The game looked very different 26 years ago when a video cassette called Don Cherry's Rock 'Em Sock 'EmHockey hit stores. The NHL consisted of 21 teams. The San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Carolina Hurricanes, Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators didn't exist. Women's hockey wasn't an Olympic sport. The Soviet Union was intact.
It puts into perspective how impressive Rock 'Em Sock 'Em's staying power is. With the 27th edition just released, THN caught up with Grapes himself, Don Cherry, to discuss his most memorable moments making the blockbuster series. What do people chase him down in the street to talk about? Which Rock 'Em Sock 'Em is his favorite? Which one brings a tear to his eye? Which one did he film while showing a lot of skin? And how many different versions of Blue the dog have appeared in the videos?
There are 27 Rock 'Em Sock 'Ems now. Do you have a favorite?
I think it’s No. 5, when I had the long red coat on. Blue, my second Blue, we had her on the pool table, and there was fog. And I sang a song, a rock and roll song. “Bobby Orr, Bobby Orr, he can score, Bobby Orr.” Probably wasn’t very good, but I had more fun with that one. And I had the dark glasses on. I think people get a bigger kick, and I got a bigger kick, from that one.
Ed. note: The musical number did appear in No. 5, but it's arguably a rap song, or at least a techno song, more so than a rock 'n' roll track. And the full Bobby Orr lyrics are "He can dangle, he can score, who else? Bobby Orr!"
What’s your funniest moment making any of the Rock 'Em Sock 'Ems?
The funniest is when I had (his son) Timothy’s bull terrier on. It wouldn’t hold still, and I kept holding it, and he bit my ear (laughs). I did the whole video with my ear bleeding. So that was the one.
And when we did (Rock 'Em Sock 'Em 7), I did it in a kilt. I kept trying on the kilt, and it was like two feet smaller. I said ‘Holy smokes, have I gained that much weight?’ And it was my wife Rose’s kilt that I had on (laughs). I remember that. I did one of my Rock 'Em Sock 'Ems with my bum sticking out the back. We had a lot of fun.
When people approach you on the street about Rock 'Em Sock 'Em, what do they constantly say?
The one thing they bring up is how their moms used to love me on Christmas, because it’s a stocking stuffer. We’ve kept it about the same price. So the first thing kids would do is put it on and play it all morning. And the mothers would be putting in the turkey and say, "You were the best babysitter in the world." And the kids would say, ‘But my mom sure got tired of your voice after a while." And another one that tugs me up a little is that I have the guys come up and say they used to watch it with their dads. They’d say, "When I was a kid," and I’d think "Wait a minute, when he was a kid? The guy’s about 40." Then I realize, “Oh yeah.”
What do hockey players say to you about the series?
After a couple of fights I remember Tie Domi saying ‘Now look, you better put that on Rock 'Em Sock 'Em.” And Alexandre Daigle once got hit at center ice. And they said he really got hit, and he said ‘Well, now I’ll make Rock 'Em Sock 'Em. I just saw a write up where Tom Kostopoulos said he used to get it every Christmas and that it was a big thrill when he was a kid. So it gives me a thrill, too, when I hear the players say they watched Rock 'Em Sock 'Em. And still do!
And then Niklas Kronwall from Detroit, I remember he had an interview – and he’s a hitter, eh – and they asked him where he learned to hit, and he said “from watching Don Cherry’s Rock 'Em Sock 'Em.” And young goalies come up to me. Now you can go right to the spot in the video where there’s goalie saves, and before they go to the game they always put that on with the music to get pumped up.
Another funny one is that (fellow broadcaster) Brian Williams told me he was over in Italy and he saw a bus pull up. It was a hockey team, an Italian team with a couple of Canadians on it. They knew him, and he said “do you know Don Cherry?” And they said “Yeah, before the games we play Rock 'Em Sock 'Em on the bus all the way over here.”
Can you clarify once and for all how many Blues there have been?
Well actually, we’ve only had two. We had my mine, my second one and my son’s dog, the one that bit me (laughs).
My second one, she was really good. She walked on the pool table, and it was really something. Rose was at the back, kinda hidden and controlling her out there. And we got some outtakes of Rose standing up laughing when she wouldn’t behave.
Has Rock 'Em Sock 'Em ever gotten you into hot water over the years?
No. Most of the time the NHL pretty much passes it. It sees them before. We only have a couple of fights. They’re pretty good fights, and nobody ever gets hurt bad in them. We’ve never had anything like Coach’s Corner (laughs), but we walk the edge with it, as you know, and a lot of people think because of the name Rock 'Em Sock 'Em it’s a lot of banging. But we have a lot of goals, passes, and we do a lot of safety. We even had Mats Sundin once in a while, stressing to keep away from the boards and keep your head on a swivel. We always have tips on safety for the kids through the whole thing.
We’ve been going 27 years, so we must be doing something right. And I think a lot of people like it because we have the Stanley Cup playoffs on. The playoffs go so long, and you miss so much, so people always really like that.
Is there any moment or edition of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em that makes you emotional?
When I go back to 5 and see Rose helping with Blue. And when I see some of the players who had to retire, things like broken legs, stuff like that. But mostly it’s when I see Rose, laughing, trying to help with Blue. That's the most.
What are you most proud of after 27 years of the series?
There are a couple things. One is that it’s gone 27 years. How many sports DVDs and cassettes go 27 years? And I’m quite proud that the players and mothers and fathers like it. And I just think the idea that my son Timothy has been able to keep doing it, I’m quite proud of that.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin