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Don Cherry snaps some photographs with crew members Mark Motoch, middle, and Mark Dann, right, on the set of Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story.
Don Cherry snaps some photographs with crew members Mark Motoch, middle, and Mark Dann, right, on the set of Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story.

The soft side of Grapes Add to ...

Grapes needs a tissue.

He's sitting there, in a house made to look like his old house, at a table made to look like his old table, watching the man he was yell at the wife he loved. Take-by-take, his life, his miniseries life, passes before his eyes.

And it's too much. His eyes go misty. He's wiping tears before they hit his soaring Edwardian collar.

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I feel like I should be dead. Don't they usually do these kinds of movies about dead people? Don Cherry


Yes, this is that Grapes. The Rock-em-Sock-Em Grapes. The knuckles-and-blood high-school dropout who played but one game in the NHL. The grinder who went from minor-league journeyman, to world's-worst Cadillac salesman, to unemployed construction worker to Bobby Orr's coach in the span of three years. The one who wants more Canadian goons and fewer European show-boaters. The one who has parlayed all of this grit into a mini-empire: 18 restaurants, a radio-show carried by 101 stations, endless commercial spots and, of course, the bully-pulpit that is Coach's Corner on Hockey Night in Canada.

Yeah, that Grapes. Turns out he's a big softie. Especially today, surrounded by ghosts of lives long past.

Rather than grab a Kleenex, he waits until the scene is done and ambles up to Sarah Manninen, the actress playing his late wife, Rose Cherry, in Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story.

"That was so terrific," he burbles. "Right at the end there. That was just right. That was just like her. I got tears in my eyes right now just watching that."

Don Cherry has been on the Winnipeg set for a day now, and it's been a haunting experience. All of the bravado that typifies his on-air persona has drained away, the CBC production acting as a Jacob Marley to his Scrooge.

"I feel like I should be dead," he says, sighing into a lawn chair, the summer sun beating down on his black pin-striped suit. "Don't they usually do these kinds of movies about dead people?"

In a way, the movie -- set to air in two parts starting Sunday -- is about a dead man: Cherry as recalcitrant school-boy, Cherry as farm-team bruiser, Cherry as loutish husband who leaves his wife and daughter to starve in a motel room while he drinks with teammates.

"I don't look too good in this," he admits of his coming-of-age portrayal. "That's the kind of guy I was, a selfish guy, a tough guy, I guess."

Cherry started working on the script five years ago with his son Tim, who convinced CBC to sign on, but only if they could have their way with the ending.

"Originally we wanted to concentrate on Dad's minor-league years, ending the story with him making the NHL," said the younger Cherry. "When CBC got the script, they thought him starting Coach's Corner would be a better ending."

That arc, from minor-league goon to the television icon, captures the essence of what makes Grapes tick.

"Really my dad doesn't have an arc," says Tim. "He's the protagonist and the antagonist in every scene."

On the Winnipeg set, he's clearly the protagonist. Crew members approach him asking for autographs or offering food, drink and ample praise.

He greets them all like a doting grandfather: "Oh boy, you're doing great here," "You played that scene just perfect," "You're terrific."

This last comment he makes about Jared Keeso, the actor who plays him.

When he sees Keeso approaching in checkered pants and a high-collared shirt, Cherry rises to shake his hand.

"They tell me you skate better than I did," he says to the younger version of himself.

The two Don Cherrys talk acting and hockey before Keeso returns to work.

"Isn't that somethin'? They got the hair right and everything," the real Don Cherry says, sitting back down. "But geez, I wish I were as good-looking as him."

And that segues into his thoughts about NHL pretty boys.

"I'll tell you what makes you tough," he says, his mood turning quickly from humbled Scrooge to the loud-mouth ex-coach who's been labelled a racist, bigot and troglodyte over the years. "My very first day in the AHL we had no toilets on the bus, we had snow coming through the windows. It was brutal. I hear the guys now, they come on their chartered planes complaining that they didn't get the right dressing on their salad. They don't know what tough is."

As bad as conditions were on the "iron lung" - the players' term for their rickety bus - Cherry loved it. Looking back he relishes telling tales of how a fellow goon nearly bit his finger off in a fight, of when his old AHL coach Eddie Shore once barred players from having sex. The scenes from this era form a love-letter to the rock-'em-sock-'em game as Cherry knew it and the woman who stuck with him through it all.

"It's a hockey story, but it's more a tribute to Rose," he says.

As he sits reminiscing, he pauses as a big brown car rumbles by.

"Wow, that's just like my old Caddy," he says. "And this house they're using, it's just like my old house in North Andover when I was coaching the Bruins. It's all a bit spooky."

Cherry says the defining moment in his life came during a deep funk in the early seventies.

At the age of 36 he had cracked his knuckles over the head of myriad junior-league journeymen, skated with Maurice Richard and played a sum total of one game in the bigs. The game he'd bled for finally had no room for him. Washed-up and penniless, he tried his hand at selling Caddies and banging nails. Neither worked out. "By late 1970 I was going from construction site to construction site begging for jobs," he recalls. "If I lucked out, I'd work eight hours and make 16 dollars. I had no money and no job. That was my lowest point. So I go and ask the Lord for help. I know, I know, people reading this will think I'm an evangelist or a kook or something, but from that moment -- and I know you think I'm nuts right now -- from that moment on everything went straight up. It had to. I was hungry. I would have killed to succeed. When I finally got my chance, nobody was going to take it away."

He soon made a junior-hockey comeback and within three years was coaching the Bruins, the place where Cherry's life as a grinder ended and his life as an icon began.

When the crew starts shooting one of the film's final scenes -- where he first tells Rose that CBC has booted him out of the play-by-play booth and given him a seven-minute segment between periods -- he walks up to the house to watch.

After the first take, he approaches. Keeso and Manninen. "Oh boy, you guys, that was just perfect. That was just real...."

With that, he dabs his eye a little bit. Grapes needs another tissue.

Keep Your Head Up Kid: The Don Cherry Story airs in two parts, on Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV (check local listings).

 

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