Inside the NHL
To hear Don Cherry tell it, his hockey views haven’t changed much since toiling as a rugged defenseman for the Spokane Comets of the early-1960s minor professional Western Hockey League.
The iconic Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) commentator with flamboyant suits and opinions to match remembers Seattle as “a great hockey city’’ where he’d face the Totems and star captain Guyle Fielder, who he figures would flourish in today’s NHL.
“They play his style,’’ Cherry told me by phone. “It’s not as rough as it used to be and he wasn’t a big guy. So, he’d have been good.’’
Cherry, now 85 and long a proponent of the rougher, tougher hockey of yesteryear, said he hopes Seattle’s incoming NHL team gets named “Totems’’ and that he works HNIC games here during the franchise’s 2021-22 debut season. But that seemed doubtful last weekend when a report suggested Sportsnet might not retain Cherry – sending shockwaves through a country that’s watched the HNIC fixture since 1982.
Even Cherry subsequently confirming his 2019-20 return didn’t quell debate about his future and whether his “old school” views remain relevant. Newbie local hockey fans might not know Cherry, but understanding his longevity on Canadian television provides a useful mirror into the soul of an NHL still grappling with how its past fits its desired future.
No U.S. sportscaster has ever had the impact, influence, popularity or recognition factor Cherry and his “Coach’s Corner’’ intermission segments enjoy north of the border. A 2004 vote saw CBC viewers pick Cherry seventh on a list of Canada’s all-time greatest figures – directly ahead of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell, first-ever Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Wayne Gretzky.
The onetime Boston Bruins coach, with set-up promptings by co-host Ron MacLean, became must-see TV for millions. He unabashedly celebrated Canadian hockey superiority, fighting, bone-jarring hits and overall toughness, albeit often at the cringe-worthy expense of “Chicken Swedes’’ as well as Finns – Cherry infamously referred to Finnish-born Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Alpo Suhonen as “some kind of dog food’’ — Russians, French Canadians and anyone else he felt didn’t measure up.
Rather than modify those views on an increasingly global NHL – where Canadians comprised only 43.5% of players last season compared to 81% when Cherry debuted on-air – he’s largely doubled down.
“I haven’t changed one bit,’’ Cherry said. “I haven’t changed my view on anything.’’
Cherry said sticking to his beliefs fuels his popularity. He admitted liking “a few Russians’’ like Pavel Bure and Alex Ovechkin and that “the Swedes are all right,’’ but quickly added the St. Louis Blues had 15 or 16 Canadians on their primary Stanley Cup-winning roster of 18.
And while Cherry said today’s NHL regular season is softer because of diminished fighting and new rules, he finds the playoffs still “as rough and tough a game as you can play’’ and concludes his views on all things physical therefore hold true. That’s occasionally put him at odds with even former NHL enforcers he once lionized, referring to Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson and Jim Thomson as “pukes’’ and “hypocrites’’ in 2011 after they renounced fighting.
Cherry later apologized.
He’s also taken criticism for his longstanding “Rock ’em, Sock ’em’’ commercial video series of crushing NHL hits. Former NHL journeyman Steve Downie two years ago blamed Cherry’s videos for his concussion-inducing 2007 check on Ottawa Senators center Dean McAmmond and subsequent 20-game suspension.
“That hit is what happens when you watch Don Cherry rock ’em sock ’em videos from age 5 to 18,’’ Downie tweeted. “Nothing good comes from those vids.’’
Cherry insisted the videos, which ran from 1989 through their final edition last year, long ago morphed into offering tips on safety and “how to take a hit” and “give a hit.” Hockey’s worst injuries, he added, have rarely been from fighting, but “hitting into the boards’’ or reckless play by players “who think they’re Superman’’ because of modern-day helmet and visor protection.
Part of Cherry’s continued popularity stems from having personally endured hockey’s physical stuff; amassing 1,000-plus minor-league games and a lone NHL contest for Boston in 1955. He was an early proponent of “no-touch” icing for safety, which the NHL subsequently implemented.
And few dispute Cherry’s technical knowledge, having been an NHL coach of the year and guiding the Bruins to consecutive Stanley Cup finals in 1977, 1978 and nearly 1979. He accompanies his son, Tim, an Ontario Hockey League scout, to amateur games three nights a week.
“The people know that I know what I’m talking about,’’ Cherry said. “That’s the big thing. And I predict things before they happen. We’ve been on long enough and most people in Canada know that I know what I’m talking about more so than the average guy.’’
He’s also used his pulpit to celebrate military veterans and police and traveled to remote Canadian towns promoting minor hockey. After his wife, Rose, died of liver cancer in 1997, he helped build a children’s hospice in her name.
And despite very public differences with some, Cherry maintains fans among NHL players past and present.
Former Seattle Thunderbirds junior product Turner Stevenson, 47, a British Columbia native who played 11 NHL seasons and now coaches U18 and U16 teams for the Everett Silvertips, watched Cherry’s videos as a teenager and found them instructional — especially for kids. There’s a photo in his parents’ home of them and Stevenson posing with Cherry in-studio after a Coach’s Corner appearance.
“I love him and his passion,” Stevenson said. “He’s old school and he’s opinionated and has a lot of beliefs that are still in the game from years ago — which is great.”
Stevenson, who had at least 86 NHL fights and still suffers knee, hip, and back pain, enjoys the modern game’s skill and entertainment value and said it had to change. But he said Cherry remains a powerful influence within hockey, and “older people’’ controlling NHL and junior teams largely agree with his honor code of toughness – and fighting — without cheap shots.
“A lot of those beliefs and values are still there,” Stevenson said. “If (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman were to come out and try to ban fighting, there’s no way you’re getting all 31 GMs, owners and head coaches to agree.”
But Huscroft, who wishes he’d played in today’s less violent NHL, said he doesn’t begrudge Cherry glorifying the game’s physical side. “I love to hear what he has to say because it’s not guarded, he speaks from the heart,’’ Huscroft said. “He’s old-time hockey. I think everybody loves to hear what he has to say because he knows so much.’’
Sportsnet now limits Coach’s Corner to about six minutes to maximize Cherry’s intensity. And Cherry admits to ratcheting things up after his second wife, Luba, told him three years ago he’d lost some edge and should get tougher on-camera.
“I think she smartened me up a little bit,’’ he said. “It was ‘Don’t go kinder as you get older.’ ’’
Words he plans to live by until he’s ready to leave. Cherry doesn’t appear to envision that departure happening before Seattle’s October 2021 debut.
“If you’re still going by then,’’ he told me, “give me a call and I’ll be happy to comment on it.’’