As you listen to Don Cherry talk on the Sportsnet show he co-hosts, Grapeline, the first thing you’ll notice is the lack of what makes him Don Cherry. No “thumbs up let’s go” every ten seconds, no mispronounced names, maybe the odd “I’ll tell ya boy”, but not repeated excessively. In this episode, Cherry relishes a memory from his AHL days to co-host Brian Williams, describing former Hab Marcel Bonin as “the craziest player he played against.” There’s a certain charm to it, a charm that has been lost from his better-known Coach’s Corner segment, and a charm that makes you question why the man has lost so much respect over the years.
Hockey fans everywhere recognize Cherry. The former player and coach has been on the screens of Canadians for over 35 years, over 30 which have been with his co-host Ron MacLean. From kids who just got back from their Saturday morning hockey game to dads with a cold beer in hand, Cherry was and has been that loud, outspoken voice.
But times have changed since Cherry first came on the air. The NHL has grown from 21 to 31 teams in that time. The NHL is a more inclusive league these days, with players of many nationalities and races playing games each night. Amidst all that change, the Coach’s Corner co-host has remained, arguably spouting the same argument he was in 1980. And it’s not to say all fans liked Don Cherry — he’s been stirring controversy for years. But beyond that controversy, that charm shone – a fan on the old alt.rec.hockey board in 1994 said it best that he “always has something to say, and is always entertaining.”
More glaringly, it was accepted to attack the growing number of European players — fans weren’t used to seeing more than the odd non-North American in the NHL. Alongside famed segments where he talked about the “boys” that serve us, the firemen and police, there were anti-European tirades, or whatever you want to call them. Remarks about “chicken Swedes” to saying then-Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Alpo Suhonen “sounded like dog food” were regular things on the Coach’s Corner of that time.
And Cherry wasn’t alone. A look at old alt.rec.hockey discussions dating from the 1990’s reveal a different side to the NHL fan-base. Threads about the “selfish jerk” Europeans make Don Cherry look like a Swedish ambassador, ranging from one about how the “Europeans should have their own league” and that they “(hope) someone will cross-check Bure into the plexiglassso [sic] hard they have to carry him out on a stretcher”, or that then-Nordique Mats Sundin is a “self-centered, selfish, jerk” for not passing to a teammate on an open net. On several of these, Cherry’s name is mentioned several times. He was indeed the voice of fans, and in those days, he was speaking for a not-so-silent majority.
And that’s not to say every fan was like that. Players like Bure and Sundin became fan favourites, growing into popular figures in Vancouver and Toronto respectively. Years later, the Russian Five would help lead the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup since 1955. Sure, the odd controversial player like Alexei Yashin came around, but for the most part these were players that any blue-blooded Canadian could agree were great players.
While fans embraced the newcomers, Cherry found himself singing a different song. He found himself ranting about several European players, most notably Bure, resulting in Canucks coach Pat Quinn appearing on Coach’s Corner to defend his player. This would be far from the lone time Cherry would stir controversy. In 2004, he claimed “that most of the guys that wear (visors) are Europeans and French guys”, an incident that nearly cost him his job. While Cherry has softened his stance on Europeans in recent years — going as far as defending Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and questioning his exclusion from the NHL’s “Top 100” list — his shift came too late for fans.
But hearing him talk on Grapeline is like listening to an entirely different person. While most of the shows nowadays are Cherry re-telling old hockey stories, there’s a sense of a man who just loves the sport, as opposed to a flamboyant host. It may not be today’s kind of hockey journalism, or as flashy and entertaining as his weekly Coach’s Corner, but it’s genuine. People often forget Cherry’s sole purpose is to entertain — a persona that has been built to amuse people in the same way he entertained on the ice, or behind the bench. To the viewing audience that some 25 years ago called him “always entertaining”, he remains that – something that has kept ratings up on a program that has changed drastically over those years.
It’s hard to tell which is the real Don Cherry. Anyone close to him tells the story of a man who remains a hockey player. A hockey player who makes the weekly Coach’s Corner his ice. And like the Cherry that graced the AHL, it has become his battlefield.
On the other hand, Bobby Orr once said that Cherry was “really just a big softie,” a man that continues to leave a good impression on any fans that meet him. Whether it be the Cherry who appears on Saturday night in a vibrant suit — or the one who sits back, relaxed as he tells hockey stories, they are both sides of a man whose prime goal is to entertain. And as Sportsnet continues to develop and produce their programs, more changes are inevitable. But in the meantime, Cherry will continue catering to the crowd that has grown up with him.