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Hockey Cherry still happy on ‘Coach’s Corner’ but sees less of Ron MacLean these days

Don Cherry, left, and Ron MacLean.

At 80, Don Cherry still hasn't run out of stories, as his new book Straight Up & Personal shows. But he doesn't get to share them with Ron MacLean as much these days.

The two are spending less time together, with MacLean busy with his Hometown Hockey duties.

In his book, subtitled The World According to Grapes, Cherry fondly reminisces about their road trips and "bucket of beer, six apiece, on ice" after Hockey Night in Canada sessions.

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"When things went wrong on the set of 'Hockey Night in Canada,' and it happens a lot, when I would be in a tantrum, Ron would hold up six fingers, meaning six cold ones waiting in the (hotel) room, and I would say, 'You're right' and calm down," Cherry writes.

Popcorn for MacLean, peanuts for Cherry, a game on the TV and a chin wag. "Sometimes heated, mostly fun times."

Such social time is at a premium now.

"We do Coach's Corner and then he's gone," Cherry said in a recent interview. "So it has changed, I must admit.

"Before we used to sit together and watch every game ... every Saturday we'd sit together for three hours. Sometimes now we don't sit together for two minutes," he added.

Traditionally the two have shared Saturday nights and the playoffs together.

"We don't know what we're going to do in the playoffs this year," Cherry said. "But in the playoffs, we're together from April 8 until June 19 every other day. You do get close, you can't help but get close."

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Otherwise, Cherry says not much has changed under the new Rogers broadcast regime although he doesn't see the other fellow hockey analysts because they are on a separate set.

"It's not quite the same because we were all together there before. But I have to admit they've never told me what to do. I don't think they quite understand me quite the same but they're never come and said 'You can't do this, you can't do that.'

"I had a problem with them at the start about the time, as you saw ... They were a little upset over that."

It's Cherry's fourth book, but first that he has written alone. Grapes: A Vintage View of Hockey, was written with Stan Fischler while he collaborated with Al Strachan on Don Cherry's Hockey Stories and Stuff and Don Cherry's Hockey Stories, Part II.

Cherry wrote this one longhand, often in the middle of the night, starting last fall. An irregular sleeper, he would find himself up at 3:30 in the morning and start writing.

"I had a grand time doing it," he said.

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Straight Up & Personal covers a lot of ground, including a painful gout-ridden expedition to Afghanistan (he credits comedian Jimmy Mac for getting him through it) and his stint in Sochi, which left him praising the Russians.

It opens with a near-death experience two years ago in the St. Lawrence River when Cherry had to be rescued after his canoe tipped over.

"I often wake up at night thinking of that water pouring into the canoe," said Cherry, who says he will never go on the water again without a life jacket.

It also lays out Cherry's peripatetic minor-league career with special attention on his time under Eddie Shore in the American Hockey League's Springfield — "the Alcatraz of Hockey."

Years later, Brian Kilrea told Cherry's daughter Cindy what Shore had said when he was asked about the animosity.

"Cherry never said a word back, but that look of insolence on his face said it all," said Kilrea, quoting Shore.

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Cherry paid dearly for that expression. He says he was singled out and harassed on and off the ice, calling his time in Springfield "torture."

"I went from Lord Fauntleroy and left, I think, as Attila the Hun," he said. "I really toughed up in those three years. I found out the world is very cruel.

"And I had an attitude for almost the rest of my life after that — you're not going to get me. I walked in there as a babe in the woods. It taught me what life is really about. You've got to be tough."

Viewers may not know that Cherry spent time in camp with the Leafs. "As a minor leaguer, we were treated terrible in Toronto," he recalled. "Really bad."

Cherry also relates how he got his start in coaching. Retired from playing, he worked construction for two years until he was laid off. A friend, Bob Clarke, asked him to coach a high school team in Rochester.

He didn't want to do it, but accepted after realizing he had nothing else to do.

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"That's where I learned to change lines," he said.

That eventually led to a coaching job with the Rochester Americans, where Clarke was a co-owner, and Cherry was on his way.

Cherry remains a Canadian icon, with a 1993 Ford F-150 pickup and a 1983 Lincoln in his modest garage. Today he cannot walk through an airport without being stopped for pictures and autographs.

But he remembers when times were tough. Once asked what his greatest fear was, he replied unemployment.

"The feeling when you're unemployed, you think everybody's against you. You start thinking that you're less than a man because everybody else is working ... Dark clouds come into your mind when you can't get a job, I tell you.

"I often wonder, boy, how lucky I was. "

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Cherry says he had fun writing this book but it will be his last.

"I like to leave it having a lot of fun. That's the big thing. It's like Coach's Corner. As soon as Coach's Corner is not a lot of fun, then I won't do it."

So far so good, on that score.

"They leave me alone and that's why it's fun," he said. "As soon as people start telling me what to do and stuff like that, then it won't be fun."

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