Don Cherry refuses to be predictable

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

Most of today's sports personalities have canned, politically correct views to offer in interviews.

A few will venture an opinion that is cause to intense debate.

And then there Is the guy in the loud, green jacket, matching tie and high-collared white shirt who is approaching me in the lobby of an airport hotel in Toronto and asking me the first question:

"Do you like my 1988, shiny black Jaguar? Of course, you do, because you know I love antique cars."

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I am talking about Don Cherry, the dean of Hockey Night in Canada and probably the most popular television personality, sports or otherwise, in Canada.

And if anyone has any doubts about that, the three waitresses in the breakfast room of the hotel proved it. One ran for a camera and the other two were vying for position to be the first to have her picture taken with Grapes.

In the end, all three -- oblivious to the needs of all the other patrons -- handed the camera to each other and made certain that all three had their picture taken with Cherry.

I have known Grapes for more than four decades. In fact, he was the one who reminded me of an incident in Peterborough involving the great Punch Imlach, when he was the Maple Leafs' general manager and head coach.

"Don't you remember when Punch, wearing his white fedora, ran down from the stands from where he watched the practice, and yelled at his assistants: 'Get that five-cent defenceman --meaning me -- off the ice before he kills my million-dollar winger,' meaning Ronnie Ellis. He didn't think much of my talents in the NHL, although he was very sympathetic towards me.

"In fact, once, when I played in Springfield for Eddie Shore -- that's like being banished to Devil's Island -- I got suspended for something. The team played that evening and Punch showed up to scout some of the players. He found out I had been suspended and was standing amongst the fans. He came down looking for me and the fans wondered who he was looking for. When he found me, he shook my hand and said: 'How is Rose (Cherry's late wife)? Don't worry, it will all work out for you and for her.' It really made me feel good."

Controversy has followed Cherry all the way into the television booth. Last year, when it appeared the CBC might not renew his contract, thousands of e-mails and phone calls made the network brass aware that Grapes was indeed a valuable commodity when it came to the ratings.

Even early in his contract with Hockey Night in Canada, the brass objected to his language and asked Ralph Mellanby, then executive producer of HNIC to drop him. Mellanby, who discovered Cherry, told his bosses: 'If you want to drop him, you might as well drop me.'

The CBC brass retreated that time, as well.

And if it hadn't, the late Harold Ballard would have gotten into the act, too. He told the CBC: 'If you fire Cherry, don't bother setting up for Saturday's broadcast at Maple Leaf Gardens."

Today, at 72, Don Cherry is looking forward to the season's first installment of Coach's Corner.

As he says: "I'm as excited doing (this year's) Coach's Corner as I was the very first year. You know, when I played, or later when I coached, I had a special routine. I had a late breakfast, a steak at noon, a nap in the afternoon and three cups of coffee when I woke up. I'm doing the same for Coach's Corner. Just one thing: Don't phone me on game day!"

Grapes is a proud and outspoken Canadian. He would always tell me: "If I get fired, I'll get fired for what I do, not for what somebody tells me to say. I admit that, at times, I might push the envelope too far, but that is how I am.

"One year Ron Harrison, Ron Simpson and a CBC executive told me I couldn't go on the same way every year. Then Mellanby called me in and, when I asked him what I should be saying, he laughed and said I should carry on the way I have."

Cherry's only beef is with the selectors of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He can't understand how Dino Ciccarelli and former Leafs defenceman Flash Hollett haven't yet made it in.

"Dino scored 608 goals and Flash was the last defenceman to score 20 goals before Bobby Orr, the greatest hockey player who ever lived. You know Flash was in an old folks home before he passed away and Dickie Duff visited him every week."

I share Cherry's opinion of Orr being the greatest hockey player in history, even though I respect Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Red Kelly and Mario Lemieux as marvelous hockey players. But none of them changed the picture of the game the way Orr did when he introduced the offensive style for defencemen.

Speaking of new styles, I was interested in Cherry's opinion about the post-lockout NHL.

"Everybody is in love with the new NHL hockey," Cherry said. "I'm sure that love affair will not only continue, but may intensify. If I was still coaching, I would practise only special assignments -- killing penalties and setting up power-plays. That is all that is needed."

Would getting back into coaching be his biggest thrill?

"No, my biggest thrill is to go out with my son, Tim, on cold wintry evenings, to watch the 13- and 14-year-olds in the GTA start their hockey careers. That really warms my heart and I can observe Tim rating the young players for Central Scouting.

Grapes, of course, keeps notes for himself, just in case a couple of the youngsters make it to the NHL and need to be analyzed on Coach's Corner -- a place where his views are his own, regardless of the effect.

GROSSLY ABBREVIATED

Former Leafs greats Duff, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon and some of the 137 other St. Michael's alumni, will be on hand to participate in the school's 100-year celebrations ... Toronto's Evelyn Koop, founder of rhythmic gymnastics in Canada, is still on Cloud 9 for Emily Livingstone and her Kalev Estienne group of 11- and 12-year-olds, who won gold medals at the recent Pan-American championships at Seneca College. The team will represent Canada at the World Cup in Finland next week ... Sepp Blatter, the controversial boss of world soccer, will be in town a couple of times before next year's under-20 world championship in Toronto's new soccer stadium ... The draw for Sunday's $1-million Woodbine Mile will be held on Thursday at Woodbine.


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