BORN: Kingston, Ontario • 5 February 1934
Donald S. Cherry was never much of a hockey
player. His career statistics in the National Hockey League tell a very modest tale: games played, 1; goals, 0; assists, 0; penalty minutes, 0.He was only marginally more successful as a big-league coach: in a half-dozen years he never won a Stanley Cup, and is remembered best for losses rather than wins.
So how could it be that in the history of the most Canadian of sports,Cherry stands out among players, coaches, officials, and owners as the most influential hockey person¬ ality of the century?The answer begins with the fact that Cherry was not only not a star but was never really successful at all. His roots were humble.
Like many who today hang on his every word, Cherry grew up a hockey-obsessed kid who just wanted to make the big leagues.He came achingly close in 1955 when, as a twenty-one year old, he played a single playoff game for the Boston Bruins. Later that year, however, an injury smashed his chances of returning to the big time.
Ever hoping for more, Cherry bounced around the ranks of minor professional hockey, from Hershey to Trois-Rivieres, and points in between.He quit playing and accepted a minor-league coaching job in 1971. Three years later he began his briefNHL coaching career with the Boston Bruins. Cherry loved the attention that the big-time offered, and it showed. But the Bruins enjoyed only limited success, and after a brief stint in Colorado, he was fired for good in 1980.
Smarting from being dismissed, Cherry accepted a bit part on live hockey broadcasts on the CBC; his was one of a steady stream of new faces that television required to provide “expert analysis” of the game. No one could have predicted he would reinvent the role.
Cherry was different. Analysts were supposed to be detached; he cheered loudly for his favourite teams and players. Analysts were supposed to promote the game; he complained about “brutal” refereeing. Analysts were supposed to talk about hockey; he spoke noisily and often about whatever he wanted.
Regular guys, guys who had regular dreams but who never quite made it, could relate to him; after all, Cherry himself never quite made it. And Cherry liked hockey fights. He liked to drink beer, and he sounded like he drank a lot of it.
He was also proudly, fiercely Canadian and seized every opportunity to remind Canadians that when it came to hockey, no country in the world was better. He was apparently, and actually, an average Canadian guy who just loved the game.
The proof that his message resonated was in his sky-high ratings. Television quickly gave him a star’s billing: “Coach’s Corner,” a four-and-a-halfminute show between periods of Saturday night games, quickly became a weekly status report on the state of Canada’s game—and often on the country itself.
Usually, it is shouting and a lot of finger pointing. On fighting: “HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO REPEAT IT? FIGHTING IS PARTA HOCKEY.” On players who refuse to fight: “THIS IS WHAT WE’VE COME TO? TURTLISM?” On foreign players: “I’M TELLIN’ YA, IT BREAKS MY HEART TO SEE SOME RUSSIAN STEALIN’ A JOB FROM A GOOD CANADIAN KID.” On a highlight: “YOU KIDS OUT THERE, YOU LISTEN TO ME: YOU NEVER, EVER PASS THE PUCK OUT BLIND LIKE THAT.” On another highlight: “WATCH HIM TAKE THE SWEDISH DIVE…THE SWAN DIVE.” On honour: “YOU KIDS OUT THERE, YOU BIG TOUGH GUYS, YOU NEVER PICK ON THE LITTLE GUYS, OKAY? THAT’S THE CANADIAN WAY.”
It is always outrageous, often grossly offensive. The slang and sloppy grammar raise eyebrows. The xenophobia and glorification of fighting justifiably make some people angry. But no apologies are ever offered after the fact. Always nattily attired in a gaudy suit and high-collared shirt, Cherry resembles nothing more than a cartoon mobster barking out commands to underlings.
But among fans and the media, he is almost universally revered. His openly patriotic diatribes are frequently quoted, and his style is often imitated. Those who miss him on televi¬ sion can buy his videos or visit one of his bars. In his own way, Cherry makes many people feel good about being Canadian, and, hence, he has received more attention that he ever could have imagined.
College courses analyse his attitudes; academic papers study his popularity. His loud opinions actually matter, even when they have nothing to do with hockey. Don Cherry has become bigger than the game; recent ratings, at least, show that more people watch him than the game itself.
In an industry that dumps yesterday’s stars down the drain like expired milk, Cherry beat the odds and endured. There remains a shared sense among those that watch him that one day he will go too far.
About this game or that player, he will say something too personal, too lewd, too unfair. Then television will have no choice but to discard him. If, or more probably when, that happens, he will retire from the spotlight secure in the knowledge that this minor leaguer has changed the way Canadians think about their game, and about themselves.