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Book, videos, TV: Canadians can't get enough of Don Cherry

TORONTO - Even after all these years, Canadians just can't seem to get enough of Grapes - and there sure is a lot of him to go around right now.

On the heels of his recently published book, "Don Cherry's Hockey Stories and Stuff," the 20th instalment of his "Rock 'em Sock 'em" video was launched Wednesday, a milestone he never imagined the series would ever reach.

A hodge-podge of fans - old, young, male, female, all keen - lined up outside a downtown music store to get a brief audience and autograph from Cherry, once again demonstrating the outspoken hockey commentator's staying power, and how he still speaks to people of all stripes.

"Why do I remain so popular? Because I'm a good-looking guy," the 74-year-old Cherry quipped during a short interview prior to the signing session. "Like Barbara Walters, I'll last as long as my lighting and my makeup girl comes along and does a great job."

That wit, and a savvy that lies beneath his gruff exterior, certainly have something to do with it, too.

A career minor-leaguer who moved on to coach Rochester in the American Hockey League before taking over behind the Boston Bruins bench in the 1970s, Cherry truly found his niche as a broadcaster talking about the game.

His speak-first, think-later outbursts from his Coach's Corner segment on the CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada," resonate with hockey fans, who embrace his call-it-like-he-sees-it approach.

A fiercely proud Canadian, he's grown into a national icon, loved by some for his patriotic bent, despised by others for rants on European and French-Canadien players.

Controversy and trouble have been a constant in his broadcasting career, and in his book - a compilation of Cherry's stories from various colourful experiences in the game - he almost seems to revel in the mayhem.

He recounts, with some glee, the furor that followed his comments defending the Canadian team that brawled with the Soviet Union at the 1987 world junior championship.

Studio host Brian Williams repeatedly criticized the actions of the Canadian players and Cherry came to their defence, nearly losing it on air. While on his way home afterwards, he was convinced that he was through on TV, but viewers rallied around him and turned on Williams.

He survived that incident, and several other storms since, not to mention an attempt by the CBC to get him off the air in 2004.

"I had a meeting with one of the top suits at the CBC," Cherry recalled in his book. "I think this guy wanted it to be his legacy that he got rid of me. I think he and Nancy (Lee, then executive director of CBC Sports) figured they had me gone. I remember him saying that he'd get rid of me. And he said, 'When the stuff hits the fan, I'll be retired on my island.' ...

"Fortunately for me, Richard Stursberg came in. He's a bottom-line guy, evidently, and he cancelled their plans."

That people continue to tune in to him speaks to his continued relevance, something few commentators manage to maintain over a prolonged period of time.

Much of his outlook is based on his days playing minor-league hockey in the 1950s and '60s. Some of the on-ice stories Cherry recounts in the book are shockingly violent, with incidents that would likely stun contemporary hockey fans.

The players back then were a different breed.

"I don't think (the players now) are as tough, they're not as violent either," Cherry said in the interview. "Some of the guys fighting today, the tough guys are just as tough, but on a whole, most of the players back then were a lot tougher. There was a lot more violence back in the game then, too."

The lumps minor-leaguers like him endured back then makes Cherry much easier for the common fan to identify with, as today's players live a life beyond the reach of most.

There was little glamour back then and hockey was something players did between jobs.

"We'd travel by bus, we had 10-hour trips, we had to close tape around the windows and stuff like that," said Cherry. "Three games in three nights with about 18 hours of bus driving. I think the guys now complain if they have to play three games in three nights. They have a chartered plane after, and their hardest decision is what dressing they're going to have on their salads.

"But I don't blame them. We were tough back in those days but the thing is we didn't know any different."

What Cherry did know is how to make the most of his fame.

He used to have a Grapevine TV show, still has a syndicated Grapeline radio program, and his "Rock 'em Sock 'em" series - a highlight compilation of Cherry's favourite hits, fights, goals and saves from the previous NHL season - consistently sells more than 100,000 copies annually.

"I really didn't think we'd have 20," said Cherry. "After we did the first one we said well that's it and then all of a sudden we did the second one, third one, fourth one.

"And to think it's gone for 20 years. It's great."


"Don Cherry's Hockey Stories and Stuff," Doubleday Canada, $29.95


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