Canadian hockey commentator and former player Don Cherry is famous for saying what’s on his mind. Every Saturday night during the ice hockey season – 1 October to June – his seven-minute Coach’s Corner segment airs live on CBc’s Hockey Night in Canada during the game’s first intermission. It’s the highest-rated spot on Canadian television, watched by up to two million viewers. His often outrageous but always sincere commentary includes him frequently shedding tears on camera for Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and savaging European players for being wimps. While his directness has endeared him to half the country, his right-wing politics and condoning of brawling in hockey have irritated others.
Hockey fans blog that Cherry is “Mr Ego” and “the only sports commentator who could get my mom to throw things at the TV”. “There’s nothing more that I can be called,” says Cherry. “One lady called me a troglodyte, misogynist and a barbarian. I didn’t even know what half those words meant!”
Cherry has made a living out of being himself and he makes no apologies for it. “When I get fired, they’ll never say it was a slip. I mean everything I say.” Today at his modest home in a Toronto suburb, Cherry is dressed in his usual splendour in a white-wool pinstriped suit, Canadian flag cufflinks and a shirt with a high collar that he admits is very hot and uncomfortable. “But as Fernando Lamas says, ‘it’s better to look good than to feel good!’” jokes Cherry.
Sitting in his favourite green plaid wool chair, Cherry’s “rec” room has fluorescent lighting and panelled walls covered in hockey paraphernalia, old pictures of Cherry’s former teams and his white bull terrier, Blue. The scene is reminiscent of Elvis’s Graceland home in Memphis – with the same deep-pile rugs and homey feel. Since 1980, Coach’s Corner – which he hosts alongside Ron MacLean – has developed into a tradition for ice hockey fans. And with ice hockey tantamount to religion in Canada, Cherry has become almost untouchable. Despite his provocative comments, he knows his hockey and is so popular that CBC would probably find it impossible to ever fire him. In 2004, a CBC news poll named him the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time.
For an OK, but not great, hockey player, Cherry has made an incredible ascent to TV stardom. He left high school at 14 to pursue a minor league hockey career and dragged his late wife Rose (who he met when she was 17) through small towns across the US – they moved 53 times. He first retired in the late 1960s when he was in his forties and took a job as a construction worker. “The jackhammer was my speciality,” says Cherry. “Then I was laid off and couldn’t find a job for six months. The thing is, I know how everybody feels being laid off. It’s humiliating. I had no education, no trade, I was down on my knees and God told me to go back to hockey. You can’t quit!”
Cherry went to play for the Rochester Americans in 1971 where they then asked him to become a coach. “That’s what I’m best at: coaching. I’d like to say I’m an entrepreneur. But I’m not. I get pushed into doing every thing I’m doing – the Don Cherry Sports Grills, the Rock ’em Sock ’em DVDs, the two books, my job on Hockey Night and the movie.” (His son wrote a film that was shot this summer and is set to air on CBC in March 2010.) “Once I get talked into it,” Cherry continues, “I get paranoid that it’s got to be the best. But I never had to be pushed to play hockey. I only ever wanted to play hockey and coach. The other things I got into to survive.” He went from coaching the Rochester Americans to the Boston Bruins in 1974. He took them to four first place winning seasons but was dismissed after feuds with the owner. His subsequent TV career came out of his outspokenness and larger-than-life persona.
At 75, Cherry still lifts weights and exercises for 45 minutes every day on the step machine. He doesn’t play hockey with other old-timers because, he says, “I liked the fights and the danger of playing hockey and there’s no danger in old-time hockey. I don’t enjoy it if I can’t play tough.” He still sees himself as a good-ole boy and a bit of a redneck. “It’s why I’ll never win the Order of Canada. I’m not their type. I’m a good ole boy. That’s why I relate to the soldiers. When you’re among them, you’d swear you’re among hockey players,” says Cherry. “Soldiers are the same age, they’re fit like hockey players. They’re from the same small towns, not too many went to college and they speak like hockey players.”
Cherry still drives his two 1983 Lincoln Mark VIs, one white, one black with tinted windows. Once he was driving wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sportscaster Brian Williams passed him and said to his wife, “That’s either Don Cherry or a pimp from Detroit.” His dress sense is a bit Detroit but rumours of Cherry buying a new suit for every broadcast are exaggerated.
“I wear the same suit on camera once every two to three years. I don’t know if I have 100 but I have a lot. People still like to see me in plaid.” According to his suit maker plaid is back. “I didn’t know it went out,” says Cherry who’s been wearing it since the 1970s. In this media era of the plasticised, scripted talking heads, it’s good to see Cherry’s bold, unrestrained commentary is still in fashion too.
Cherry pickings: the CV
1934 Born Kingston, Ontario
1954 Played minor league professional hockey across North America
1969 Worked in construction and as a Cadillac salesman
1972 Coached the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League
1974 Coached the Boston Bruins (won National Hockey League Coach of the Year in 1976)
1980 ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ post-game analysis morphed into ‘Coach’s Corner’
2004 Investigated by federal Official Languages Commission for comments about French Canadian hockey players on network television. Finished seventh in voting for television programme ‘The Greatest Canadian’