Though he hasn't coached a National Hockey League game in 26 years, this is still Don Cherry's element the hockey rink. He has spent most of his 72 years in places like this, actually having helped design the Hershey Centre for the major junior team he once owned and briefly coached here. But for all of that time spent behind benches and in dressing rooms and in front of microphones in similar places, Cherry remains an iconoclast, a controversial figure sometimes improbably isolated from the game to which he has given so much of his life.
Take this picture-perfect day in early August.
He has come to visit with longtime friend and former minor-pro teammate Brian Kilrea, the most successful coach in the history of Canadian junior hockey, who, at the moment, is otherwise engaged -- he's taping a new segment that will air this season on "Hockey Night in Canada." Think Hockey will break down various elements of the game with the help of well-known hockey personalities such as Kilrea, Adam Graves, Paul Maurice, Bryan Murray and Wendel Clark. It will be hosted by Ron MacLean, Cherry's co-host on Coach's Corner, the wildly popular longtime centerpiece of "Hockey Night."
Noticeably absent from the segment is Cherry. Somehow, when it comes to Think Hockey, Cherry is persona non grata, a most improbable state of affairs, considering his credentials:
• In 2004, he was named the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time, ahead of Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Graham Bell, in an exhaustive Canadian Broadcasting Company poll that drew 140,000 votes.
• He coached more than 500 NHL games, including two Stanley Cup finals.
• He is the most-watched personality on Canadian television and arguably the single-most influential voice in Canadian hockey, despite appearing on camera for less than seven minutes once a week during the NHL's regular season. Even the Canadian Press, the country's national wire service, has someone tape Coach's Corner every Saturday and write a story if Cherry says anything controversial.
How popular and consequential is he?
"It's a real hard thing to describe," admits Joel Darling, executive director of "Hockey Night in Canada" and, thus, Cherry's de facto boss. "He's the most recognized face in Canada. It's like traveling with a rock star, the Rolling Stones, except he's bigger than them in this country."
"It's like if you took John Madden and overlaid him with Rush Limbaugh," adds Calgary-based columnist, author and broadcaster Bruce Dowbiggin, one of Cherry's frequent critics. "It's become larger than life. I don't think there's any position in the U.S. that equates to it."
So why is Cherry sitting off to the side of the ice, shooting the breeze with a reporter, instead of shooting Think Hockey with the CBC, his pal Kilrea and the rest of the gang?
Well, maybe that has to do with a "credential" that hasn't been mentioned yet Cherry's propensity to infuriate and alienate at least as often as he illuminates. Over the years, from his bully pulpit on Coach's Corner, firing from the lip at anything that moves, he has managed to enrage a long list of folks including but not limited to: his bosses at the CBC, French Canadians, European players in general, Swedes and Russians in particular, players who wear visors, and members of the media by whom he is regularly poleaxed.
So perhaps the surprise is not that he is unwelcome to join the fun at Think Hockey. Perhaps the surprise is that, after all these years of force-feeding polarizing commentary to a country where, at least from the outside, civility seems to be highly prized, Don Cherry still has a job at all.
At the end of this gorgeous August day, as Cherry makes his way to the ice to swap a few stories with his pal Kilrea, we are left to ponder a simple question: How is this possible?
Maybe as good a place as any to start trying to figure out how all of this happened is when Cherry first came in contact with the game he loves.
Born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1934, Cherry wasn't blessed with either size or enormous talent, but he played the game on the edge. He pursued his dream of being an NHL player with that same in-your-face attitude. A bruising, brawling defenseman, Cherry left high school at the age of 14 and chased his hockey dream across North America Windsor, Barrie, Hershey, Springfield, Trois Rivieres, Kitchener-Waterloo, Sudbury, Spokane, Rochester, Tulsa.
Along the way, Cherry met a young woman named Rosemarie Madelyn Martini, then 17, in Hershey, Pa. On their first date, Cherry took Rose to one of his hockey games. True to form, he was involved in a bloody fight.
Rose always said her father thought Canadian hockey players were the most uncivilized people, and Cherry did little to dissuade him from this point of view. Yet Cherry also was capable of uncharacteristic sensitivity, especially when it came to how much his love for hockey cost his family. In a tribute to his late wife for the Rose Cherry Home, a hospice for children, in Milton, Ontario, Cherry wrote:
If you believe it, Rose packed and moved 53 times. The minor career is a tough life for families; one bedroom; [daughter] Cindy slept on a mattress on the floor, and bathed in the kitchen sink; toilets were in the cellar with cold air blowing through holes in the walls; so cold you had to have blankets around you when you had to go; it was not pretty.
In Springfield, come back to our apartment after game on the road, Rose curled up in bed, the place alive with mice and rats.
The point I'm trying to make is Rose Cherry's Home for Kids is named after a person who never quit
And what he really meant, of course, is that Rose never quit on him.
Cherry retired from hockey for the first time from the game following the 1968-69 American Hockey League season. Having given up a less-than-lucrative second career as the world's worst Cadillac salesman, Cherry turned out to be better suited to a pickax and jackhammer, so he took a construction job with Kodak in Rochester, N.Y. As St. Patrick's Day approached, Cherry, a devout Protestant, thought it would be a good idea to paint his tools and hard hat orange a decision that, not surprisingly, didn't sit too well with his mostly Catholic co-workers.
"I put 'God Save The Queen' on the back of my hard hat," Cherry says, still getting a grand chuckle out of the stunt almost 40 years later. "I was always like that."
During the 1971-72 season, Cherry indulged in one last kick at the can as a player. It didn't really satisfy he was a healthy scratch most nights for the Rochester Americans. With the team struggling, ownership figured they might as well get their money's worth out of Cherry and installed him as coach midway through the season.
The effect was like somebody introducing Michelangelo to his first piece of marble. "As soon as I got behind the bench, I knew I was born for it," Cherry says.
At the end of the season, Cherry the player was released, but team owners had been impressed by his coaching and quickly offered him the permanent job at $15,000 for the next season. Rose wondered why her husband didn't ask to be the general manager, as well. So Cherry called back and got his wish but no more money.
Cherry guided the Americans for parts of three seasons, earning the AHL's Coach of the Year honors once and the opportunity that had been denied him as a player a real chance at the big time. In the fall of 1974, he took over as head coach of the Boston Bruins.
By then, Cherry had earned a reputation as a stylishly dressed, ultra-theatrical bench boss, an uncannily accurate foreshadowing of his TV career. Part of his leadership style derived from his fascination with historic military leaders, especially Lord Horatio Nelson, known for bold action and a disregard of orders, and Sir Francis Drake, a hero and pirate. For Cherry, coaching a hockey team was like captaining a naval vessel you had not only to act the part but also look the part. "I always thought of a team as a ship," Cherry says. "Everybody has to pull together. One weak cog and you've had it. I sort of learned from Drake and Nelson how to treat men."
Under Cherry's idiosyncratic guidance, the Bruins finished first in the Adams Division four straight seasons. In the '77 and '78 Stanley Cup finals, they lost to the hated Montreal Canadiens. For his efforts, Cherry earned a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 1975-76 and was selected as an assistant coach to Canada's entry in the 1976 Canada Cup. The rough-and-tumble Cherry was on top of the world.
Then, in a span of less than two minutes at the end of the seventh game of the third round of the 1979 playoffs, Cherry would see it all vanish. His Bruins led the mighty Montreal Canadiens by a goal with less than two minutes to play in the seventh and deciding game of the semifinals, when Boston was assessed a penalty for too many men on the ice. A man up, Montreal tied the game, then drove the dagger home in overtime. The Habs went on to win their fourth straight Stanley Cup, while Bruins GM Harry Sinden, with whom Cherry had feuded, canned the popular coach.
Next season, Cherry coached the Colorado Rockies, posting the worst record in the league, and was dismissed after yet another conflict with management. His coaching career was at an end, leaving Cherry and many other observers to wonder: What if the fateful penalty never occurs?
What if Bill Buckner makes that play? What if Scott Norwood isn't wide, right? What if Steve Bartman stays away from Wrigley that night?
"We'd have won the Stanley Cup and then Harry wouldn't have been able to fire me," Cherry says without hesitation. "My life might have been a little different. They liked me in Boston. We were tough. We were a Boston team. I was like a Southie to them. I was heavier. I had a big face. I'd say things."
He'd say things? If ever there was an understatement, that is it. Cherry's penchant for speaking his mind, the cost be damned, is what sparked longtime "Hockey Night in Canada" executive producer Ralph Mellanby to call Cherry and make him an offer that would change everything, for Cherry, for the country, maybe even for the game.
With Cherry's Colorado Rockies out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in the spring of 1980, Mellanby asked Cherry if he would provide analysis on television during the postseason. Almost immediately Cherry began to offend.
Among other things, Cherry critiqued coaches' wardrobes as much as their game plans. Canadian media critics quickly weighed in, denouncing Cherry's propensity for descriptors like "geez" and "youse" and "attaboys" as low-brow, hardly the sort of thing that kids should be listening to on the publicly funded CBC. Owners soon threatened to bar Cherry from their buildings. A great obliterating snowball seemed to be rolling down the hill of Canadian hockey culture.
"Never mind lasting 25 years, I didn't think he'd last 25 minutes," says Mellanby, who is fond of repeating the oft-quoted line that Canada has two official languages, French and English, "and Cherry is the biggest star on Canadian television who doesn't speak either of them."
But Cherry's discoverer and enabler was also his staunchest defender. In response to calls for Cherry to get the heave-ho, Mellanby told CBC brass that if Cherry went, he was gone, too. Both men stayed, though there were palliative changes. On the theory that a small dose of Cherry was less difficult to swallow than a full game's worth, he was moved from game commentary to Coach's Corner, a brief segment that runs during first period intermission.
"They figured, 'How can he get into trouble?'" Cherry says, an impish grin crossing his face. "They didn't know."
For perhaps the first and only time in his life, Cherry played it safe, breaking down plays and explaining the nuances of the game. But it wasn't what Cherry wanted, nor, as it would turn out, what viewers wanted, either. "It was kind of stupid," Cherry recalls. "I was just doing it to keep the job."
Then, he saw a clip of an old interview he had given when he was with the Bruins about what it would mean to win the Stanley Cup. Most of the answers dealt with boyhood dreams, but at one point Cherry deadpanned that he wanted to win the Cup for the money.
That was it! That was the tone he wanted to bring to Coach's Corner irreverent, brutally honest, cutting, controversial. "For me, that's the way I had to do it. I couldn't just survive otherwise," Cherry says. "I knew I was taking an awful chance, but I didn't care."
What has followed has been 25 years of some of the greatest sports theater anywhere, not to mention some of the most memorable, contentious moments in Canadian broadcast history.
There was the night that Cherry, asked about Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Alpo Suhonen, quipped, "Alpo? Isn't that a dog food?" The remark prompted the team's owner, Barry Shenkarow, to call Cherry a racist and threaten to sue him.
Cherry has often savaged European players for being soft, returning to that theme as recently as the opening segments of the current season.
He has repeatedly enraged French Canadians, calling into question their heart and love for their country. Referring to the French translation of the Memorial Cup, Coupe Memorial, Cherry once famously quipped, "What's that? A car giveaway?" Cherry also referred to freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard, chosen as the country's flag-bearer at the 1998 Olympics, as "a French guy, some skier nobody knows about." Predictably, French Canadian politicians repeatedly have complained about Cherry in the House of Commons in Ottawa.
During the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Cherry weighed in when Russian Olympic officials made noise about withdrawing from the Games because of perceived bias when it came to drug testing. "I've been trying to tell you people for so long about the Russians, what kind of people they are, and you just love them in Canada with your multiculturalism," he scolded. "They're quitters and evidently they take a lot of drugs, too."
At the start of the Iraq War in early 2003, Cherry loudly supported the Americans, while co-host MacLean defended Canada's position of noninvolvement, which, to Cherry, equaled nonsupport of an ally. The raucous debate lasted an entire Coach's Corner segment in March of that year and became a national news story. The CBC later removed the transcript of that segment from its online archives.
The more inflammatory Cherry became, the more criticism he received. The more he was criticized, the further he went. The further he went, the more popular he became. The more popular he became, the bigger the ratings. And the bigger the ratings, the more profitable Coach's Corner became, which made it nearly impossible for anyone at CBC to pull the plug assuming, of course, that the network ever wanted to pull it in the first place.
Many influential critics were not entertained, or amused. At one point, celebrated Canadian columnist and author Roy MacGregor said Cherry's "thinking, and his extraordinary influence, has been the single-most destructive influence on the development of Canadian hockey."
Dowbiggin says he believes Cherry's continued championing of physical hockey while belittling nonaggression has changed how minor hockey coaches and parents view the game a view that Canada's national hockey body, Hockey Canada, has been trying, with varying degrees of success, to eliminate from grassroots hockey for years.
Hockey sociologist and author Julie Stevens, an associate professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, says Cherry does not speak for or to all of Canada. In fact, with the growing multiculturalism in the nation, she believes he speaks to a narrower segment of the population all the time.
Why then, is he still such a popular figure with the masses? Perhaps because Canadians see themselves as wanting when it comes to their national identity and how they're perceived internationally, they often respond passionately to what Cherry says. Whether it's defending Canadian hockey players wherever they might be playing or remembering the exploits of Canadian soldiers during the D-Day assault of World War II or calling attention to Canadian peace-keeping missions, Cherry is in many ways a distinctly unifying force. "We tend not to blow our own horns in Canada, we're too polite," Stevens admits. "At times, Don Cherry says things Canadians wish more of our leaders would say."
Damien Cox, a columnist for the country's largest paper, The Toronto Star, and a contributor to ESPN.com, says Cherry's strongest beliefs strike a chord at the most sensitive parts of the Canadian hockey psyche, whether it's fighting or the place of Canada and Canadians in the game or the style of play Canada represents. "These are parts of hockey that don't appeal to everyone," Cox says. "It's like he's standing in the middle of the DMZ, shouting out his view. Some people see him as their champion, their warrior. The one thing you have to say about him is he doesn't mind standing alone."
Luckily for Cherry, he hasn't had to stand alone. Though he has worked with a variety of hosts and announcers over the years, it is alongside co-host MacLean since 1986 that Cherry has enjoyed the kind of rapport and chemistry that is television magic.
Not that the relationship has all been sweetness and light. As MacLean readily admits, there have been many times when he has been angered by Cherry's comments on Coach's Corner. But MacLean has never lost his admiration for Cherry's convictions convictions that are at the very heart of the show's success and Cherry's popularity. "He's just a sterling example of how sharp a nonschooled person can be," MacLean says. "He's a great example of what's in all of us."
Similarly, despite appearances to the contrary, what happens during the show is also hyper-controlled. And surprise, surprise it is Cherry, not MacLean, who is doing the controlling. "He's the one who polices the segment," MacLean acknowledges. "He knows what he's doing, and I have no idea what he's doing. He's a better judge of what's going to get us fired than I am."
If true, this would come as a shock to fan and critic alike. The popular perception is that what separates Cherry from almost everyone else in his position is that his internal wiring system does not include a fail-safe switch, that he draws an average of 1.4 million Canadians every Saturday night who believe what is about to follow is some kind of out-of-body experience, a raw, roiling, undiluted stew of anger and opinion, passion and outrage.
Cherry couldn't disagree more. "I know exactly what I'm saying," he says, "so that when I'm fired, it won't be a slip of the tongue. Everything I want to say, I say."
So who is this guy? What makes him tick when the camera is turned off and the rink has gone dark?
First and foremost, there is almost no pretense about the man, for all his fame and fortune and notoriety. As he saw his father, so does he see himself an honest laborer, giving value for what he is paid. He might walk around in suits that would cost your average construction worker two weeks' pay, but, in his own mind, he's carrying a lunch pail. "When you start thinking you're a somebody for being on television, you are in deep trouble," he insists. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life."
He might seem like a complex contradiction at times, but his core beliefs are as basic as you can get he believes in loyalty, and honesty, and the game.
And maybe, just maybe, he believes in the game a little too much for his own good. "I don't take vacations," he says, with a rare note of wistfulness in his voice. "I don't play golf. I don't do anything but hockey. Hockey is my whole life."
"I was that guy standing in the kitchen, eating beans out of a can and washing the spoon in the sink," he says of his life as a widower. "I knew a lot of people. But I had nobody to hang around with. I had a lot of acquaintances. I don't know why I don't have many friends.
"My life is very narrow," he acknowledges with the barest hint of a catch in his voice. "That's not too good."
Although he is a man of great means, with his television and radio shows, national endorsements and association with a string of bars and restaurants that bear his name, Cherry lives in a modest home in a suburb west of Toronto. Around the corner, children Tim and Cindy live across the street from each other, where they serve as an army of two handling Cherry's affairs.
The geographic proximity suggests an emotional closeness that isn't necessarily reflected in their daily relationships. Hockey is my whole life.
Hugs and kisses? Not so many in the Cherry house.
Organ donations? No problem. When Tim was 13 and needed a kidney transplant, the decision for Cindy to give up one of hers was made without hesitation, she says.
"It's a little different than being lovey-dovey," Cherry explains. "It was understood."
So here he is, 72 years old, though far from ready to go gently into that good night. A few years ago, he met a Ukrainian woman named Luba, who would become his second wife, at a hockey banquet she was attending with her brother. Where else? "A lot of people think she's my daughter," Cherry says with a broad grin. "I don't mind."
A lot of people also think the unlikely saga of Don Cherry will end ugly a nasty public dismissal, perhaps, after the kind of self-destructive pronouncement that can't be taken back or forgiven, even by all those gentle Canadians. But that seems a little bit too predictable for a man who has made a life out of speaking his truth, no matter how it is received.
One thing is certain: However the saga ends, we will never see its like again.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.