TORONTO – The Don Cherry that most Canadians know is the outsized personality from “Coach’s Corner,” the vociferous hockey icon who favours hard hits and flamboyant threads.
And Cherry is fine with that. It’s revealing the other side of his life, as he will in the upcoming two-part CBC-TV biopic “Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story,” that worries him.
“Tell you the truth, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to do the movie,” Cherry told The Canadian Press in an interview at CBC headquarters Wednesday.
“People like myself don’t want to have it laid out there for people to see and criticize. … That’s why I really, for four years, I wouldn’t do the movie. Nobody likes to see their personal life put out to everybody.”
But Cherry, 76, eventually gave the film the go-ahead because it was his son, Tim, who wrote the screenplay and wanted his father’s story to make it to the screen.
“Keep Your Head Up, Kid” follows Cherry through his childhood, his tumultuous minor-league playing career, his (tumultuous again) stint as a head coach in the AHL and NHL and his transition into broadcasting with the CBC, where he’s been since 1980.
Jared Keeso of Listowel, Ont., plays Cherry from his hockey-playing days through the decades that followed with the aid of makeup, prosthetics and a wig, while Sarah Manninen portrays Cherry’s late wife, Rose.
Cherry hasn’t seen the film yet. He says he’ll want to be alone when he watches it on Sunday and Monday – although he’ll have company from his beloved bull terrier.
“I’m gonna be watching it in my basement with Blue and my goldfish,” Cherry said. “I feel like I should do that because I don’t know how I’m going to accept it, and I don’t want anybody around.”
Much of the film might be tough to take for Cherry, who has read the script. He says Manninen bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Rose, who died in 1997. And he says that revisiting his own life story has made him realize how selfish he had been, putting his career ahead of his family.
Indeed, the film doesn’t gloss over Cherry’s missteps.
Cherry – a reliably outspoken proponent of hard-nosed hockey – was exactly the sort of player you’d expect: a tough-guy defenceman, a gritty sort whose mentality and skillset was enough to earn him a career in hockey, but not at the level he wanted.
He played only one NHL game, instead spending years ricocheting around the minor leagues – with stops in Windsor, Ont., Barrie, Ont., Hershey, Pa., Springfield, Mass., Boston, Trois-Rivieres, Que., Waterloo, Ont., Sudbury, Ont., Spokane, Wash., Tulsa, Ok., Rochester, N.Y., and Vancouver – uprooting his young family at every turn. All told, he says they moved 53 times.
In the film, Rose shows infinite patience with her husband. She’s supportive even as the stubborn onscreen Cherry chooses to work painting houses rather than sacrifice his pride in search of another job in hockey.
She fails to offer even token protestations each time she’s forced to pack up for another town as Cherry chases on-ice glory.
And, Keeso’s narration tells us, she bears the burden of taking care of young Tim when he’s diagnosed with a serious kidney problem.
“I couldn’t stand to see Timothy on that machine, knowing he was in pain … I left it all for Rose to handle,” Keeso’s Cherry says in the film.
“I know, I was a coward.”
Tim Cherry said people who read the script were surprised that his father approved of it. But, the younger Cherry says, it’s an accurate depiction of what happened.
“He didn’t really think about the consequences of his actions,” Tim said. “That’s maybe one of the themes to the movie.
“But dad said you have to show it, warts and all, or (the movie)’s going to be horrible.”
The film also covers the many feuds Don Cherry has ignited with his various bosses, with a particular focus on his toxic relationship with Harry Sinden, who was general manager of the Boston Bruins when Cherry won the Jack Norris Trophy as the team’s coach.
“I’ve always had that problem, everywhere I’ve been, with authority,” the real-life Cherry conceded Wednesday.
“Even with CBC, it seems, when they called me despicable and reprehensible a few years ago. I have a problem with authority, I guess. Some guys have it in different ways but that’s the way with me. But I’ve paid the price many times.”
The film ends just as Cherry begins his time with CBC, and thus doesn’t show his evolution into the most controversial voice in hockey.
But his son says that side of Cherry – the divisive, opinionated commentator who has touched off debate after debate – has long been there too, whether on camera or off.
“People say: ‘Oh, it’s a shtick.’ Not really – just at home he doesn’t dress as nice, and he’s not quite as loud,” Tim Cherry said with a laugh.
“You see that persona quite a bit coming up. … He’s pretty genuine. I don’t think you can go 30 years now and take a lot of the slings and arrows he’s taken doing a shtick.”