finn, says. "He's real, but he doesn't fit in all the different situations he's in."
"He's a total idiot," Calgary Flame defenseman Frank Musil, a Czech, says. "He's a goof. I ignore him. He accuses all European players of not playing physically, but not all Canadian and U.S. players have the same skills as the Europeans. You can't criticize these players for not fighting, because they never did it back home. If they grew up here, maybe they would be more willing to do that. What can you say? He's a goof."
"I think Don is very predictable," says Stein, who is now the NHL's No. 2 man. "I think he's fun, but he's always been who he is. I guess he likes goon hockey. Well, the public doesn't, and the league doesn't, and the people running the game don't. The league has a wonderful group of Europeans now, and an international character has already been established. That isn't going to change."
Cherry responds the way he always responds. Directly.
"That's really stupid," he says into the camera. "Isn't that stupid?
"The fans love fighting. The players don't mind. The coaches like the fights. What's the big deal? The players who don't want to fight don't have to fight. Do you ever see Wayne Gretzky in a fight? What's the big deal? I saw Winnipeg and New Jersey the other night, and they were just skating around. Skating around. It was like a tea party, like watching Sweden and Finland play."
Cherry's friends worry about him. Mellanby, now working with the planning committee for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, says he is glad he no longer is in charge at Hockey Night in Canada. He would not want to be the one who eventually will have to deal with Cherry's future. Cherry is beating on the two themes too much, the foreigners and the fighting. He is moving into politics too often. Something will happen. Cherry has a deal with MacLean. I don't tell him [MacLean] what I'm going to say.... I don't want him to go down with me when it all blows apart." This is all right with MacLean. He has his own career.
"I was thinking about Don the other night," MacLean said recently. "I went to the movies and saw A Few Good Men. Every time Jack Nicholson came onto the screen, I thought about Don. Nicholson's character was exactly the same. Rules didn't matter. Everything was the Code. When they were carrying Nicholson out at the end, kicking and fighting, that's how I always thought Don would go out. In a ball of fire."
Cherry mostly just keeps going. He would like to slow down, like to stop, as Rose wants him to do, but says he doesn't know how. He hasn't had a vacation in his adult life. He owns a cottage on Wolf Island in Ontario, but he was there for only two days last year. He owns a boat, but it hasn't been in the water in two years. The craziness keeps him too busy.
He sits in the basement den of his modest house in Mississauga, Ont., a suburb of Toronto. Except for the money he spends on his clothes, he is not an extravagant man. He does have three Lincoln Mark VIs, but all of them are at least 10 years old. He says he likes them because they are like him, "a little ostentatious, a little old, but still going." He says he doesn't do much, outside of the work. He sits here a lot, watching hockey games on the giant-screen TV. He has the satellite dish. He can watch a lot of games.
He is eating a tuna fish sandwich. At his feet is his dog. This is a new dog, Baby Blue. The original Blue, the beloved dog, died four years ago. The original Blue was a trusted warrior. Her blue eyes were supposed to be a defect, but Cherry always thought they were a sign of strength. The original Blue was the toughest, meanest, bravest' dog a man could find. Cherry doesn't like this new dog very much. He says, "If an intruder came, Baby Blue probably would try to kiss him to death."
The new dog is trying to lick tuna fish from Cherry's plate. He shoos her away.
"This dog," he says. "We took her to the opening of one of the bars. In Oshawa. We're there a little while, and she's all tired. Falling asleep. We had to leave early, take her home."
"Don," Rose says. "The dog was walking on top of the bar. The people were feeding her drinks. Everyone was giving her beer. The dog was drunk."
"You think?" Cherry says.
Damned dog. Where will it all end? The old Blue wouldn't have gotten drunk. The old Blue could hold her liquor.
"I asked someone to break Ulf Samuelsson's arm between the wrist and the elbow."
"Tomas Sandstrom is a back-stabbing, cheap-shot, mask-wearing Swede [sic]."
"Jaromir Jagr is everything that's wrong with the NHL"
"The fans love fighting. The players don't mind. The coaches like the fights. What's the big deal?"
"I don't tell MacLean what I'm going to say.... I don't want him to go down with me when it all blows apart."
"If I go home and Rose won't talk to me...that's when I know the show has been really good."
"If an intruder came, Baby Blue probably would try to kiss him to death."