“Don Cherry–His Way or the Highway”
Don Cherry was to Canadian broadcasting and the NHL what Howard Cosell was to all things NFL….a legend….an icon…a trendsetter.
And like Cosell’s ‘tell it like it is lifestyle’, Cherry’s own ‘brash-beliggerant-bully style’ set him aside from everyone.
And like Cosell, who went down in flames of self-glory at the end of his Monday Night Football career, Cherry destroyed his career much the same, with his insensitive, off topic rants, who offended many, in our modern era of political correctness.
Cosell ended his self destructive career with rants about owners, players, drugs and NFL greed. Cherry hit the finish line with some spillage about immigrants in Canada, not appreciating Canadian heritage of soldiers who gave their lives in the wars.
Cherry, the career minor league player, and former coach of the Boston Bruins, became a legend as a TV analyst with his loudmouth lunch bucket opinions about anything-everything related to hockey. It began in 1981 on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada between period shows.
He grew in popularity with his old school theories, about fighting, women in the lockeroom, free agency, rule changes.
But it was his irreverence that struck a chord with everyone, and it was the rationale of the CBC and then Sportsnet to let him get away with things that always seemed to cross the line.
It was a Saturday Night Live version of the NHL on TV. You never knew what was coming out of his mouth next, like a John Belushi appearance, or like a Dave Schultz cross-check in the head, from back in the day.
He didn’t care about the criticism. The CBC didn’t care about the outrage, morally, socially, because they were raking in ratings and profits. I’ll never forget covering the Kings-Maple Leafs playoff series just before the Stanley Cup finals, when the whole Press Box went silent between the first and second period, to see what “Grapes” had to say on Coaches Corner.
The critics were everywhere, that he was appealing to the worst element of Canadian society, the beer drinking, truck driving, blue collar-hardhat workers who followed the NHL.
But Cherry’s power and popularity grew, and so did the controversy. He attacked the government, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, social-racial issues, all well beyond the scope of his hockey expertise, and broadcasting leadership did nothing.
I’ll never forget the night he read the poem about Fields of Flanders, written by a dying soldier in World War I. It was moving, it was honest, it was sincere. Remembrance Day in Canada is so meaningful, equivalent to our Memorial Day-Veterans Day…maybe even more so, because he wrapped the Canadian flag around the NHL.
He was proud Canadian, and a proud historian, talking about the Eddie Shore days of the NHL and the AHL, the Hockey Hall of Fame, his beloved Bruins and Maple Leafs, the hated Canadiens and all things Oilers-and-Gretzky.
He may have invented ‘branding’, his loud sports jackets, the flowers, the shirts, the ties, and the non-stop noise. He was is own social media brand.
But for all the spectacular things Don Cherry did, he was reviled for his tirades. Included in the list were stunning statements that kept coming.
..Called LA Kings winger Tomas Sandstrom a ‘Chicken Bleep-Back Stabbing Swede’.
..Commenting on the arrival of Russian players who changed the NHL…’Should have killed their parents at the Russian front.’
..Called those who wanted to ban fighting because of head injuries ‘Pukes-Turncoats-Bleeding Hearts’.
..Called players from Quebec a ‘Bunch of Whiners and Those Guys’
..Said he was ‘Embarrassed women were allowed in the locker room’
..Called his critics ‘left wing pinkos’.
..Called players who wanted to wear visors ‘Euro-French Guys-Sissies-Wimps’
He was beside himself when 2-American teams got to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time. He could not believe a hockey team named after a movie “Mighty Ducks” won the Cup. He hated Francophones, loved Anglophones and was relentless spraying opinions into every corner of the arena, every bar in Canada, and in your living room.
It went on unstopped for years, till this past weekend’s attack on immigrants in Ontario for not buying poppies on Veterans Day.
He never apologized. Thru his prism, what he was doing on TV was delivering a message. But he became more polarizing than popular. His last comment this week, about not becoming some ‘Network Tin Soldier’. He said if he was leaving, he was going out on his shield.
Hockey has been the unifying element of Canadian society, stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon Territory….Toronto to White Rock, British Columbia, Ottawa to Saskatchewan. But Don Cherry had become the divisive part of NHL broadcasting because of his style.
He was brilliant, he was bombastic. He was from a different era and now out of touch. He gave the word ‘filibuster’ a Canadian definition. You knew it would end this way….a race-baiting rant, either on ice or off ice, would lead to his end.
And it’s odd, Don Cherry’s broadcasting life ended on the day that meant so much to him, Remembrance Day, and his love for all the veterans over all the wars, who died with the Maple Leaf flag branded on their soul.
I watched him, I interviewed him, I enjoyed him. I was sad to see it end the way it did, but that was Grapes, and you lived on his terms, and he died on his terms too.
Don Cherry-Howard Cosell….one and the same…started the same-ended the same….and now likely never to be forgotten.