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Top Shelf: Upcoming film shows life before Cherry was on top

Don Cherry has long been a Canadian icon. (Getty Images)

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Don Cherry has long been a Canadian icon. (Getty Images)

Don Cherry has never struck me as a person who has trouble with self-promotion.

That’s why I was a little surprised to hear it took a decade’s worth of arm-twisting on behalf of his son, Tim, to finally sell Don on the idea of telling his life story on screen.

The result of Tim’s victory is Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story, which will air on CBC in two parts beginning this Sunday at 8 p.m. and concluding on Monday at the same time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have yet to see the biopic, but when you listen to Cherry discuss why he was hesitant to go ahead with the project, you get the sense his reasons may actually be an endorsement of the final product.

“Tim’s been trying to get me to do it for 10 years, but I always felt uncomfortable,” Cherry said. “I’m still not jumping for joy in a way because there’s a lot of personal stuff in there.

“I don’t think anybody would like to see all their personal stuff, intimate stuff shown. But Tim wanted to do it and I think he wanted to do it for his mother.”

Sounds like this is much more than a surface-level account of a man who could never quite make it as an NHL player, but found his niche as coach of the Boston Bruins in the 1970s before becoming one of the most prominent personalities in Canada thanks to his outspoken approach on Hockey Night in Canada’s ‘Coach’s Corner’ segment over the past 30 years.

Maybe Tim, the project’s executive producer and writer, wanted to make the movie so bad because he knew there was endless material to work with. The third act of his dad’s life, marked by outrageous suits and saying European names incorrectly, is pretty well known to most. Less talked about is the fact Cherry spent 16 years as a minor-leaguer chasing down an NHL dream that never fully materialized. That left him as an overweight, out-of-work husband and young father who faced some serious personal questions about what he was going to do with his life.

Those days from nearly 40 years ago still stick with Cherry.

“To be a factory worker or a laborer and not be able to get a job, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” he said. “You don’t feel like a man.

“I never, ever forgot the humiliation.”

But dinner, not dignity, was the ultimate driving force behind Cherry trying to earn his spot back as a defenseman with the Rochester Americans.

“I couldn’t get a job and hunger is the greatest motivation,” he said. “I couldn’t get a job, I had no money, I had no education and I had no trade.

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“I got laid off my construction job as a jackhammer laborer and I had to make a comeback at 36 in the American Hockey League, which is a pretty good league to be making a comeback in.”

The story, in case you haven’t heard, takes a decided upswing after that. The short strokes are Cherry cracked the Rochester lineup, became coach halfway through the season and just a couple years after that, he was bench boss of Bobby Orr and the Bruins.

While in Boston, Cherry, who will be played by actor Jared Keeso, had epic battles with Bruins GM Harry Sinden. He also dealt with some serious home-front issues. In 1978, at age 15, Tim became ill and required a kidney transplant, which he received from his older sister, Cindy. Wife Rose was the rock as Cherry traversed through the ups and downs of life and his high-profile role as coach of the Bruins.

Along the way, he was asked to do a little TV work for CBC, something that came back into his life in a big way after he was fired from a one-year stint as coach of the Colorado Rockies in 1980.

Cherry’s first TV gig was providing color commentary, but the powers that be decided that wasn’t the best fit. Longtime Hockey Night executive producer Ralph Mellanby was a big fan of Cherry, though; he just thought they needed to find the right spot for him. Ironically, the decision to put him on in a short segment after the first period was made to govern how much of a stir Cherry’s gum-flapping caused.

“I was getting in too much trouble doing color, I was too brutal saying the words,” Cherry recalled. “But Ralph Mellanby, he liked me, he thought, we’ll just put him on for five minutes after the first period. He can’t get into too much trouble in five minutes.”

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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