Donald Stewart “Grapes” Cherry was born 5 February 1934 in Kingston, Ontario in the midst of the Great Depression.
Throughout his 77 years, his love for hockey has remained unquenchable. Not good enough to cut it in the NHL (he played one unremarkable game for the Boston Bruins in 1955), Cherry spent over 15 years on the gruelling professional minor hockey league circuit getting paid barely enough to support his family. After hanging up his skates, he coached the successful Boston Bruins (also known as the “lunch-pail gang” and “the Big Bad Bruins”) through much of the 1970s. However, he is probably most well-known for appearing on Coach’s Corner on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.
As a result of countless brash comments he has made, both on and off the air, Cherry has perennially been described as an ignorant, uncouth, red-neck, offensive, politically incorrect blowhard.
I am not afraid to say that I love him and I think he is a great Canadian.
Hockey is Canada’s game and no one, bar none, has any more passion or love for the game of hockey than Don Cherry. Further, no one, bar none, has deeper knowledge and insight into the game of hockey than Don Cherry. His uncanny ability to predict outcomes in the sport, both long-term and short-term, often leave his intellectual foil, Ron McLean, clearly in awe. This is a man who has lived and breathed the game of hockey for pretty much every waking moment of his life. I admire such single-minded passion. Most of the rest of us just dabble in interests for varying periods of time and rarely in an extraordinary way.
People like my Dad despise Cherry for insisting that fighting is an entrenched part of the game that will never change. But Cherry is right. You put 10 young men traveling at high speeds, in a full contact sport, in an extremely limited space, carrying a weapon (i.e. a hockey stick) and chasing around a tiny disk that will make them rich if they can bury it often enough in the back of the opposing goaltender’s net – there are going to be regular fisticuffs. If you have ever played hockey, at any level, and been viscously cross-checked at unawares when the refs are not looking – then you understand why fighting is part of the game.
And Don Cherry always makes it clear that, despite his defence of fighting in hockey, the safety of the players is always paramount. He decried the adoption of the instigator rule (which assesses the player who is deemed to have instigated the fight an additional 2 minutes in the penalty box). However, he did not do so because the NHL was trying to crack down on fighting in the league. He did so because the instigator rule resulted in marquee players being subject to cheap, injury-causing shots. Why? Because before the rule was adopted, teams would have one or more “enforcers” – their job being to protect the elite players. In other words, a player would think twice before cutting down an elite player on the opposing team because he would know that he would almost certainly get the crap beaten out of him by an enforcer if he did. What the instigator rule did was effectively eliminate enforcers and leave the best players vulnerable to sneaky and dangerous attacks. Cherry argued that the instigator rule would not only not eliminate fighting in hockey – it would lead to increased injuries suffered by the best players. Statistics have shown that he was right on both counts.
Cherry also supports fighting in hockey because the fans love it. Although it invokes the ‘bread and circuses’ blood lust of the Roman Coliseum, it is beyond doubt that, since ancient times, people get a kick out of public violence in an arena. Now, I am hardly trying to put innocent people getting torn limb from limb by hungry lions on a par with a modern-day hockey fight. I would say that we have evolved to the extent that most of us hockey fans enjoy a good fight in a good game when equally matched combatants do not sustain any meaningful injury (and no, getting a tooth knocked out during a fight is NOT a meaningful injury in hockey).
A more recent example of how Cherry demonstrates his concern for the safety of the players is the degree to which he rails against the light-weight, plastic-coated “body armour” that the players all wear now. Time and again, on Coach’s Corner, he raps his knuckles on the hard surface of the “body armour” and compares it to the soft, impact-absorbing padding from back in the day. He points out that the players, in this super-fast era of 21st Century hockey, can use this body armour as much as an offensive weapon as a defensive shield. Put it this way: if you are going be taken out by a 6’2”, 220 pound professional hockey player traveling at top speed – would you rather he was wearing hard plastic body armour or padding? It goes without saying that, even if the speed of the game goes down a tick due to the weight differential, the latter is preferable for the safety of the players.
It is worth noting that when Cherry addresses young kids on Coach’s Corner (which is often) protection and playing the game safely are always emphasized.
Nevertheless, critics claim that Cherry is not concerned with the safety of the players by citing his opposition to the wearing of visors. To those who were actually listening, Cherry was, again, not against the protective aspect of the visors – he was against them for the offensive use to which they were being put. He has shown clip after clip of players using the visor in finishing checks in an offensive and potentially injury-causing way. I confess that I am not fully in line with Cherry here. Prior to visors there were too many ghastly eye injuries in hockey to be opposed to them. In my opinion, the visor should simply be made mandatory for all players (just like the helmet itself before it) with a stiff penalty for using the visor offensively.
Much more controversial for Cherry was an on-air comment on Coach’s Corner in January 2004: “Most of the guys that wear them [visors] are Europeans and French guys”. The undisguised implication was that European and French Canadian hockey players are cowards who use the visor to protect their eyes while also using it as a weapon. The comment created such a furor (especially in navel-gazing Quebec) that, ever since, Cherry’s broadcasts have been put on a seven second delay by the CBC. Undoubtedly, Cherry’s comment was inappropriate but it hardly amounted to hateful and, interestingly enough, it turned out to be true: at the time, 50% of Europeans and 40% of French-Canadians wore visors, compared to 22% of North Americans born outside of Quebec.
I think Cherry should be given credit for the fact that his antagonistic stance towards European and French Canadian hockey players has mellowed considerably, to the point that, for example, he gushes over Quebecer Vincent Lecavalier while consistently condemning Canada’s biggest hockey darling since Wayne Gretzky: English-speaking Nova Scotia native, Sidney Crosby (who is too much of a “hot dog” in Cherry’s eyes). He also now heaps praise on many European players (e.g. Peter Forsberg) and will mercilessly trash Canadian players who do not play the game the “Canadian way” (e.g. diving, “turtling” in a fight, showboating after scoring, etc., are all “un-Canadian”).
Why give Cherry credit? Because he is old and he is old school. During his career in the AHL as a player and in the NHL as a coach, virtually all of the players were Canadian and American (the vast majority were the former) who played the gritty game he knows, loves and grew up with. For the most part, the only time foreigners came into the equation in those times was when Canada played against the Soviet Union in a proxy Cold War battle. Despite tremendous admiration for their hockey skills, foreigners (especially Russians and players from the Eastern Bloc and Scandinavia) were the enemy and playing side-by-side on the same team made old-schoolers, like Cherry, squeamish.
Nevertheless, even though he takes it too far at times, I like Cherry’s fervent patriotism. Although I am not of Canadian descent, I think Canada is a truly great country. However, I have always been struck by the inferiority complex the national character generally suffers from here. Quebec unreasonably fears that its culture will be eroded, and ultimately taken over, by English Canada while, in turn, English Canada unreasonably fears that its culture will be eroded, and ultimately taken over, by the United States. Canadians anaemically boast that backpackers who stitch a Canadian badge on their backpacks are treated much better than their American counterparts, Canada typically ranks first or second in the UN Quality of Life Rankings, etc. The CBC itself is an elaborate governmentally sponsored culture manufacturing mechanism designed just in case Canadians forget who they are. Cherry, on the other hand, hollers his love for Canada from the rooftops at every opportunity and unwaveringly honours Canada’s fallen soldiers at the end of Coach’s Corner segments. At the same time, he rightly criticizes Canadians when they behave in an “un-Canadian” manner like, for example, when they disgracefully boo the American national anthem prior to hockey games.
Finally, I love the outrageously gaudy suit jackets and I particularly love the one emblazoned with roses that he wore in Vancouver last week during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. Many people probably do not realize that the jacket was worn in honour of his wife, Rose, who died of liver cancer on 1 June 1997 (Cherry also always wears a rose on his lapel). The quotation below demonstrates that, despite all the bull terrier bombast, Don Cherry is mostly all about hard work, perseverance, dedication, loyalty and love:
The point I’m trying to make is Rose Cherry’s Home for Kids is named after a person who never quit; 16 years in the minors making $4500; 53 moves; having babies alone; traveling pregnant; living in God forsaken places (I am ashamed) and as God is my judge never complained once. I know at times she must have been unhappy, especially at the end of my career, no job, no trade, no education, could not get a job sweeping floors. Sixteen years of this and still she “Hung Tough” as we say in hockey.