Hockey Night in Canada icon Don Cherry met with The Globe and Mail’s James Mirtle in a small boardroom under a Toronto office tower earlier this week to discuss the lockout, Twitter, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the rising cost of minor hockey and whether or not he’s slowing down with his 80th birthday not that far away.
Here are the highlights of their conversation:
JM: First of all, what did you think of the Hall of Fame class this week, Don? You’ve been pretty outspoken about some of the selections in the past.
DC: I think this is the first time in a long time that I’ve agreed with every one. You can’t argue with any of them. Sometimes you get some guy and it’s oh how did he get in?
Nobody can disagree with the guys that they put in there now. They’re 100 per cent.
JM: Are there still a few people who you want to see in there who don’t seem to make it?
DC: Pat Burns, it’s an absolute shame they didn’t do it. 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.
The other one is Paul Henderson. Because he had the most important goal [in the ’72 Summit Series] and all that.
Another one that I think should get it, but he’ll never get it because he’s like me, he’s a right winger and he causes [trouble], is Dale Hunter. This guy, the record he’s got and the way he’s done it? You could even do it [induct him] as a builder!
But I asked him, do you think you’ll ever get in, and he said no. I said how come? He said I’m not their kind. That’s why he’s not getting in. That’s why Dino Ciccarelli had such a tough time - here’s a guy with 2,000 goals almost. He had a tough time and paid his dues because of the stick swinging and all of that.
JM: So you feel you won’t get in because you’re an outsider?
DC: Oh yeah! I’m like Dale. I’m not their type. But that’s okay, I’m fine. Honestly, I swear to God, you got to believe it, it doesn’t bother me at all. I know it bothers somebody. A lot of people. In fact stuff was in the Sun today.
Guys like me never get that stuff. You got to tow the line pretty good and I don’t toe the line.
JM: I believe I saw you were just on Twitter (@CoachsCornerCBC), talking about being stung by bees in your backyard. Seems like you’ve been more active lately, too, during the lockout. What do you think of Twitter?
DC: Well, nobody knows why I’m on Twitter. But what happened was, about five guys had my name out there, using my name as Twitter. So, CBC, they said we’ve got to protect ourselves. 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.
They said, we’ve got to do it to protect you. Because these guys say something and people think you said it. So I started and I had a friend [help]. Kathy Broderick, she runs CBC as far as I’m concerned. She helps me on Coach’s Corner.
So what I do is I phone in if I see something that bothers me. She takes care of it. She does the typing and all of that because I couldn’t do all that. I did one with Dallas Eakins [in it] over Kadri and he said ‘he probably has somebody type it for him.’ Pretty true! It was a shot. Yeah, it was a good one.
JM: Do you ever read what fans are writing back to you there?
DC: Somebody told me it’s over 90,000 [followers] now. No, I just do it. 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.
JM: So I’ll have to ask you about the lockout...
DC: Well, that’s one that nobody wins. I don’t get paid. [Ron] MacLean gets paid, but I don’t get paid. A lot of people are like me. People that work around the building, in confectioneries and serve the beer, they’re the ones that really counted on it.
And I feel sorry for the players, for instance, some of the older players, 31 or 32, on the last year of their contract, they probably won’t be back. There will be 200 players that won’t be back. It’s tough to lose that money - it really is. It’s okay for the guys like Crosby making $10-million and that but these other guys are making $800,000 and they’re going to lose it and they’ve got mortgages and everything.
The fans think millionaires fighting billionaires - well that’s not true. There’s a lot of guys out there, fourth liners and sixth defencemen, making four or five hundred thousand - which is a lot of money, but don’t forget the lifespan [of a player] is only four or five years. So it’s not like making $800,000 forever. They’re the guys that are going to take it in the ear.
JM: Do you take a side on the lockout?
DC: I can see both sides, I really can. I hate to be a fence guy, but you got the owners, they did this, the last one they signed, they gave them 57 per cent.
And I can see the owners’ side, too. They say ‘hold it, we lived with 43 per cent, every other sport has 50 per cent. And you got this?’
The players, I feel sorry for guys like [Jarome] Iginla and stuff like that. He loses $7-million. It’s tough. Money never to get back. It’s gone. So I think they’re both at fault. 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.
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.
JM: Do you think there’s going to be a season?
DC: If it’s not done by three quarters of the way through December, I think it’s over. It has to be done by then. You could play a 42-game schedule - I wouldn’t mind that. As long as they don’t try to cram them in because you get a lot of injuries.
JM: You mentioned on Twitter people ask you all the time how do you keep busy during the lockout and you said you’re busier than ever. What’s the answer to what you’re up to?
DC: My son [OHL central scout Tim Cherry] was out last night, we were watching minor midget, which we do three times a week. It starts at 9:30 and over at 11. I get my hockey fix that way and I always have. I love minor midget hockey better than any hockey.
Then on TV I watch Marlies and the juniors and that, too. People think you’re not working Saturday, we better get him to do something, but I get more requests to do stuff now than before. I’ve got to stop, I’m doing too much. I’ve got too much on my plate.
JM: Why major midget? Seems an odd choice.
DC: They haven’t been spoiled. There’s no agents. Well, they’re just starting to get agents. They give everything. Nobody floats. And the referees are really good. You never see any fights - good to put this in - I think I’ve seen one in two years. No parents screaming and hollering. I hear about bad parents.
It is too expensive though. I know one father spent $5,000 on sticks. Ridiculous, eh? And you have to do it... his centreman’s got a $300 stick. What is he going to play with? Wood?
But that’s my favourite hockey to watch.
JM: It’s interesting you bring up the cost to play - that’s obviously something that’s changed over time. You talk to people who work in Major Junior, and they say more and more the kids there are from wealthier backgrounds. The demographics of hockey are changing.
DC: It’s true. Upper middle class or middle class. The middle class is still in there. But a single mother doesn’t have a chance. I’ve seen that. It’s a sad thing. A player’s good, but it’s just too expensive.
Not only do they pay $5,000 for sticks, equipment, $10,000 [fees] to get in, they’ve got to pay $6 to get in [to the rink] themselves. The players do! That’s ridiculous. It’s the most expensive sport in the world to play, there’s no doubt.
JM: Is there a way to fix that?
DC: No. I don’t see any fix. I wish Hockey Canada, somebody would help out. Down in the States they help out. The government doesn’t help out as usual. I would like to see Hockey Canada with all the money they make on the junior somehow help out. But they won’t.
JM: You obviously pride yourself on being a blue collar guy - does it bother you that hockey’s becoming a wealthy person’s sport?
DC: Well it really bothers me when I see a guy that’s working in a factory and he’s got to spend all that money and the travel and the whole deal. It really bothers me. I talk about it all the time, but I don’t know how you fix it.
There’s another reason, too... Now you’re either in it 100 per cent, totally dedicated to hockey, or you’re not. You can’t have like baseball and football and soccer... you’ve got to get up five in the morning, freeze, $300 stick and pay a ton. Every kid that’s in hockey and their parents is totally dedicated. That’s the only good thing about it. But it is too expensive.
JM: Right now you’ve been promoting the 24th edition of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em all around the city – is it a bit shocking that it’s been 24 years?
DC: Oh yeah. We never dreamed. We thought we’d do one. A guy in Winnipeg with Quality Records did it and we figured we’d do one. Then we did two. Well we’ll try another one. I can’t believe it now. But we keep the price as the same as it’s been since the start. Never over $20. It’s a good Christmas stuffer for the kids.
It’s pretty funny when the mothers tell me all the time that ‘you’re the best babysitter. We just put you on and I get the turkey ready. But by the end of the day I’m pretty sick of your voice.’
Jamie, the girl that’s in charge here, says she’s been watching them since she was three! I remember the first time someone said that, they were around 35, and I thought wait a minute. Jeez, I guess so.
JM: What’s next for you? Will you stay with Hockey Night in Canada as long as you can?
DC: I get asked that all the time. I just go along and do it. I have fun and if they want me back next year, I’ll do it. And I’m sure they will. And I have fun at it. It’s not like [operating] a jackhammer.
The only time it’s really, really tough is in the playoffs. You go every other night for two months. That’s a tough grind. Then we get on the road and I’ve got about four suits to carry. It’s tough. Tough business. But I have fun. But I’ve been doing it so long, I can’t see myself not doing it.
If something happens, you know, I get fired... I’ve been close to being fired many times. Many times. When I tick them off they say, ‘Don this is your last year.’ I say ‘we’ll see.’ That really pisses them off.
I’ve been told a couple times this is your last year. And they’re gone by the way. The ones who told me.
JM: Do you think about slowing down at all?
DC: No! I’m not slowing down. I did the book, I did the Rock ‘em Sock ‘em, I did the Grapeline show... Once you slow down, as Satchel Paige says, somebody’s catching up on you. So I just keep going the same. I’m not going to do as many banquets. I’ve got to stop doing banquets.
You know why I have to stop? Because if there are 700 people there, every one wants an autograph. I’m sitting there the whole time. Once I get caught into it, I’m done.
JM: It’s the same sort of question, but do you ever think about retirement?
DC: No, I never do. Like I said, if I was on the jackhammer, like I used to be all the time, I’d think of retirement then. But it is a lot of pressure. Like today I’ll go out [for an autograph signing] and you’ve got to be nice to everybody. I try to treat everybody as if it was my daughter and be nice as much as I can...
I went about 22 years and nobody knew I was alive when I played. I get a kick out of it. Fortunately for me. And everybody’s nice. I think because I’m so aggressive [on TV] that people don’t say anything to me.
JM: So you’ll be 79 in February here and 80 isn’t far behind. Is there a big party coming?
DC: No, I don’t even think about it. I did a radio show this morning and the guy asked me how old I am. Everybody asks that.
Funny thing is though, I always used to when I was young see guys that were old. But I remember my Dad saying ‘as you are now, so is he, as he is now, so should you be.’
[This is a variation on the well known saying: “As you are now,so once was I. As I am now,so you must be.”]
Sometimes I’m with somebody and they say ‘geez he’s an old guy, he’s 72. He’s already in his 70s.’ I’m sitting there. Pretty funny. The guy doesn’t even think what he’s saying.
As long as it’s fun. I’m very, very fortunate that I have a wife [Luba] that really looks after me. Because if I didn’t, I’ve got so many things going, I would get lost.
I don’t have a cell phone and I don’t do the iPods and all that stuff. I have no idea. MacLean does. He’s good.
[My wife] does all that [organizing] for me. If I didn’t have a good partner, I’d have to retire. But I just show up and do it. She’s got it all mapped out what I have to do.
JM: What don’t people know about Don Cherry?
DC: I’ll tell you a funny thing - we live in a little wee house in Mississauga. And when the kids come for Hallowe’en, I think it’s so cute. The kids, they know me and think I’m rich, they say ‘hey Don Cherry, you live here?!’ A lot of them don’t know I’m right there.
I’ve stayed in the same area. My son lives right across the street from me. And so does my daughter. We have a little compound there. So we see them all the time.
JM: Do you still have a dog? I mentioned to a few friends we were chatting today and they wanted to know about Blue.
DC: Still have him. No. 4, I think. He’s about three now. I lost my love of my life about three years ago and life hasn’t been the same since.
JM: Here’s one Mrs. Mirtle wanted me to ask you: What do you put on your face to make your skin look so good?
DC: It’s funny you say that! I use cocoa butter. I started it when I was playing; I had a lot of cuts. I have about 200, 300 cuts [on my face]. A guy named Andy Branigan [from his minor league team in Hershey] says get a little cocoa butter.
It was Hershey, too, so they had them. Get it and rub it on all your scars and they’ll go away eventually. But you’ve got to keep it moist. And take the stitches out early. So I thought that was good.
So every day, I use cocoa butter on my face all the time. When they’re putting makeup on [for Coach’s Corner], they say ‘have you ever got nice skin.’ So there’s a tip for all the women. Put cocoa butter on. It covers up your scars, too.
You can get it at Shoppers Drug Mart. It’s called Palmers. Put a little squeeze on before I go to bed at night. It really softens your skin.
The guys who are working on the jackhammer now are saying ‘he’s gone a little funny!’ I didn’t tell anybody that, but you asked, so I told you.
JM: Here’s another one: I’m curious - did you ever try to play beer league hockey after you retired in 1972?
DC: No, I couldn’t. I never did. Well, I tried when I was in Colorado [as a coach]. I was one of those guys, when I played, I couldn’t let a guy go around me. But when you play old-timers, you’ve got to let a guy go around you. I couldn’t stand it. I played so long. To have a guy go around me, even playing old-time, was an insult. I had to stop.
I was getting too chippy with the other players. I had to stop. I played long enough. Sixteen years. I was a pretty good skater after and I played forward. But I didn’t enjoy it. So I said I’m going to get out of it.
JM: Pavel Bure said the other night he didn’t really miss it when he left, which surprised some of us.
DC: Well he had a lot of injuries. He had to quit. I actually missed it. I really missed it. When I quit, a lot of people say ‘walk away,’ but I remember Rochester [when he was forced out of the AHL] was like a knife in my heart watching the news that night.
And I had no injuries. The lord works in mysterious ways. Nothing that followed me as I go.
I’ve got all my teeth. Sure, I broke a shoulder and broke an ankle and stuff like that. But I’m okay. I was the hitter, not the hittee.
JM: You’d even think just standing in front of the net without a helmet would be a dangerous way to make a living back then.
DC: Well I’ve got a lot of scars. [He points out the various spots on his lip and chin where he was stitched up.] The guy sowed them up while I sat in the dressing room. No novocaine or anything back in those days. The difference now from back then is we’d never show pain.
We were like baseball players; you know how they’ll get hit by a ball and they’ll go to first and they’ll never rub it? We were the same way.
Not now. They flop around and squeeze the blood a little bit and let on they’re hurt. We’re almost getting like soccer players some of them.
Back in those days you’d have a broken hand or broken ankle skate off the ice because they wouldn’t show pain. Back in those days it was tough.
In the American League, the guys were fighting to get up and fighting going down. I stayed right in the middle. I never went up and I never went down. It was a tough go. Buses. Three games in three nights. Get in there at six, play that night, leave after the game. That’s why I have to laugh now at the guys. Charter planes. Their biggest decision is steak or fish.
My wife, we moved 53 times. My Rose. She never complained once. Fifty-three times. She went with me all the time... It was a tough go. I remember when we were packing, she’d have a cardboard box with a half a bottle of ketchup, salt and pepper and stuff, because we couldn’t afford to start all over again [by buying new condiments in another city]. That’s life.
I think over the years, it really toughened me. So many bad things happened to me. Like I mean bad things. You couldn’t hurt me anymore. I’d get bad write-ups in the paper - it doesn’t hurt me anymore.
I remember my first write-up though, it was a guy named Trent Frayne. I think it was The Globe. He gave me my first bad write-up. And I didn’t know how to take it because I was just starting out in TV and I didn’t know if I was going to go back on or not. Then I got another bad write-up, then another bad write-up and after a while, it doesn’t bother you. But I do get some bad write-ups. I didn’t think I was that bad.
What happened in my life, you have to be tough. Tough physically and mentally. Or you’ll never survive. Same as coaching. Over the years, I got tough.
JM: It still seems like that for the coaches in the league. The stress.
DC: It is tough. I mean, you’re the guy. No matter what happens. When the guy jumped on in ’79 and cost us the Stanley Cup, that was my fault. It wasn’t really my fault.
When you get too many men on the ice, on TV, Hockey Night in Canada, they’re going right to the coach. It’s his fault. [Sarcastically] Yeah I told him to jump on and the whole deal. But that’s the nature of the game.
So I went from player, which I love, to coaching, which I love, and TV. But the player is the best. Being a player’s the best.
JM: Do all those questions about your age bother you?
DC: You know, I talk to a lot of guys. I talked to one outside the church the other day, I’d say he’s about 65, 70. He said ‘I guess you’re unemployed now.’ I said, ‘yeah but I keep busy and everything.’ He says, ‘you know, that’s why you kind of keep young, because you keep busy.’ He said, ‘me, I get up in the morning, I’ve got nothing to do after working all my life.’
Maybe just being busy all the time keeps me going.