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Don Cherry: A Canadian Original

Canada is no longer my home, but it is still my native land, and every so often I should celebrate an aspect of the true north strong and free. My beef with the place is that it far too often sees itself in the shadow of its neighbor to the south; a great many Canadians lack the confidence to do things as they think they should be done, which, when you think of it, is the soul of originality. For them, the extent of Canadian culture can be summarized in the phrase, “We are not American.”

And then there is Don Cherry, Hockey Night in Canada’s second period commentator, former coach of Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins and the Colorado Avalanche, longtime minor leaguer (one game only in the NHL), astoundingly flamboyant dresser, frequent kisser on the cheek of pro athletes (“Look at him, isn’t he beautiful!”), all-round tough guy and fearless teller of the truth. According to the NYT, more people tune in to his between-periods analysis on Saturday night than watch the game itself.

But Don Cherry’s popularity is not my point here. We should celebrate soon-to-be-80-year-old Cherry while he is in his prime because he continues to break all of the rules of sports broadcasting. Of course, I expect that Don would assert that you have to know the rules in order to break them, and he doesn’t care to know the rules; he just does what makes sense to him at the time. As I said, originality.

Don Cherry1.jpg

Beyond his routinely insightful analysis of the game at hand — he will, as often as not, tell you in mangled English who is “going good” as a game heads into overtime, and predict the winning goalscorer — Don addresses non-play-by-play topics such as the étiquette of celebrating a goal: the “Canadian way” is restrained and sober; in fact, almost no celebration is allowed at all when your team is up by a few goals. Don also talks endlessly about the players’ “code”: the rules within the rules that the players themselves enforce, often with fighting (“having a go”), which, he notes, almost never ends in injury.

Then there are the subjects that make you understand that Don sees Canada as not much more than a small town, where everyone shares sadness at tragedy. At the end of his eight-minute segment, he’ll often put up a picture of, say, a youngster in a hockey uniform who has fallen through the ice and drowned in a pond somewhere in Saskachewan, and Don will struggle not to cry in the background as he tells the kid’s story. He’ll end by repeating the child’s name and age, and then, for lack of a better way to describe it, blessing him with a “God love him.” Or he’ll put up a snapshot of a firefighter from New Brunswick or a police officer from Quebec (“Kwee Beck” for Don) or a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, usually someone who has given his or her life in service. As most of Canada sits and watches, Cherry tacitly reminds us via an emotional obituary that there is more to life than hockey. On a hockey broadcast.

It is worth saying a word about Don’s straight man Ron McLane, whose smile in the photo above shows his wonder at seeing a natural in action. Ron is a longtime professional broadcaster, precise and controlled in his comments. As such he is the perfect foil for Cherry, keeping Don moving from subject to subject, telling him on-air with no embarrassment that there is not much time left on their live show, and occasionally enduring a Cherry barb or two, as when tough guy Cherry, dressed perhaps in pink, upbraids Ron when their hands inadvertently touch on their shared desk.

Needless to say, I could go on and on about Don. Love him and enjoy his work while he is here. The world will be poorer when he is gone.

Addendum: You can see all of Don’s regular Saturday night commentary here, but to give you a flavor of Don and Ron’s repartee, some vintage Cherry analysis, a funny saying or two, and a little sartorial excess, see the below. Ron’s wonderfully spontaneous smile comes right at the end of the excerpt.

Addendum: If you are looking for non-Canadian parallels to Don Cherry, here’s a suggestion or two.

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