Don Cherry (Adam d’Oliveira photography)
A switch to Rogers put his prevalence in flux, but whether weighing in on fighting, Stroumboulopoulos or even “advanced stats,” people are still watching in droves. Ryan Kennedy explains why.When super draft prospect Connor McDavid broke his hand in a fight in November, the number of hot takes on the matter scorched the media landscape. Everyone was expected to weigh in and NHL players were not immune. Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic was one of them and, given his appetite for truculence, his response was no surprise. “You definitely respect the fact he’s willing to step up for himself,” Lucic said. “On another point, not contradicting or going against what Don Cherry was saying, it’s good to see that a player of his caliber has that fire.” Did you catch that right there? Lucic, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound bruiser who has never been shy about speaking his mind, just wanted to make it clear he wasn’t trying to run afoul of Cherry, who had stated publicly he didn’t think a pure skill player such as McDavid should be fighting.
But that’s the influence Cherry, now 80, still wields in the hockey world. At the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, you will find the largest concentration of NHL reporters in the English-speaking world on a Saturday night, and when Coach’s Corner comes on during the first intermission, a huge crowd gathers around the TV monitors. Some of those gawkers hate Cherry, some love him, but the crowd is much thinner when any other commentator speaks on a broadcast.This was supposed to a tough year for Cherry. Rogers Media had won the NHL’s exclusive national broadcasting rights and essentially made his former employer, the CBC, a ward of the conglomerate. His buddy and sidekick Ron MacLean had been jettisoned from the main news desk and now spends his time travelling from town to town, broadcasting from hockey outposts and joining Cherry in studio as much as his schedule permits. But ‘Grapes’ still carries a ton of weight and he stands by his resume. “I watch hockey every night,” he said. “I go to minor midget games, I saw McDavid when he was a bantam, I was coach of the year in the AHL and the NHL. I’m coaching the CHL Top Prospects Game and I was a player. From April 8 to June 19 in the playoffs, I’ve been on the air every other night for 34 years. I want somebody to beat that on credentials – I know what I’m talking about.” And lots of folks agree. The most popular YouTube clips of his Coach’s Corner segment get clicks in the six-figure range, despite the fact most hockey fans watched it live already. Sure, change is coming to the broadcasting landscape, but Cherry still has fun out there every Saturday night, and his early experience under the reign of Rogers Media has been good after initial fears about the takeover. “Nobody really knew what was going to happen – I was concerned,” he said. “But it’s even a little better now because I don’t have to see anyone. And I have the best opening and closing (graphics) I’ve ever had.” Cherry said his studio is sequestered from the other sets, so he just shows up and does his business with little distraction from outside sources. Not that he’s against his new compatriots. George Stroumboulopoulos, the man who was brought in to replace MacLean at the main desk, may be “a different cat,” in Cherry’s words, but Grapes also counts him as an ally. That’s because Stroumboulopoulos once had former NHL agitator Sean Avery on his talk show and stood up to Avery when he trashed Cherry on air. “I never forgot that,” Cherry said. “He’s all right in my books.” Not that he enjoys what MacLean is going through, especially when the host’s schedule means doing Coach’s Corner via split screen from say, Fort McMurray, Alta. “I don’t like it,” Cherry said. “It’s difficult for Ron, too. We can kibitz more when we’re together. But it won’t happen often.” As for how the new-ish post is going, it really depends on who you ask – or more accurately, who wants to tell you what they think. After Cherry complained on-air about the amount of time his segment was given (something that, for the record, he had also said numerous times in the past with CBC), multiple media outlets conducted polls on Cherry’s deployment. Were people happy with less Cherry or outraged that there wasn’t more of the colorful commentator? The question unfortunately just became a Rorschach test for the newspapers themselves – left-leaning surveys didn’t like him, while right-leaning surveys championed Cherry. As for overall ratings, it’s difficult to pinpoint the specific impact of Coach’s Corner, but ratings are down for the whole broadcast since Rogers took over. Despite being on the same channel (CBC) at the same time, the prime-time Hockey Night in Canada broadcast on Saturdays isn’t faring as well year over year. Last November, the event was usually a top-10 ratings winner for all of Canadian television, even coming in second the first week of the month. This year, no November HNIC did better than 23rd overall, drawing fewer than 1.5 million eyeballs per week versus more than two million under CBC’s independent watch, according to Numeris, a not-for-profit industry organization. And it’s not like Cherry is changing. He’s still rocking flamboyant suits, he still goes a little overboard on occasion (which he readily admits to) and he still has an opinion that he wants to get out there. For example, the man who gave us the Christmas stocking staple Rock’Em Sock’Em videos now lives in a world where NHL enforcers will need radio tags if they get any more endangered. But as much as Cherry loves the policemen of hockey, you can’t call him dogmatic when it comes to the issue of fists without talent. “I always believed a guy should be able to play,” he said. “If you look at my Boston Bruins teams, John Wensink had 28 goals one year, Stan Jonathan could score 20 and Terry O’Reilly was one of our best players.” Cherry still thinks the Toronto Maple Leafs should have found space on their fourth line for fighters Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, though stat heads would disagree. Grapes isn’t ignorant of the analytics movement, either, even if he believes puck-possession players can be intuited by the best coaches. “Toe Blake – he could tell if a guy had the puck a lot,” he said. “Pat Burns, Pat Quinn…they were proud to say they weren’t Xs and Os guys. I don’t think (stats knowledge) hurts. If you say it’s not a big deal, people think you’re from a hundred years ago.” Interestingly, Cherry had a nice anecdote about why players themselves probably shouldn’t care about advanced stats: historically, numbers both good and bad have influenced their play and usually for the worse. “I always tried to keep the plus-minus away from the players,” Cherry said. “When the numbers came out I always tried to hide them.” You can wonder when he will finally cede his spot at the table, but the man himself is quite happy to be where he is today. “People ask me when I’m going to retire. “I say, ‘retire from what?’ If I get put off, it’s been a great run.” This feature appears in the Jan. 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.