Don Cherry

Donald Stewart “Grapes” Cherry, hockey broadcaster, coach, player, team owner (born 5 February 1934 in Kingston, ON). Don Cherry is best known as the former hockey analyst and commentator on the Hockey Night in Canada segment, “Coach’s Corner.” As a hockey player, Cherry won a Memorial Cup with the Barrie Flyers in 1953 and had a long career in the American Hockey League (AHL), winning the Calder Cup four times. He won coach of the year honours in both the AHL and National Hockey League (NHL) and coached the Boston Bruins to two Stanley Cup Finals before retiring from coaching. His 39-year stint on “Coach’s Corner” made him a Canadian icon, albeit a controversial one. Nicknamed “Grapes” (a play on his last name and the term “sour grapes”), Cherry’s blunt opinions made him a lightning rod for controversy. He faced accusations of bigotry and racism throughout his broadcasting career and was fired in 2019 for comments that were widely regarded as being racist toward immigrants. Also in 2019, he was inducted into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame.

Don Cherry
Hockey legend Don Cherry behind the bench at a charity hockey game in Boston, MA, in 2003.

Early Years and Family Background

Don Cherry was the oldest of two children of Maude and Delmar Cherry. Don’s younger brother Dick was also involved in hockey. He was a career minor-leaguer who played three seasons in the NHL: one with the Boston Bruins (1956–57) and two with the Philadelphia Flyers in (1968–70).

Don Cherry’s paternal grandfather, John, was one of the first people to join the North-West Mounted Police in 1874. His maternal grandfather, Richard Palamountain, was a British orphan who was sent to Quebec at age 12. (See also: British Home Children.) Palamountain worked as a horse groomer at the Royal Military College. He returned to Europe at age 31 and fought for Canada at Vimy Ridge during the First World War.

Early Hockey Career

Cherry wanted to be a professional hockey player since the age of four. While growing up, he remembers going down on his knees every night to pray. Cherry was so intent on a career as a hockey player, he seldom was focused in school.

Cherry received great support from his parents. While playing junior hockey, he remembers receiving gloves with holes in them from the team owner. Cherry’s mother was outraged and bought him “expensive” gloves. While growing up, Cherry received two key messages from his parents. His mother told him to always be honest and his father told him to never quit.

Cherry played junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey Association with the Windsor Spitfires (1951–52) and the Barrie Flyers (1952–54). He won a Memorial Cup with the Flyers in 1953. In 92 career junior games, Cherry had five goals and nine assists for 14 points.


Minor League Career

Before Cherry was a coach, he played hockey as a professional minor league defenceman for 16 seasons, beginning in 1954. He was called up to play one game for the Boston Bruins during the Stanley Cup Finals against the Montreal Canadiens in 1955. However, an off-season injury prevented him from returning to the NHL. Cherry’s minor league career was largely a successful one. His team won the AHL championship, the Calder Cup, in 1960, 1965, 1966 and 1968.

Cherry first retired from hockey in 1969 after spending six seasons with the Rochester Americans in the AHL. He returned to the team in 1971, first as a player and in January 1972 as head coach. In 1974, Cherry received the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s coach of the year.

NHL Coaching Career

Following his third and final season as coach of the Rochester Americans, Cherry joined the Boston Bruins in 1974. He led the team to four first-place finishes in their division between 1975 and 1979. In 1976, he won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach. However, in the seventh and deciding game of a Stanley Cup playoff game against the Canadiens in 1979, Cherry got a penalty for too many men on the ice at a crucial moment in the game. The Bruins lost, and Cherry, who was already feuding with general manager Harry Sinden, left the team.

Cherry coached one more season with the NHL’s worst team, the Colorado Rockies, but by spring 1980 he was fired. Cherry retired from coaching in the NHL with a regular season record of 250–153–77. His record in 55 playoff games was 31–24.


“Coach’s Corner”

Despite his successful career as an NHL coach, Cherry is best known for his appearances on Hockey Night in Canada’s highly popular intermission segment, “Coach’s Corner.” The segment presented Cherry as a commentator of the game being broadcast and of the NHL in general.

“Coach’s Corner” made its HNIC debut during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs. Initially, the segment aired during the second intermission and featured Cherry alone using video highlights to illustrate his observations. Soon he was joined by HNIC host Dave Hodge. In 1987, Ron MacLean, previously a sports anchor in Alberta, stepped into the role. Also that year, “Coach’s Corner” was moved to the first intermission. It is believed the segment at times drew more viewers than the games themselves. In 2015, “Coach’s Corner” was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Cherry’s patriotism to Canada over the years was shown in his strong support and appreciation of Canadian police officers and military personnel. He regularly used “Coach’s Corner” as a platform to pay tribute to those who had lost their lives in the line of duty.


Other Activities

Capitalizing on his massive popularity as a TV personality, Cherry built a successful cottage industry around himself and his brand as a tough, old school hockey practitioner. He co-hosted the national radio program Don Cherry’s Grapevine (1984–2019) with Brian Williams and hosted the TV program Don Cherry’s This Week in Hockey. He has appeared as a spokesperson in commercials for numerous products, ranging from sandwiches to mortgages to pet insurance. His series of NHL highlight videos, Don Cherry’s Rock’em Sock’em Hockey, produced 30 volumes. According to Cherry’s son Tim, it sold more than 2.3 million copies, making it the best-selling nontheatrical DVD series in Canada. He also appeared as an actor in the Canadian TV series Goosebumps (1997), Power Play (1998–2000) and Zeroman (2004) and provided voice work for the animated films The Wild (2006), The Great Polar Bear Adventure (2006) and The Magic Hockey Skates (2012).

In 1998, Cherry returned to junior hockey when he and three other investors launched the Mississauga IceDogs franchise in the Ontario Hockey League. Cherry co-owned the team until 2002 and even coached it during his final year of ownership. He also owns a franchise of restaurants called Don Cherry’s Sports Grill.

In 2004, viewers of the CBC program The Greatest Canadian ranked Cherry No. 7 in the show’s list of the “greatest” Canadians. In 2010, the CBC broadcast the biographical TV miniseries Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story, which was written by Cherry’s son, Tim. Jared Keeso (19-2, Letterkenny) starred as Cherry and reprised his role in the sequel, Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story II (2012).


Controversies

Within one month of working on Hockey Night in Canada in 1980, the CBC wanted to fire Cherry “to protect the English-speaking children of Canada.” There was criticism of the heavily colloquial, often fragmented way Cherry spoke on television. CBC Executive Producer Ralph Mellanby defended Cherry at the time, believing that his approach connected with many blue-collar Canadians. When Cherry was told by a CBC senior producer that he had to speak proper English or he would be fired, Mellanby reassured Cherry. “You just speak hockey,” he said. “Everybody in a bar knows what you’re talking about. Don’t you worry about proper English.” (See also: Canadian English.)

However, Cherry had a difficult time just speaking hockey and was often a lightning rod for controversy. Throughout his time on “Coach’s Corner,” he faced accusations of bigotry and racism for his prejudiced attitudes and statements regarding foreign-born players, particularly Swedes, Finns and Russians, as well as French Canadians. He also made derisive comments about Indigenous peoples, such as in 2015, when he called the Inuit “savages” and “barbarians” for eating seal.

Starting in 1991, Quebec politicians criticized Cherry for defending Eric Lindros’s decision to not play for the Quebec Nordiques. He stated, “they (Quebec) don’t want our (English) signs,” and “they don’t want our (English) language.” In 1998, after Cherry called Quebeckers “whiners” and addressed Olympic gold medalist Jean-Luc Brassard as “that French guy,” Bell Canada pulled advertisements for “Coach’s Corner” from television in Quebec. In 2004, Cherry was investigated by the Commissioner of Official Languages for saying “most of the guys who wear them (visors) are Europeans and French guys.” As a result of Cherry’s many controversial statements, CBC issued a seven-second delay when he was on television in order to censor any problematic comments.


Some of Cherry’s “Coach’s Corner” segments were political in tone. As a hockey analyst, he criticized “the left-wing media,” questioned climate change and defended his right-wing conservative ideologies. In 2010, he faced backlash for his comments as a guest at a Toronto City Council meeting. He predicted that Rob Ford would be the best mayor in the history of Toronto and ended his statement with “put that in your pipe you left-wing kooks.” In 2017, the New York Times compared Cherry’s nationalism to that of Donald Trump.

Cherry also received significant criticism for some of his comments around fighting in hockey, especially in in later years when more information on the impact of brain injuries became available. His Rock’em Sock’em series of NHL highlight videos was also routinely criticized for glorifying violence in the game. On American television (NBC) in 2007, Cherry supported the continuation of fighting in the NHL. He was criticized by education specialist Warren Nightingale, who was concerned about the message Cherry was sending children. In 2011, Cherry was forced to apologize for calling Chris Nilan, Stu Grimson and Jim Thomson “pukes,” “turncoats” and “hypocrites” when the former NHL enforcers spoke out against fighting in the game. The players threatened legal action if Cherry did not make a public apology, which he did.

In 2013, Cherry discussed the first time he heard a female reporter’s voice in the dressing room. He remembered suggesting to the reporter that he be interviewed outside the room because players were walking around naked. Cherry recalled in the conversation that she was not embarrassed, but he was. The Association for Women in Sports Media criticized Cherry for his stance.


Firing

On 9 November 2019, Cherry expressed his disappointment that many Canadians do not wear poppies to commemorate Remembrance Day. His comments offended many Canadians when he stated on “Coach’s Corner,” “You people… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys (Canadian military) paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”

By using the term “you people,” Cherry offended many Canadians who are ethnic minorities. TSN’s Farhan Lalji, for example, said he thought Cherry’s comments were an attack on people who were not born in Canada and “crossed the line.”

Following the controversial segment, Rogers Sportsnet announced on 11 November 2019 that Cherry “would immediately step down from his role with Hockey Night in Canada.” In an interview with Joe Warmington of the Toronto Sun on 11 November 2019, Cherry stated he was fired. He insisted he did not intend to be racist or bigoted, but rather intended to show patriotism and support for Canadian troops. In an interview with CTV News on 12 November 2019, he stated he would have rather said “everyone” instead of “you people” in trying to get his message across.

Following the firing of Cherry, the opinions of Canadians on the issue were divided. Loyal fans of Hockey Night in Canada remained supportive of Cherry and were critical of Rogers Sportsnet’s decision. Many other Canadians believed Cherry’s firing was long overdue.

Personal Life

Don Cherry and his first wife, Rose (née Martini), were married from 1957 until her death from liver cancer in 1997. They had two children together, Cindy and Tim. Tim Cherry has worked as a scout for the Ontario Hockey League. Don married his second wife, Luba, in 1999.

Awards

  • Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, American Hockey League (1974)
  • Jack Adams Trophy, National Hockey League (1976)
  • Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service (2011)
  • Inductee, American Hockey League Hall of Fame (2019)

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