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Don Cherry; Tart, not sweet

October 12, 2011 Coaches No Comments

Don Cherry; Tart, not sweet
By Bill Ferguson
Nov 5, 2001, 19:38



Don Cherry has been a part of hockey since long before any of us touched a puck. He is the embodiment of old-time hockey. No fancy footwork here; just grind it out and stuff it in. In talking to the man during the course of this interview, he came across as genuine, opinionated, unguarded and courteous, with an unrestrained passion for the game. His high profile and love of hockey have made him “the most recognized man in Canada” according to Sports Illustrated. His unguarded comments, meanwhile, and the unrestrained nature of his feelings for the game, have led to his living life on the bubble.

While Cherry’s act is never easy to follow, his wake is always full. It’s a trail littered with the bodies of countless European players, and with numerous hockey road signs that lie trampled like strings of old tape on a locker room floor. Things like helmets and visors, and players who are allowed to freewheel through an entire team without being touched, aren’t given much room in Cherry’s heart. You may not want to follow Don Cherry, but you won’t have any trouble seeing where he’s been.

And he’s been everywhere. 16 years in the minors – back in the days of a six-team NHL – when the competition at that level was more intense than anything we might ever see again in this age of expansion and watered-down talent pools. Then, after coaching the NHL’s Boston Bruins and Colorado Rockies, he moved into full-time TV work in 1980 with a regular feature on Hockey Night in Canada called “Coach’s Corner.” His popularity zoomed. Cherry can no longer attend any banquet, or walk down any street in Canada without drawing a crowd. His ongoing series of rough-and-tumble videos, “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Hockey,” is in it’s fifth volume. These video records of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the NHL are always well received by Cherry’s many fans. Yet in spite of his popularity, Don “Grapes” Cherry believes that one day it could all be gone.


You worry that all the success you’ve achieved could vanish overnight. Why?

I’ve got an awful lot of enemies; and not only in the NHL. The company I work for, Canadian Broadcasting Company, is not too crazy over the things I do either; and when you constantly rub people the wrong way, eventually you’re going to rub enough of them the wrong way and they’re going to say ‘see you later’.


Do you think you’re close to that point now?

It could be this year, it could be (anytime). My wife tells me that if I don’t hear from the (CBC) by Thursday, then I’m on for Saturday. That’s the way it works. That’s the way I want it. When they say that’s it, you can’t go on any more, I’ll say, ‘Fine, thanks very much. It was a nice ride.’ It’s not an act, it’s exactly the way I feel.


Meanwhile, enemies and all, you’re on top of the hockey world. How do you explain that?

The secret of my success is I don’t pull any punches and I tell the truth.


People say that you have a “provincial” attitude towards hockey, meaning if you’re not from a province of Canada, then you don’t belong in the NHL. Don’t you think that if you’re good enough, no matter where you’re from, then you belong in the league?

Well, you’re absolutely right – if they’re good enough to be in the game. But what’s happened is we’ve got Europeans coming over here who are not good enough. First of all, it used to be a badge of honor that you played on the power play. You earned your way onto the power play, whereas (the Europeans) have to earn their way off the power play.

For instance, there was a guy named Kaminsky down in Moncton making $500,000 playing in the American League, and Keith Tkachuk up in Winnipeg was earning $400,000. So what I’m saying is yes, if they’re good enough to be here. But there’s an awful lot of European players stealing their money. As we speak right now, in the top 15 scorers there’s one European, Fedorov. How could you knock Fedorov, the way he’s producing? As long as they produce, they should be out there.


So you’re saying that the Europeans get measured with a different yardstick than everybody else?

You got it. The Canadian kids are going in 18-19 years old, and if they don’t produce right away, they’re gone. But if the Europeans don’t produce, “they’re adjusting.” It’s funny, but they come over here 30-years-old and they make it, but the American and Canadian kids are “too old” at 27. It’s not just the Canadians. Some of my favorite players are American; Keith Tkachuk, I call him K-Chuck, Kevin Stevens, I could go on down the line. My wife’s an American, my two kids are American.


The Russians coming into the NHL seem to be fundamentally stronger at skating, passing and shooting than a lot of North American kids. Are the Russians getting better training than we are?

No. In fact, they’re on their way down right now as you can see over in the Olympics.


But aren’t all their best players in the NHL?

Yeah, no kidding. But we don’t bring them over here to hit do we?

The one thing we bring them over here for is to score a lot of points, right? You know how many of them are in the top 15 in scoring? One. Fedorov. You know how many Russians were in the top scoring in (last year’s) playoffs? None. There was only one European; Jagr. So this nonsense that some day they’re gonna take over the NHL? It’s a myth.


If you had one thing to say to the American public, what would it be?

If you’re not watching hockey, you’re missing out on the most exciting sport in the world. It has the athletic power of baseball and football, but it’s played on 1/8” stainless steel blades. It’s got the roughness of football, the finesse of baseball and it’s the same as basketball; you put it in the hoop, you put it in the net. It’s got all the ingredients of all the sports combined, so anyone who goes to a hockey game is usually a fan for life.


How do you view the popularity of hockey south of the border?

Hockey is growing in the States, with Wayne Gretzky out in California. The Mighty Ducks and the Sharks usually play to 98% sellouts. They’ve got a few weak sisters here in the East, but we’ve got some big, heavy hitters in hockey now, with Blockbuster Huizenga down there in Tampa. Nobody expected them to get 23,000 a game.


What about the television situation?

I still maintain that (hockey) will never be on a major network regularly, once a week. I really believe that. They’ll show the All-Star game and a few play-off games, but it is not strong enough for the major networks once a week. It’s just not popular enough over all the United States to be on regularly. Too many people would rather watch re-runs of “The Rifleman.’”


Some blame hockey’s lesser popularity on fighting. How do we put fighting in perspective for a little kid?

The thing is that it’s the only sport in the world that goes 25 mph. It’s played on 1/8” stainless steel, and there’s boards around; it’s not like football, basketball and baseball, where you can run out of bounds. To me the fighting, you’re right, it’s tough (for) people who really don’t know hockey, but what happens is this: If I check you from behind and you can’t drop your gloves and take care of me, then you’re going to wait till the first opportunity you get…and give me your stick.


So you think the fighting itself is harmless?

Where most people get hurt in hockey is checking from behind, which is the most dangerous of all, and (from using) the sticks. Very few people have been seriously hurt in a fight, other than a few broken noses and things like that.

I have to laugh when I hear Americans who can’t believe the violence in hockey, when every Sunday the idea is to kill the quarterback. I think it was 12 quarterbacks in six weeks (who) bit the dust. I have to laugh, too, when…I see a pitcher throwing a baseball at a guy’s head at 100 mph. By the way, there’s more bench clearing brawls in one week of baseball than there’s been in the last eight years of hockey.

When (Americans) talk about violence, they should take a look at their own sports. When they say the fighting isn’t hockey, I don’t know…maybe it’s not their version of hockey.


Speaking of fighting, Probert’s getting up there in years. Who’s the next king of the hill?

“Oh, he’s not up there that much. There’s some young guys coming along… Sandy McCarthy, a young guy (in Calgary), Darren McCarty for Detroit, they’re good. Tie Domi…you can go down the line. But when Probert feels like going, he’s still the champ. And he’ll be the champ for the next 3-4 years…as long as he wants to be.”


Did you see Probert and McSorley fight?

Yeah, that was a beauty. I put it on Coach’s Corner, the whole minute and 42 seconds. It’s an automatic for Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em 5.

It seems they’re giving out lengthy suspensions for lesser infractions than they used to. Were the games rougher in the old days or are we just becoming wimps?

No, the games were rougher then, but when the helmet and visor came in, the sticks came into play. The only way you’re ever going to keep the sticks down (is) to suspend guys. You can fine them, and…I know (the fine) will hurt them, but you’re gonna have to suspend guys when they use the stick like Granato did (against Chicago’s Neil Wilkinson). He’s sorry about it, but you just can’t do that stuff. He knows he shouldn’t have done it, and that’s why he didn’t say anything about the suspension, because he knew he deserved it.


How about Rick Zombo slashing the linesman who got in his way?

That was a tough one. But if they let that one go then what’s next for the linesmen if they get in the way?


But with so much at stake you could see why Zombo was upset at the linesman.

That was Kevin Collins, and Kevin was afraid there might be a fight going on and he (wouldn’t have been in position) to break it up.

Are there any other of the “new” rules you like?

I like the penalty for hitting from behind, but it’s the old story again…the players are taking advantage of it. They show their numbers, as the players say, so they will get hit head first and get a five minute major sometimes. We never used to do that before we had helmets. Nobody would ever think of crashing somebody head first into the boards.


Everyone loves to hate “Grapes”

So there you have it, the “Grapes” everybody loves to hate. And is it any wonder? He closed out this Hockey Player interview by noting that some figure skaters had taken the ice. “I asked them to come over. I want to see the next draft picks of the Winnipeg Jets!”

But even if you do hate Don Cherry, you have to respect him for his forthrightness. He may never be politically correct, but few people in hockey are as colorful as “Grapes,” and few have done as much to popularize the game. Or at least keep it in the headlines.

If you don’t hate Don Cherry, you’re probably anxious for the next Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em video to hit the market. And you’re probably not European.

For more information on Don Cherry’s videos contact Quality Records & Video, at 1-416-291-5590



Bill Ferguson is a fan and player of hockey whose life-long dream is to be the subject of a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em video.


This first appeared in the 06/1994 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®


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