TORONTO – Still loud and proud, Don Cherry celebrated his 75th birthday Thursday by shopping for an exotic goldfish, knocking back a few cold ones and watching some hockey on TV.
The former NHL coach and minor-league tough guy turned national icon wouldn’t have had it any other way. His gift redcap went directly into the 408-litre aquarium that stands beside his television, adding to what he feels is the perfect view.
“I sit close to the screen and I look at my fish and I look at my screen,” Cherry said in an interview. “That’s my heaven, as far as I’m concerned.”
Hockey, of course, is the key part of that equation and always has been for Cherry, who joined the CBC nearly 30 years ago.
His Coach’s Corner segment on “Hockey Night in Canada” remains a must-see for both friends and foes, plus countless fans across the country.
Best known as a staunch supporter of fighting, he’s also been a longtime advocate for the implementation of no-touch icing (thus far to no avail), and repeatedly pleaded with the NHL to reduce obstruction on the ice long before attempts to eradicate clutching and grabbing finally took hold.
“You talk to players today and they’ll tell you, Don is not a dinosaur,” said TSN broadcaster Brian Williams, a close friend of Cherry’s who has hosted his Grapeline syndicated radio show for 25 years. “You’ve got to understand, Don Cherry is about a lot more than fighting.
“He’s got a good grasp of what’s going on. He’s very much in tune with the game and what the players think.”
Cherry believes he manages that by joining his son Tim, who works for the Ontario Hockey League’s central scouting bureau, at minor-midget games three times a week and talking with young players on their way up.
That way he stays up on current trends, and keeps in touch with what he went through as a player.
“My thoughts have never gone over 32 years old – I still think as a player,” Cherry said. “That I think is the key I got. I think I have an insight that I still think as a player and I watch hockey every night that I’m not out scouting.”
It’s that outlook that has led to a persistent feud this season with Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson, who has not minced words about his players to the media.
Cherry, named coach of the year with Rochester of the American Hockey League and the NHL’s Boston Bruins, can’t stand that approach.
“I was a players’ coach back then to the extreme,” said Cherry. “And that’s why I’m so upset with Wilson here in Toronto, where I feel he doesn’t treat his players with respect.
“It bothers me.”
The call-it-like-he-sees-it mentality and indifference to ruffling feathers is perhaps what endears Cherry to so many viewers.
There’s no dancing around issues or concerns about hurting somebody’s feeling with him – he’s just himself, like it or not. And Williams believes that’s one of the keys to his longevity.
“It’s not an act,” said Williams. “People say to me what he’s really like, and I say, that’s Don.
“People that put an act on in television, either the audience tires of it or the person tires of it. And he seems to be able to reinvent himself, which is absolutely amazing. He has a knack of tapping into the pulse of the country.”
Cherry is also much smarter than people give him credit for. He’s a British military history buff who spends his time away from the rink reading and loves going to museums.
There’s more there than meets the eye.
But hockey is what is most dear to him and he describes summer as “something to get over with to get back into winter.”
That’s why Prior Smith, host of the Canada Calling radio show and producer of Grapeline, believes people still tune into Cherry.
“It’s inherent, it’s innate,” he said from Tampa, Fla. “I don’t know what other term you can use, it’s just in there and it wants to keep on going.
“He’s just passionate about what he’s doing and if he wasn’t out there watching some minor-midget hockey game on a Tuesday night in some cold arena somewhere in Mississauga, he wouldn’t be happy. And if he wasn’t doing Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night and if he wasn’t doing the Grapeline show with us there’d be a void there.”
Cherry freely admits as much, that he’d be miserable without hockey. He takes his duties seriously, preparing for his Coach’s Corner segments the same way he prepared for games.
“I go down and have my nap and have my steak and the whole deal,” he said. “I don’t have anything to eat after 12 o’clock and I just feel like I’m coaching getting ready. And nobody bothers me, I don’t do one thing the day of a game I call it.”
Some wonder if he’s mellowed a bit in recent years, as it’s been a while since he’s stirred the pot the way he did by suggesting all Russians were cheaters and quitters during the 2002 Olympics, or that only French-Canadian players and Europeans wear visors, or questioning Canada’s decision to stay out of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, for example.
He’s got a different take.
“I think some of the things I say now, people realize I’m right about, if they don’t that’s too bad, about fighting and things like that,” he said. “I try not to make things hard on CBC, after all they’ve been pretty good to me, but I still seem to get into a lot of difficulties one way or another.”