On the stump for Rock 'em Sock 'em '27, the most popular sports video franchise in Canadian history, Don Cherry, star of Hockey Night in Canada's Coach's Corner, speaks with a Satellite Hot Stove alumnus, The Globe's Eric Duhatschek.
When I saw you had another Rock 'em Sock 'em coming out, my first thought was, 'Really? People still buy DVDs?'
They're great for Christmas stocking-stuffers. I talk to mothers and they say, 'We put 'em on in the morning and I can cook the turkey, and the kids are in there, watching 'em over and over all day.' They say: 'After a while I get tired of your voice, but they're the greatest babysitters in the world.' It's funny to hear NHL players say they watched them as kids. [Detroit defenceman Niklas] Kronwall said when he was in Sweden, that's how he learned to play hockey – through Rock 'em Sock 'em – and the way he hits, I can believe it.
I went back and watched the first one, from 1989, and it's like watching hockey played in a time warp. The game has changed so much. Is it better, do you think, or worse?
It used to be, four or five guys really had those hard shots; now everybody can shoot. And some of the guys skate a little better – not like Bobby Orr, but overall, the skating's better. But I don't think it's any more entertaining to watch, or if the hockey's any better.
In that first video, you can't help notice how small the goalies are – Mike Vernon, Allan Bester. In one sequence, a shot knocks Darren Pang's mask off and you immediately think 'goodness, Darren Pang once had hair!'
The equipment on the goalies now, it's gotten to the point where it's ridiculous. You look at [Ryan] Miller – he weighs about 165 pounds, but he puts on the equipment and he looks like the blimp guy in the tire commercials. Even going back to Terry Sawchuk, he wore those small pads and he was like a cat in there. Glenn Hall, Billy Smith – they could really move. Tim [Cherry] and I go out and watch major midget games two or three times a week, and the goaltenders are all 6-foot-2 – and they're 15 years old.
Another issue percolating in the game is hitting. How do you preserve the body contact that's an intrinsic part of hockey but address the safety issues that are front-and-centre because of concerns over concussions?
I always say all the time, 'Never turn your back when you go into the corners' – because most of the guys who are really hurt are the kids who get hurt going into the boards. You get a few concussions in centre ice, but usually it's a guy facing the boards and another guy comes in and hits him. I remember [Mark] Messier and it was so true when I played, when you went into the corner, you always had your head on a swivel. You always went in from the side. That's what we preach on Rock 'em Sock 'em all the time – and I think young coaches should do that, too. You're never going to take out open-ice hitting. Hey, it's a physical game. Some guys get hurt in open ice, but be very, very careful along the boards.
Do you then view Coach's Corner as a platform from which you can educate people?
No, I don't. I just say what comes into my mind. I talk like a hockey guy, but when I see what's wrong, I say it. I was very unpopular with a lot of people when it came to that icing thing. I showed 17 guys in a row getting hurt – you don't think there were a lot of people peed off at me for doing that? I had good friends – Pat Peake, Al MacInnis – hurt that way.
I was actually in the building in Hartford when MacInnis got hurt in 1992 – Patrick Poulin jabbed him with his stick, he lost an edge and went crashing into the boards, and dislocated his hip. The only thing that saved MacInnis's career was that a couple of years earlier, Bo Jackson had suffered the same injury playing football – and he never fully recovered. Doctors correctly diagnosed and quickly started treating MacInnis's injury that night – otherwise, his career could have had a completely different outcome.
I went absolutely bananas on Coach's Corner on that – I showed it two weeks in a row. Bert Olmstead … came into the studio and thanked me for doing that. MacInnis did, too – and I was the only one who said anything about the whole thing, the only one.
Well, a few of us said something in newspapers, too, but it's not the same as you railing against it to a national television audience. But it took until the start of the 2013 season to get no-touch icing finally adopted.
I don't think anyone in the league was happy with me about that at the time.
I get why you call your video series Rock 'em Sock 'em – it's become a great brand for you, but it really misrepresents it a little because it's really a season in review, not just fights and hits. Going through that 1989 tape, I was surprised you only showed three fights. I thought there'd been more. Are fights still included?
Rose [Don Cherry's late wife] came up with the name Rock 'em Sock 'em and after the first year, Quality Records backed out and we ended up having to pay $50,000 to use the name – a name we came up with ourselves. I told Tim not to pay it. I said just call it Don Cherry's tape, but he wanted to keep the name. But you're right, when you hear Rock 'em Sock 'em, you think the whole thing is hitting and banging. But I think most people who buy it know that it's more than that. There are more goals and saves than there are hits. We always pick the good hits, but nobody's ever hurt.
I'm assuming you have to pay a licensing fee to use NHL highlights. Do they have any say in the production?
Oh yeah, the NHL, they have control over it. You have to have permission of the NHL.
Do they ever get in the way?
They don't like to see a lot of fights, so we never, ever put in a lot of fights. I think they see we promote the game – we don't have guys getting hurt, laying on the ice. Like you say, the name somehow belies what's on it, but we've still kept the name.
A lot of ex-fighters are having a difficult time when they leave the game, and some of them don't make it. I get that fighting's coming out of the game, but …
I don't know about that. Did you watch last week? I'm watching five games on TV with John Shannon the other night, and in every game there were fights going on. I think there are just as good fighters now. I don't think there's a [Bob] Probert or a [Marty] McSorley, but there are good fighters in this league. What are you asking?
I'm asking, do we want fighting in the game, or do we want to get fighting out of the game?
Well, do you ever see the fans? Do you ever see the players when it's over, banging their sticks? Ever see the guys who fight? Do they ever think they shouldn't fight? Well, that's the price you pay to make $2-million. Nobody talks about the guys who fought a lot and are still doing pretty good.
With my Boston Bruins team, I had 11 guys who scored 20 or more goals, and Terry O'Reilly led the team in scoring and had 200 minutes in penalties. John Wensink, Wayne Cashman – we had about three or four guys like that.
And I never, ever, ever had guys sitting on the bench like mad dogs and throwing them out there. I never believed in that, never. Because when they get out there, they've got to do something. We don't have that anymore – and I'm happy about it.
Speaking of health, how is yours these days?
Well, you can watch on TV. Don't I look great?
Not bad for 81 – though I wasn't sure about that suit you were wearing on Saturday night. You looked like a candy cane, with the red and green stripes. But you were trending on Twitter, that image.
I was? I didn't know that. But I'm over 600,000 on that Twitter. I mean, I don't even know what a Twitter is, to tell you the truth. I phone it in [to producer Kathy Broderick] and she puts it in. And you know why? Because there were about five guys using my name [in fake accounts] and the CBC said, 'We've got to protect ourselves. You need to get your own account.' I don't know anything about that [technical] stuff; I just do what I do and if you don't like it, to heck with you. I thought that even when I didn't have a job. I rolled the dice. I said, I'm … going to be that way; I'm not going to be like the rest of the guys. Fortunately, I had Ralph Mellanby [former Hockey Night In Canada producer] protecting me. I'd be digging ditches now if it wasn't for Ralph Mellanby. He saved my job about 10 times.
This interview has been edited and condensed.