On Nov. 26, the 25th edition of the series was released, featuring the best goals, saves, hits and fights of the previous NHL season.
It was summer 1995 and Donald S. Cherry was red in the face. He crouched in a darkened corner of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, surrounded by glass cases of memorabilia. Dressed in full Scottish Highlander attire, he was trying to complete his ensemble with the all-important kilt. He and his wife. Rose, had matching ones made.
Only he couldn’t get the kilt on for the life of him. He struggled and struggled, but it was too tight.
“I thought, holy s---, have I put on that much weight since the last time I put it on?” Don says.
Down the hall, his son Tim waited with a full camera crew. Where was Dad? Half an hour passed.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Tim says. “I go down and you can see dad and he’s all flustered.”
Tim collected Rose and as soon as they strolled over to Don, Rose knew what the problem was.
“She said ‘Oh, you dummy, you grabbed my kilt,’ ” Tim says with a laugh.
So Don Cherry, Jack Adams Award winner with the Boston Bruins and hockey tough guy icon as star of CBC’s Coach’s Corner, had accidentally dressed in drag. The Cherrys improvised.
“They pinned it half way around and my bum was exposed,” Don says.
Don was happy to do it, for the show had to go on. The show was Don Cherry’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Hockey, the seventh such installment. Every year, he and Tim did whatever was necessary to produce the best-selling sports video in Canadian history. An ill-fitting skirt wasn’t about to stop them.
It’s that attitude that has helped give the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em series its incredible longevity. On Nov. 26, the 25th edition of the series was released, featuring the best goals, saves, hits and fights of the previous NHL season. Also released for hungry collectors: a box set including every edition.
Of all the things we hold dear today, how many existed 24 years ago? Not iPhones, not sports in HD, not hockey teams in Florida or NHLers in the Olympics.
But Rock ’Em Sock ’Em is an exception. The thing that made a six-year-old with NHL aspirations named Jason Spezza bounce off the walls with excitement in 1989 does the same for youngsters everywhere today.
“A large part of my youth was spent watching Rock ’Em Sock ’Em,” says Spezza, captain of the Ottawa Senators. “That’s right in my wheelhouse. We’d get one tape for Christmas and watch it all year, over and over. They’re iconic for sure.”
The formula is simple but irresistible: Tim compiles the clips, Don provides the voiceover in his trademark Coach’s Corner style and every year, just in time for the holidays, a new edition is released.
“It’s funny,” Don says. “When I talk to the mothers, they tell me, ‘You’re the greatest babysitter in the world Christmas morning, because we always put one in the stocking. The kids have it on and I can go cook the turkey, I can go do everything and not have to worry about them at all. But I’ll tell you one thing, I get sick of your voice after a while.’ ”
Considering Coach’s Corner still routinely draws a million-plus viewers Saturday nights, it’s no wonder the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em videos sell like hotcakes. But the Cherrys say they never imagined in their wildest dreams how the series would take off.
It started in the late 1980s with a program called This Week in Hockey, which Don and Tim produced with NHL footage as a half-hour show for 10 weeks. A distribution company called Quality Special Products liked what it saw and asked the Cherrys to produce a full-length VHS series to be released for Christmas 1989.
The method of creating the video then was much like it is now. During the NHL season, Tim would study hours and hours of game footage searching for unique clips. Don would watch the footage Tim compiled and provide voiceover commentary, which in later volumes included analysis of every playoff series and yielded now-famous expressions like, “Keep your head up when you go into the trolley tracks.” The footage was then sent to the NHL for approval.
The series needed a catchy name, of course. And the person who coined Rock ’Em Sock ’Em had no fights nor scars nor NHL experience: Rose Cherry. The popularity of the videos skyrocketed from one year to the next and the series has sold more than two million copies.
The most unique thing about Rock ’Em Sock ’Em is the way it interacts with its own subjects. In the early days of the series, NHL players relied on it to get their fill of hockey coverage.
“I, like any other Canadian, would watch the highlights,” says Hall of Famer Mark Messier. “At the time, we didn’t have the media when it first started and the accessibility to see what was going on in the league. So when these videos came out, it was something that really took the country by storm. It was a big part of our game.”
Players use it as a teaching tool, too. Don loves that Europeans like Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who is known for his punishing hits, say watching the videos helped them learn the game. And just as minor and amateur players everywhere watch Rock ’Em Sock ’Em to get psyched up before games – admit it, you did it – budding NHL stars did the same.
“Probably my biggest memory would be when I was in junior, the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em would find its way on the DVD or the TV quite often,” says Edmonton Oilers left winger Taylor Hall. “I can remember seeing the same one more than once.”
Most famously, players lobby to be featured.
“Tie Domi a couple of times has told me, ‘I hope you’re going to put that one on,’ if it was a good fight or something like that,” Don says. “Some of the players come up to me and say, ‘The highlight of the year was when I put that on at Christmas and showed it to the family.’ It means something when you hear players say they’ve made Rock ’Em Sock ’Em or if I make fun of them.”
What does it mean, however, to be featured in the video today? Hockey has changed. Fighting’s place in the game is questioned and revelations about concussions have altered the way we perceive hits. What was a clean, devastating bodycheck by Scott Stevens 15 years ago would be a suspendable offense now.
For some fans, the change in the game casts a dark cloud over the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em series, which has always attracted attention for the hits and fights more than anything else. That said, the early editions reflect what was considered acceptable in the sport during a less-aware time – even in the eyes of the NHL, which approved every bit of footage used.
As for the fighting, the Cherrys stand by it. They say they make a point of choosing evenly matched bouts in which neither player badly pummels the other, so don’t count on seeing Ray Emery versus Braden Holtby in Vol. 26.
“It’s pretty funny when the left wingers criticize everything I do and they say Don Cherry’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Ems are full of fights, but they would have to watch it to know that we have two or three fights in a minute and a half (of the entire video),” Don says. “It’s absolutely ridiculous because kids are watching the fights during the hockey game.”
Tim admits the new information on concussions makes him more cautious about the clips he chooses.
“We probably have changed a bit,” Tim says. “It’s not like we’ve shown less hits or show the game less Rock ’Em Sock ’Em-ish, but there are definitely hits we’d never show, like when Matt Cooke hit Marc Savard.”
So as the game has evolved, so has the series, which has endured a naming rights battle, winning back Rock ’Em Sock ’Em after losing that moniker for Vols. 10-19. And as long as the Cherrys keep churning out editions, ‘Grapes’ is happy to try wacky things to entertain viewers. There was the kilt in No. 7 and, most famous of all, the rap in No. 5, for which he donned a long, red trench coach, fedora and shades while shouting out lyrics like Blue, Blue, what a pup! Oh how she loves the Stanley Cup! Here it is, in all its glory:
“I didn’t do that well on the rap and I hear it now and I’m kind of embarrassed,” Don says. “But Rock ’Em Sock ’Em 5 was my favorite because I was in that red coat and we came out of the fog and we even got Blue involved, too.”
Blue, Don’s bull terrier, featured prominently in the videos over the years, though Blue was actually multiple dogs, as Don always gives his new pooch the same name after the previous one passes away. Tim laughs when he remembers her biting his dad on the neck in while shooting one year. Creating the videos has been a family affair year in, year out. Even Don’s daughter, Cindy, goes to signings with him.
“She’s a little tougher than Tim and me,” Don says. “People come with 50 things to sign and she always tells them no.”
And on top of making the videos together, Don tags along on Tim’s Greater Toronto League scouting expeditions several times a week during the season.
“It’s one of my greatest pleasures of life being with him and it reminds me of the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em because we work so close together,” Don says.
As long as his dad wants to, Tim says, they’ll keep producing the series, though as technology changes, Rock ’Em Sock ’Em may soon appear in a different form, offered as a digital download only.
Blu-Ray, iTunes, DVD or VHS, it will remain a hockey institution, one Don ranks among his proudest accomplishments.
“Twenty-five years is a lifetime and it’s still going!” he says. “You can’t coast on something like this. If you do, it’ll end. People can tell if you don’t put your heart and soul into it, there’s no doubt about it. If you want to stop riding it along, people will stop buying it for sure. It’s right up there with Coach’s Corner and people come up to me more often to say ‘I’ve seen all your videos’ than to talk about Coach’s Corner.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin