During my 65 years in the newspaper business, I talked face-to-face with Donald S. Cherry only once.
That was more than enough.
It was a November evening in 1972, about an hour before an American Hockey League game at the Halifax Forum between the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and Rochester Americans.
I had been appointed sports editor of The Chronicle Herald just a week earlier. It was only my second Vees contest in that capacity, but I’d attend AHL games in Halifax on a regular basis for the next 21 years.
The players from both teams were getting into uniform when I walked over to the vicinity of the Rochester dressing room. I spotted the visiting team’s coach standing alone and thought it was a good opportunity to introduce myself.
I recognized the 38-year-old Cherry from old photographs in The Hockey News. He was not yet an NHL coach, not yet a familiar face to hockey fans across the continent. He was beginning his first full season as Rochester’s bench boss.
His NHL playing career amounted to one playoff game with the Boston Bruins 18 years earlier. As far as I knew, he wasn’t on any hockey card at that stage. His playing days in the minor pro leagues totalled 1,112 games. He would get the Boston coaching job two years later.
So a brand new sports editor walked confidently over to say hello. I noticed a bit of a scowl on his face when I extended my hand.
It wasn’t much of an introduction.
I’m sure Cherry had forgotten about it — and me — before I went to the Forum office to chat with Voyageurs coach Al MacNeil. No introduction was needed there. I had known the likable Cape Bretoner for 15 years. He was happy to hear about my appointment.
What do I recall about the Donald S. Cherry I confronted that evening? Our conversation couldn’t have been shorter.
“Hello, Don, I’m Hugh Townsend, the sports editor of….”
That’s as much as I got out before he snapped back, “What do you want? Don’t you see I’m busy?”
That was it.
I don’t think his response took more than five seconds at best. With that, he abruptly turned 180 degrees and disappeared into the dressing room.
I didn’t attempt to see him again.
In fact, in the 47 years since that incident, I only saw him once more in person. It was during his time with the Bruins and he was in the press box high above the ice at the Forum. I didn’t bother to introduce myself again, didn’t bother to say anything. But I could hear him a few chairs away.
Don’t misinterpret what happened in 1972.
My “confrontation” had no effect on my feelings about Cherry. I watched him on Coach’s Corner hundreds of Saturday nights — even though I disagreed with him more often than not.
It was about a decade after our non-conversation that Donald S. Cherry — as his TV sidekick Ron MacLean always called him — began his four-decade assignment on Hockey Night in Canada.
Many times, I tried to downplay Cherry’s outbursts. Many times, I attempted to ignore his outlandish sports jackets. Many times, I wondered how MacLean could just sit there and let him rant.
Like everyone else, I listened as he talked about the Bruins as though they were the greatest hockey franchise in the universe during his tenure as their coach, as though there had been Stanley Cup victories under him.
Personal feelings aside, I don’t hesitate to say that Cherry became a huge success. He became an icon. He was recognized just as easily as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and the other giants of the sport.
Like hockey fans from Newfoundland to British Columbia, I listened to him Saturday night after Saturday night, season after season, decade after decade. He survived where most wouldn’t. He hung around like a worn-out politician.
Slowly, I grew tired of him.
In recent years, I didn’t want to listen anymore as he addressed us as “you kids out there.”
A couple of years ago, I began a new approach. Each Saturday night, as the first period ended — when we knew what would happen next — I left my comfortable pew and took the dogs for a speed walk outside. I’d be back just as the second period was starting.
For some unknown reason, however, I didn’t take that intermission walk two weekends ago, two nights before Remembrance Day. Something kept me in my La-Z-Boy. And I swear, I had no idea the 85-year-old would be making his final appearance with Ron.
So there I was, listening as his disgraceful words about poppies slapped us in the face. Initially, I thought I must have misheard what he said.
“You people,” he lectured, “you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey; at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.”
I nearly choked on a timbit.
Two days later — on the very day we were remembering the men and women who made the great sacrifice — the bosses at Sportsnet made a decision.
By then, many of his colleagues, many of his supporters, had separated themselves from Cherry’s remarks. Even MacLean apologized.
Sportsnet’s sentence was handed down — shocking the hockey world. Yes, Donald S. Cherry was shown the door.
From what’s been heard, he could have saved himself if he had uttered an apology. But Don Cherry doesn’t apologize. He walked away.
Only weeks after my favourite Sportsnet anchor, Bob McCown, was taken from our screens by a network shakeup, it was proven that even Cherry was not indispensable.
It reminded me of those few seconds Don and I had almost half a century ago.