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Cherry was photographed at his daughter's home in Mississauga on September 25, 2010. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Cherry was photographed at his daughter's home in Mississauga on September 25, 2010. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

nhl lockout

Cherry still preaches, but has no pulpit Add to ...

When we track down Don Cherry, he admits he has a few things to say.

Then again, since when is that new?

These days, however, the Hockey Night In Canada icon is lacking an outlet, as with Coach’s Corner mothballed until the end of the NHL lockout, the outspoken broadcaster has no pulpit and no one to preach his often controversial sermons to.

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On this day, Cherry is relaxing patiently in the small basement boardroom of one of Toronto’s largest office towers, drinking his third cup of coffee as a nearby HMV store fills up with his fanatical following for an afternoon autograph signing.

Two months until his 79th birthday, Cherry may seem smaller and frailer under his ostentatious suits, – made at great expense with curtain fabric from the local Fabricland – but his opinions haven’t been scaled down with age.

On the lockout, in particular, he has more than a few words of advice for all involved.

“I think they’re both at fault,” Cherry said, refusing to take either the owners’ or players’ side in the dispute. “And the sad thing is nobody’s going to win. And when it’s over, nobody’s going to be happy with the deal. They’ll both be unhappy with the deal. Which is ridiculous.

“The players, I don’t know who they’re fighting for. Are they fighting for the past, are they fighting for the future or are they fighting for now? Because I know one thing, if I’m around 31 or 32, I’m getting a little nervous.”

One aspect Cherry says he can identify with the players on is the fact that he, too, isn’t earning a paycheque during the lockout.

On a year-to-year contract with CBC, he doesn’t draw a salary when there aren’t games – “MacLean gets paid, but I don’t,” he quips of sidekick Ron MacLean – but points to the out-of-work concession and arena workers as the real victims.

“They’re the ones that really counted on it,” Cherry said.

If you want to get the man known as Grapes worked up, however, bring up the Hall of Fame.

While he had no quibbles with the four forwards (Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Adam Oates and Pavel Bure) who entered as part of the class of 2012, he remains outraged that former coach Pat Burns and Team Canada star Paul Henderson continue to be snubbed.

“Pat Burns – it’s an absolute shame they didn’t do it,” Cherry said. “I’m ashamed they didn’t do it while he was alive. He’s won coach of the year in three different cities, Stanley Cup – there’s nobody that’s done anything more. The players loved him.”

As for keeping busy without any NHL games, that hasn’t been a problem. Cherry attends three midget games a week near his Mississauga home with his son Tim, who works as a scout with OHL Central Scouting, and watches Toronto Marlies and junior hockey on television.

While he calls those midget games his favourite to watch – “there’s no agents” – he also sees a sport with costs spiralling out of control.

“A single mother doesn’t have a chance,” Cherry said. “I’ve seen that. It’s a sad thing. A player’s good, but it’s just too expensive.”

Cherry’s other pastime has, surprisingly, become posting small items on Twitter – a new medium that he has taken to with the help of friend and CBC producer, Kathy Broderick.

During the playoffs last year, the network became concerned there were a handful of Cherry imitators out there and wanted to counteract that by putting out their own account.

“They said ‘we’ve got to protect ourselves,’” Cherry explained. “‘So we want you in the playoffs to start a Twitter.’ And I was, ‘Come on, are you kidding?’ I thought Twitter was for birds to tell you the truth.”

Now, whenever Cherry feels a tweet coming on – as he did earlier this week when he posted battling a swarm of bees at his home – he picks up the phone and dictates to her.

(“I don’t do the iPods and all that stuff,” he later helpfully explains. “I have no idea.”)

The results end up on his @CoachsCornerCBC account soon after that – although he never checks what people are saying back to him.

“Somebody told me it’s over 90,000 [followers] now,” Cherry said. “I’m sure there are some negative things, but I don’t need that. I just do it. And I really have come to enjoy it, which I never thought. I kind of got into it. I say different things now…

“I know I had some stuff that kind of upset a lot of people with the lockout. I can’t remember what it was.”

Despite approaching octogenarian status, Cherry isn’t thinking about retirement. While he will scale some things back, such as the number of banquets he attends, he intends to be back on Coach’s Corner for as many more years as they’ll have him.

Until the NHL returns, meanwhile, he has his midget games, a 100-gallon goldfish tank, his dog (Blue No.4) and, parked in front of a big-screen TV, a nearly 50-year-old chair that he plans to spend fewer nights in if and when he goes back out on the road with MacLean and Co.

“Once you slow down, as Satchel Paige says, somebody’s catching up on you,” Cherry said. “So I just keep going the same. ... Maybe just being busy all the time keeps me going.”

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