The first time he was paid to be on television was during the 1980 Stanley Cup playoffs. He had been fired following the regular season after a one-year run as coach of the now-defunct Colorado Rockies. His mouth had hastened his dismissal, an acrimonious ending. A year earlier he had resigned as coach of the Boston Bruins, another acrimonious ending, another problem with his mouth. He wasn't really looking for a job, but when the Canadian Broadcasting Company, the producers of Hockey Night in Canada, offered $1,500 a shot, plus expenses, he took a chance. Why not? He might as well make some money with his mouth instead of losing it because of his mouth.
He was on his way. His champion was Ralph Mellanby, then the executive producer of Hockey Night. Mellanby liked the way Cherry filled out a television screen, the way he talked in blunt terms, naming likes and dislikes, naming names. Cherry was different. He was a guy from the corner stool at the neighborhood bar, from the back room at the firehouse. His bad grammar was a plus, not a minus. His passion was a definite plus. He was people.
"I met him when he was in his last year as coach of the Bruins," Mellanby says. "That was when I first started thinking about him for TV. The Bruins were playing the Canadiens in the semifinals. He was coaching, and I was producing the games. After the second game he came up to me all mad. There had been a fight. Stan Jonathan of Boston had beaten up someone from Montreal. Cherry had seen a tape of the game and saw that we hadn't replayed the fight. He wanted to know if it was because a Bruin had won the fight. I told him it was our practice; we didn't replay fights. The Boston station did, but our policy was not to replay fights, to hold down the violence.
"During the fourth game there was another fight. This was at the Montreal Forum. Mario Tremblay won the fight. He beat up someone from the Bruins. We're doing the game from this little production room at the Forum, and suddenly we can see on one of the monitors that Cherry isn't behind the bench anymore. Where'd he go? This looks like it might be a story. Suddenly he's in the production room. In the middle of a Stanley Cup game. He's talking to me, telling me that we'd better not replay this fight either. He was worried because a Montreal guy had won. I remember thinking. The middle of a game. This guy is interesting."
The truth was that he always had been interesting, always had been flamboyant, wearing the flashy clothes and speaking his mind, but until he coached the Bruins, no one had noticed very much. He was a minor league guy, condemned to the back roads of hockey for most of his life. The logbook of former Montreal general manager Sam Pollock, tilled with notations on every player ever under contract to the Canadiens, even listed him that way: "Confirmed minor-leaguer."
As a slug-it-out defenseman and high school dropout from Kingston, Ont., he played 16 years in the minors. He played in just about all the way stations to the top. His career ran from 1954 to '72. This was the era of the old NHL: six teams. 120 players, everyone else locked into the netherworld at the bottom. The money in the minors was short, maybe $4,500 a year, the conditions awful. Cherry played in Hershey and Springfield and Sherbrooke and Spokane and Jacksonville and a long list of other places. He estimates now that he and Rose moved 53 times in the first 26 years of their marriage. For most of the time, they kept their possessions to a minimum. Unplug the stereo. Unplug the television. Put them in the backseat of the car next to Don's clothes. Gone. Don't mess up the clothes.
He played one game, total, in the NHL. It was a playoff game. He played for Boston, actually getting on the ice for a few minutes against the Canadiens in 1955. He thought then that he would be in the NHL forever. Alas, he separated a shoulder during the off-season, playing baseball, and never was in the big league again. His talent wasn't the greatest—and his mouth never helped.
"I guess I always had something to say." Cherry says. "I remember one time I was with Montreal in its camp. I was dressing with all of those great players. Jean Beliveau. Boom Boom Geoffrion. All of them. All the guys were complaining about the cab ride to the practice rink in Verdun. The club was picking up the cab fare, but the guys had to provide the tips. That was 50 cents each way, a buck round-trip. Everybody was complaining. Toe Blake, the coach, came in the locker room one day. Toe Blake won all those Stanley Cups. He asks if everything is all right. Not a word. I get up, a nobody. 'Well, Mr. Blake, all the guys have been wondering about the cabs...." I was gone the next day."
He retired after the 1968-69 season, but two years later he started working out again and tried playing for one last season with the Rochester (N.Y.) Americans. Midway through the season an amazing thing happened. Doug Adam, the Americans' coach, resigned. Cherry was named as Adam's replacement. Three years later he was in Boston, coaching Bobby Orr.
Rose remembers thinking. How can we go to Boston? We're confirmed minor leaguers. I'm going to be sitting next to Bobby Orr's wife? I have nothing to wear. Don didn't have that problem. He always had the good wardrobe. Now he finally had a proper place to wear it.