MISSISSAUGA, Ontario — Don Cherry, who can be as loud as the jackets he wears during his weekly “Coach’s Corner” segments on “Hockey Night in Canada,” was worried a year ago that he was losing his edge.
He was at risk of becoming a dinosaur, droning on about hockey’s best pugilists when the N.H.L. was turning toward more skill and speed.
After careful introspection, and inspiration from his wife, Cherry, 83, has roared back to being Canada’s Lion in Winter and hockey’s most outspoken voice, well into his fourth decade as a broadcaster.
“Everyone on television knows more about hockey than me,” Cherry said. “But they don’t know hockey. There’s a difference. They know all the stats, they know all the players, the whole deal. But I can pick out things no one else picks out.”
Cherry put himself in precarious positions as a player and as a broadcaster for his uncompromising opinions, making it a practice to thumb his nose at authority. CBC tried several times to fire him, but Cherry came back stronger. And after it was announced in 2013 that Rogers Communications would take over “Hockey Night in Canada” and his detractors predicted his demise, Cherry had another act in him.
He has maintained a following of mostly male, hard-core hockey fans even amid the chorus of critics who say he is out of touch with the times.
“I told him that a lot of Canadian people say they don’t understand you, but the guys in the bar understand you,” said Ralph Mellanby, the executive producer of “Hockey Night in Canada” who first hired Cherry in 1980. “You’re like the guy in the bar.”
Competition forced Cherry to evolve, his producer, Kathy Broderick, said. The sheer volume of midweek games shown across multiple platforms means the best highlights are old by the time “Coach’s Corner” goes live on Saturday nights. So Cherry digs into the obscure elements of the game.
“I’ve never met anybody who has a keener eye for the game,” said Scott Moore, Cherry’s boss and president of Sportsnet and N.H.L. Properties.
And by establishing a Twitter presence, with an account of 800,000 followers managed by Broderick, Cherry is adapting to modern methods of communication.
When he wants to comment on Twitter, he will write down his thoughts on paper and call Broderick, who posts them and waits for the mentions to erupt.
An unabashed right-wing conservative, Cherry has used his TV platform to pay tribute to the police and the armed forces and has used Twitter to scold “left-wing media,” sentiments that have evoked comparisons to the American nationalism of President Trump.
Connecting his hockey commentary with Canadian nationalism is a reason for his staying power, said Julie Stevens, associate professor in the sport management department of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.
“The key is that he is different from the relatively reserved demeanor of Canadians and will make claims that put Canada first,” she said.
But Cherry, with principles firmly rooted in the past, had his co-host, Ron MacLean, rolling his eyes by suggesting that women do not belong in male dressing rooms. He was forced to apologize after insulting three former N.H.L. enforcers by calling them “pukes,” and he sparked outrage across Canada, particularly in Quebec, by railing against “Europeans and French guys” who wear visors on their helmets to protect their faces.
Cherry, a native of Kingston, Ontario, draws on a background that includes a Memorial Cup in junior hockey, four Calder Cups in the American Hockey League as a rugged defenseman, A.H.L. coach of the year with the Rochester Americans and N.H.L. coach of the year with the Boston Bruins.
“Coach’s Corner” often reflects his interests in military history, honor and valor — values he embraced in reading about Sir Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson.
“I have to laugh when I see all the books about how to be a leader,” he said.
In his weekly six-to-seven-minute sermons, Cherry tries to be the conscience of the league. MacLean calls the segment “six minutes of psychotherapy for athletes.”
Cherry campaigned for no-touch icing to cut down on players getting injured with crashes into the boards, and changes were made. He now rants at officials who do not apply the rule properly. He has also lectured coaches against calling out their star players and about the right way to pull a goaltender. Do it between periods only, he advised.
“Never pull them during the game,” Cherry cried out. “You embarrass them.”
Cherry tries to avoid contact with players, coaches and general managers because, in his code of honor, if you are friendly to them, you can’t criticize them.
Twice a week, though, Cherry attends youth hockey games with his son, Tim, 54, who scouts prospects for the Ontario Hockey League. It was during these outings that Cherry first laid eyes on the superstars Steven Stamkos and Connor McDavid.
As Cherry surveys the action, he will sometimes pick out a player who may not be a top star. He will tell his son, “Keep an eye on that kid.”
Tim said: “Eventually toward the end of the year, the kid will start to rise. All I can say is it’s a feeling he gets.”
To prepare for the show, Cherry and MacLean will scribble notes during the week and let Broderick know which video clips to retrieve. On Friday, Broderick sends out an email to both of them with possible options. Cherry and MacLean talk at 9:30 Saturday morning, and a final list is drafted. Cherry speaks to Broderick around 11 a.m., signing off with the phrase, “I’m going to be brilliant as usual.”
On game day, Cherry abstains from eating after 1 p.m., and downs a couple of coffees before the show to get an edge. Afterward, Cherry will watch the replay by himself and review “Coach’s Corner” later at home. He might make some small complaints, perhaps about the lighting.
“His shoulders are sometimes not lit, or his jacket may not pop or shine as much,” Broderick said.
Last year, his wife, Luba, unwittingly lit a fire under him. She showed him some old tapes and said, “You used to be good.”
Cherry replied, “What do you mean, used to be good?”
Luba explained, “Well, what I meant was that you’re not the bully you used to be.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Cherry said. “As I get older, I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
Cherry took three scraps of paper, wrote, “Used to be good,” and plastered them around the house as motivation.
“I decided to go back to the way I was,” he said. “And right now, I’m like I was 20 years ago. I’m more of a bully. I’m more aggressive. I’m better.”
Away from the camera, the man affectionately known as Grapes has softer edges and a prankster’s guile.
In October, Cherry changed the location of an interview from his house to his son’s home, just around the corner in suburban Toronto.
“Come around 9 in the morning and you’ll see me sitting on the white veranda,” Cherry said in a voice mail message.
At the appointed time, a skeleton was sitting where Cherry was supposed to be on the Halloween-themed veranda. His son, Tim, opened the door and dryly remarked that his father had been on a strict diet of late.
A few minutes later, Cherry made a less-than-grand entrance, wearing checkered track pants, a T-shirt and a windbreaker.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “I can go to Home Depot, and if I’m dressed like this, maybe five out of 10 people will recognize me. But if I put on a shirt and tie, you can’t believe it. Everybody wants a picture.”
Cherry said his fashion sense came from his father, Delmar, a master electrician and a “dandy who was the sharpest dresser of all time,” and his mother, Maude, who was a tailor at Royal Military College.
Cherry’s leap to TV came in 1980 after he wore out his welcome as coach in Boston and Colorado. Mellanby hired Cherry as a guest analyst in the Stanley Cup finals, even though he knew how volatile Cherry could be.
In 1978, when Cherry was coaching the Bruins in the finals against Montreal, Boston’s Stan Jonathan broke Pierre Bouchard’s nose in a flurry of punches, but the replay was not shown on TV.
Cherry believed that fighting was a big part of the game and should be showcased.
During the next game in Montreal, one of Boston’s little-known fighters got cut in a fight, and Cherry stormed down the hall and confronted Mellanby in the control room.
“I bet you’re going to show that one,” he yelled. Mellanby said no — he had a mandate to stop glorifying fights.
“He was yelling and screaming at me,” Mellanby said. “It was one of the strangest events in the history of television for me because the play had started and there was nobody coaching the Bruins. I said, ‘Don, the play has started, you’d better get out and coach.’ And off he went in a huff.”
Mellanby loved Cherry’s showmanship, but by the early 1980s, CBC executives wanted him out because he was mangling names and butchering the language. “I said, ‘If Cherry goes, I go,’ ” Mellanby said, and management backed off.
When MacLean took over co-hosting in 1986, he said, he thought Cherry might last five years “the way he was putting his neck in the noose the way Don does.”
With the move in 2013 to Rogers, a nongovernment entity, Cherry seems to receive less criticism, although he suspects it’s largely because his long tenure at the CBC afforded him more time to offend.
He remembered a columnist calling him a troglodyte and a misogynist, and he laughed it off because he did not know what the words meant. But after more scathing reviews, Cherry began developing a thicker skin.
“When I get a bad write-up, it doesn’t bother me anymore,” he said. “A lot of people don’t like me. I’m right wing. I’m Donald Trump.”
MacLean does not think that Cherry is a softer target now. “You’re either beholden to the dollar or you’re beholden to the government,” he said. “Either one will shackle you.”
Cherry earns about $1 million a year, which is less than market value, but he does not care. He negotiates his own contracts and said the talks last about 90 seconds.
“I never hold out for money,” he said. “I enjoy what I do. When I don’t enjoy it anymore, I’ll get out.”
Moore will not talk about a succession plan yet.
“All I will say,” he said, “is to quote a U.S. broadcast consultant who said you don’t want to be the guy who replaces Walter Cronkite. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces Walter Cronkite.”
Published at Mon, 25 Dec 2017 20:00:15 +0000