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Don Cherry looks back at his time with the original Colorado Rockies
Foreword by Doug Ottewill
Interview by Woody Paige
Originally published October 2013
During the fall of 1979, many billboards in Denver, Colo. offered a peculiar slogan: “Come to the fights and watch a Rockies game break out.”
The Rockies – then – were a hockey team, one led by one of the game’s most colorful men, Don Cherry, who had just been canned by the Boston Bruins. The Rockies, who began skating in Denver in 1976, had been struggling. In fact, during the franchise’s first three seasons, the Rockies had only amassed 54 wins. But Cherry rekindled Denver’s interest in professional hockey.
While the fans loved their new coach, management did not. Cherry’s outspoken nature ultimately led to his dismissal. Ironically, his blunt honesty also led to what he is today – one of hockey’s greatest commentators. More than three decades removed from McNichols Arena, who better to catch up with on the eve of hockey season?
As Cherry reflects on his days in Colorado, the state of the game and the Colorado’s “current” team, the Avalanche, we’ll issue a simple, a presumably predictable promise: Like always, Don Cherry tells it like it is.
We’ve got a new hockey coach (Patrick Roy), you may have heard of him.
Yeah. I sure have. He’s a beauty, I’ll tell ya. He’s going to do great with the team he’s got.
But we had to feature you, because people in Colorado still love Don Cherry.
I don’t know about that. I remember when I was getting fired and the paper had a thing that asked, “Should Don Cherry get fired?” I think it was 3,800 said I shouldn’t get fired. And 52 that said I should get fired. And I said, “I didn’t think Ray Miron had that many friends.”
I always like to tell people that I’m partially responsible for your great career, because after you got fired, you and I did a radio show. After that, you ended up on by the biggest sports network in Canada.
I got started right after that. I got fired by Arthur Imperatore and all that. So, I had nothin’ to do. I got a call from “Hockey Night in Canada” and they said, “Don, we want you on television a little bit. And we want to know if you’d be willing to come down.” I said, “Oh, I’m kind of down in the dumps here.” And he said, “I’ll come down, give you $500 a show and you can visit your mother.” So, I did about six shows in one day. I thought I was terrible. I went home, then back to Colorado. Then they said, “We want you for next week, too.” I was just doing what everybody else did. And one day I saw myself doing an interview with the Boston Bruins, and it looked like I didn’t really care one way or the other, and that’s when I started to do “Coach’s Corner.” I was doing that for a long time, but I got in too much trouble. I think I was talking to Alpo Suhonen, who was a coach for the Winnipeg Jets one time and I said, “Alpo, that sounds like dog food.” So, that got me off of doing the “Corner.” And they said, “We’ll only put him on for five minutes at the end of the first. What trouble can he get in?” And the rest is kind of history. So, yes, you got me started in all this trouble.
So the truth of the matter is that the best thing might have ever happened in your life is something you probably considered to be one of the worst things. You came in here for a year, after the Bruins, and you really piped up everybody. And then, they got rid of you. But it changed the direction of what you were doing. It may have been the best thing that ever happened to you. My dad used to say, “Son, the best thing that will ever happen to you is the next thing.” That was kind of the case in your situation.
It was, but I was very bitter at the time. I loved Colorado. We had a good team, but we had the “The Swedish Sieve” in [goalie] Hardy Astrom and [general manager] Ray Miron – I think you spell that with an “O” – and you can put that in there, too. He wouldn’t get us a goalie. We had a good bunch of guys and the crowd, we had a sellout against Pittsburgh, the last game, and I think we won 3-0. I was really looking forward to the next year. I was very bitter at the time. And I thought that “Hockey Night in Canada” was nothing at the time. And you’re right, the best thing that ever happened was that I got on “Hockey Night in Canada.” That was almost 30 years ago. If Miron hadn’t stabbed me in the back, I don’t know what I would be doing right now. You’re right; it was a blessing in disguise.
If you sat out for a while, you know you would have gotten another coaching job.
I don’t know. I don’t think I would have. They did a number on me around the league – how bad I was. I think what they did was they destroyed my coaching career for good. I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no idea. I was doing banquets for $700. I really was in deep trouble. It did come along out of the blue; I never dreamed I’d be doing this 30 years later and still doing it.
If I remember correctly, though, you could have gone back to being a painter. You made a lot of money in your life being a painter, right?
Funny thing is that when I was unemployed, I got $18 a day [as a painter]. At the end of the day, the guy gave me $20 and asked me if he could have his two bucks back! I was struggling before that, and I knew what it was like to be unemployed because that’s exactly what I was – unemployed. I was having a tough time. I was very bitter. My wife and son – who was going to Cherry Creek High School – loved it out there. It was sad that we had to leave.
Rose, sadly, passed away a couple of years ago. And your son, he actually wrote the movie about you that was on the Canadian Broadcasting Network.
He was the writer and producer. We do a thing called “Rock ‘em Sock ‘em” video tapes; we’re celebrating our 25th year. Mike Nolan was the guy who got him started in TV. So, yeah, he wrote the story of my life. We were lucky to have Mike Nolan because he really liked hockey. I think he was from Buffalo or something.
You have a great memory for someone who is almost as old as I am.
I remember also – he’ll laugh when he reads this – at the time he was almost an addict of Tab. Remember that drink? Every waking moment he was drinking that stuff.
People remember you as a coach, and of course for what you’re doing now. You played one game in the NHL, but you played minor league hockey for almost 20 years, isn’t that correct?
I played one game in the National Hockey League. Then, I spent the next 22 years in Siberia. I rode the busses in the minors as a player and as a coach for 22 years. I didn’t know anything different at the time. I look back and in the American League, we’d ride the bus for 10 hours, get off and play, then drive all the way back to Rochester, and play the game the next night. It was three games in three nights, and 25 hours on the busses. It was a tough life for 22 years, but it was my life. I was a confirmed minor leaguer and proud of it.
Do you think that’s why over the years you’ve really appreciated and emphasized the blue-collar worker? The lunch pail kind of guy? You’ve always defended the journeyman. You’ve always been very much in the corner of the guy who works hard. Do you think that’s because of your own background?
When I was with the Bruins, a Boston writer named Fran Rosa said, “They remind me of the Lunch Pail Gang.” And that was the first time that was ever used. They checked in at 7:30 and they don’t stop working until 10:00. I like guys like that. We had a lot – Mike Christie, Ronnie Delorme – that was the team we had. Lanny McDonald, he was a star, but he was a grinder, too. So everybody we had was a lunch pail guy. In the end, they’re the guys you win with – the hardest workers. You take a look at the L.A. Kings – you’ve got to have the stars, too – but most of the guys you win with are good grinders. We were building that in Colorado. I keep going back to that in Colorado, but we were.
You do have a lot of fond – and unpleasant – memories, but it was an unusual year that you spent in Colorado. After having coached the Bruins for so long, to have this opportunity, then it was taken away from you. And then the team went away right after that, too.
I honestly believe this, and this is my own opinion and the way I feel, but it was almost like “planned destruction.” I just couldn’t believe it – what things were happening there. Not getting a goalie and seeing us stink and us working hard. It’d break your heart to see how hard we’d work and then the soft goal would go in. I almost feel like it was planned.
That’s a great point. Sort of like light bulbs – when you buy a light bulb, they want it to go bad in a couple years. In looking back on that, I don’t know if people realize that Imperatore and then [Peter] Gilbert were trying to get the team to New Jersey.
Gilbert comes from New Jersey. And Imperatore was a pretty good guy; I don’t know if he’s still alive or not. (Editor’s Note: He is still alive, living in New Jersey.) I only met him a couple of times, but he seemed to be a good hard workin’ trucker. It was the son-in-law and Ray Miron that were my nemesis. It was a battle the whole time I was there. You know, Ray Miron – I did my first exhibition game in Colorado Springs; I’ll never forget it – he said to a friend of mine who was an agent, “Well, Cherry didn’t look so hot.” It was an exhibition game! So, I knew my days were numbered. The day I really knew my days were numbered was when Mike Gillis, their No. 1 draft choice, floated through the whole training camp and I sent him down to Fort Worth and I kept an Indian kid named Ron Delorme. I knew I was done then because he went to the owners and said, “Look at Cherry sending down our No. 1 draft choice.” But I had to send him down. I knew I was done then, but I was giving it the old try. The fans were great. That’s what gets me. We weren’t a very good club, and the fans never booed once. We never got booed, but we deserved to get booed. I got so frustrated one time, I grabbed Mike McEwen and nailed him against the wall. But the fans were really good then. After I left, and I was on “Hockey Night in Canada,” I kept saying, “I’m telling you right now, you put a good team in Colorado, they’ll pack that joint.” And sure enough, they did. And I think Patrick Roy is going to do the same thing. You’re going to see a few explosions on the bench with him, but he’ll get ‘em goin’.
You were right. When they came back – with Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy – they sold the place out for years. And now, they’ve got Sakic and Roy running the team. It’s always said that superstars can’t really run teams, and Wayne Gretzky didn’t really do a good job in Phoenix. But Sakic is a hard worker. Roy has the personality and the temperament. I’d think you believe what you just said, that the Avalanche are going to make a comeback.
I think Patrick Roy is not like most superstars. He’s coached for three or four years, and he’s got his feet wet in the Juniors, so he knows exactly what’s going on. He’s a different cat. What maybe hurt Colorado last year is when they made that 18-year-old kid captain, the Swedish kid. I mean, when I heard that, I said, “It’s going to be a disaster.” I’m sure Joe Sacco never ever dreamed that they would. That was a P.R. move – making an 18-year-old Swede a captain. I’m sure it ticked off all the old guys and the whole deal. I said it was going to be a disaster. But I really do believe that Patrick Roy – you’ve got to give him time – is not stupid.
You still don’t like those Swedes, but the Avalanche had a pretty good Swede for a lot of years.
Yeah, [Peter] Forsberg. He played like a Canadian, I have to tell you, most of the time. All you have to do is look at the Stanley Cup winners – on every team. Last year, I think there were 15 on Chicago, and in Boston, I think they had 17 Canadian hard workers. And I can give you an example in the Sedin twins. There are two guys, who, every year they have a great year, then they die in the playoffs. It’s a different story in the playoffs. You’ve got to win in the playoffs, and the hard workers and the bangers – and you’ve got to have the stars, like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and guys like that – but take a look at the guys who got the tying and winning goals against Boston. Bryan Bickell, a grinder and a banger at 6-foot-4, and the guy that got the winner with 30 seconds to go was David Bolland, just a third-string guy. You have to have those guys. You’re asking me? I just wouldn’t have ‘em on my team, that’s all.
I’ve thought about you a lot over the years, though, with the influx of European players.
Sure, there are a lot of European players in the league. But I ask you: Where are they in the playoffs? They’re like magicians. They disappear.
So you haven’t changed about that.
I said that about “Magic” Merlin Malinowski. I said, “Yeah, he’s a magician alright. He disappears.” I saw him about 20 years later and he came up to me, and I didn’t know him that well, and he said, “I forgive you after all these years after what you said about me.” And I’m thinking, “What the hell did I say?” I remember it now.
I loved your dog, Blue. You’d bring her to the radio studio. You’ve had a couple more “Blues” since that one. Do you have one now?
Yeah. But nothing like that first one you met. That was the love of my life. She was like all the teams I wanted. She never started a fight, but finished ‘em all. In Boston, I got Harry Sinden mad at me once because I said, “I think Blue wants to start Gerry Cheevers.” And we won, so I kept it up. She was like the team mascot. I remember a Hartford writer, I had big sign on my door that said, “Do not enter office.” He walked in the office and Blue attacked his foot and was throwing him all around. Holy smokes, we had to take the guy and lay him on the sofa and give him cold compresses. I said, “I told you not to come in the office when Blue was here.”
You’ve worked for ESPN during the playoffs and you donated all of your salary then to the Humane Society. You’ve done a job over the years because of your love for Blue.
There’s a big memorabilia store up here called “Frozen Pond.” And all my memorabilia I donate to the Humane Society. I give all of this stuff to a lady who rescues Bull Terriers. She goes down to a show, sets up a booth for all this Bull Terrier stuff that I sign, and she rescues Bull Terriers.
If I remember correctly, you were a painter, you sold Cadillacs, you were a grinder in the minor leagues.
I was the world’s worst car salesman.
And yet, here’s a guy who was voted as a “Top-10 Canadian” of all-time. How does that make you feel given everything you’ve gone through in your life? And not everyone loves you, but Canadians love you. Can you look back on all that and think, “How did this all happen with me?”
Some people don’t like me. But I have no idea. I thank the Lord. I’ll tell you the story and it’s the God’s truth. I was so desperate. I was making bad things. I couldn’t get a job. I had no money. I had a family. I really sincerely had no money and nobody would hire me for hockey. Nobody would hire me for construction. It was a tough time. And I asked the Lord, I said, “What am I going to do? Am I all finished?” And I swear to God, He told me to go back to hockey. I can still remember it now. I was 20 pounds overweight. And I made it. To make a long story short, I made it back as a player in the American Hockey League, which is pretty good. About halfway through, I got made the coach of the Rochester Americans. Two years from then, I was coaching Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins. And how I did it, I honestly… I’m not a holy roller or an evangelist or anything like that, but I honestly believe I was helped by the Lord.
Well, you might have used that up, though. When you ask Him to bring you up to heaven, he might say, “Hey, I’ve already helped you out enough.”
Yeah. He’ll say, “Enough is enough. I don’t mind helping you out in hockey, but that’s it.”
When you started doing between periods, it grew. I only knew you well for a short period of time, but what always interested me was “This was not Don Cherry being an act; this was Don Cherry being Don Cherry.” When you started doing TV, and you grew in popularity and everybody knew you, you said things some people didn’t like, but you have always been honest. That wasn’t an act. Is that an accurate portrayal?
You’re right on the money. I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble. I’ve been told by “Hockey Night in Canada” that [it was my] last year. I’ve been sued. And I’ve never learned to be careful. I don’t know whether that’s good or not, but I became popular. I’ve had a boss tell me – and this is no kiddin’ – “My legacy is to get you fired.” There have been a lot of guys after me. But you know, I’ve just got to be honest. After 29 years or so, it’s all gravy. If they want to get rid of me now, hey, it’s all been a good time. I’ve had a good ride. The big thing about television, as far as I’m concerned, is that the camera never lies – people pick up a phony pretty fast.
When you talked earlier in this conversation about Ray Miron, you were always an honest person then. It got you into trouble occasionally.
Here’s the strange thing about it: I could have had him fired. They said, “Can you work with Ray Miron?” I said, “Yeah, we’ll work together.” Little did I know, I think he thought I was after his job. That’s what got me in trouble. I just said, “We’ve got a lousy goaltender and we’re not going to win. Can we get a goaltender?” And he didn’t like that – said it made him look bad. But hey, you’ve got to be honest. Honest got me fired, but honesty has helped me on television.
You’re honest about your political views, your hockey views – and I think that’s why people appreciate you. But when did you decide to add to the persona? So, it became not only Don Cherry being opinionated and honest, but he was going to be flamboyant, as well. How did that come about, Grapes?
I think it [started] with my jackets. I get about six new jackets, and they’re all wild. I do it for the kids. Funny thing is the kids all know me and they’re two and three years old. That’s what bothers me – the kids all like me at two or three. I’m beginning to wonder. But I just thought it was good. I think people get a big kick out of it. I wear a funny tie and that, and everybody seemed to like it. It kind of grew. As it goes on, it gets a little wilder and a little wilder. Sometimes, I look at myself on TV and say, “I wore that?” I have a lot of fun. I look at myself on TV and say, “Oh boy.”
I don’t really remember the flamboyant Don Cherry. You were a good dresser.
Well, you get a little confidence in the business. I was always a nice dresser, and had fun when I was behind the bench. I think I was kind of colorful behind the bench. It used to cost me a lot of money. I think you have to have fun – that’s the main thing. That’s what I tried to do with the Rockies, is have fun. We were having fun. And that’s what I try to do on television. It’s not rocket science. And sometimes, I get too carried away and say things maybe I shouldn’t say. I don’t know whether I’d get away with it in the States or not. But I do here. I push the envelope a little more, and a little more, but sometimes, you have to watch yourself. But just like to have some fun.
You’re like me – they can’t get rid of me.
You’re on one of those little panels, eh?
Not as long as you, but for 11 years. So, I’ll ask you the same thing people ask me: Do you want to drop dead doing this? Would you keep doing it? Why not just get in a rocking chair and just enjoy the rest of your life? I think you’re enjoying your life, so why would ever stop doing something you’re enjoying so much?
Just like you doing your show for 11 years. It’s the same thing you said. This is not “the jackhammer,” as they say. This is fun; it’s not really a job. Let’s face it; television is not a job, like I used to do in construction. I’m going to do it until they don’t want me anymore. If I go on “Coach’s Corner” and I’m not excited and I’m not nervous before I go on, then I know it’s time to go. Now, believe me, in the playoffs, we go every other night for two months. That is getting kind of tough; I’ll have to tell you. But I survive it. It takes about two weeks after, but hey, I have a lot of fun, and that’s the name of the game.
Sure beats riding a bus for 11 hours.
Yep. That first class is not too shabby, is it?
How do you see it coming down this year? In the NHL, it’s a different team each year. It looks like it’s a scramble again this year. Is that how you see it?
Well, you can’t have dynasties in the National Hockey League anymore because of the salary cap. You have to get rid of guys you don’t want to. Take Chicago, for example; they get rid Bolland a week after he scored the winning goal; he comes to Toronto. You’re never going to get dynasties. I think Chicago is one of the closest. I see them right up there again. I see Boston, the same thing. If Pittsburgh gets any goaltending, they’ll be right there. But my favorite team outside of Boston is L.A. There are two unheralded guys that nobody knows about except me, that are really going to mean something. It’s two defensemen who were out all year – Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene. Back when they won the championship, they were two defensemen who killed all the penalties. I look for L.A. to be back there again, but it’s so hard to predict anybody in the NHL. They’ve got new conferences now, new divisions now. So, it’s going to be tough. The team in Canada is Toronto. It’s Canada’s Team and their going to be much improved this year.
Well, when is Canada’s Team going to win a championship?
It’s going to be a long time before they win a championship. In Toronto, they like to say, “We just like to make the playoffs and we’ll go from there.” They haven’t made the playoffs in five years except for last year.
If I made you the commissioner tomorrow, what would you do? The sport has gone through a couple of player-owner bad relationships, and not playing the seasons. The sport had an opportunity, when the NBA had its work stoppage, to really step up. It had great ratings during the Stanley Cup. It’s the biggest thing in Canada. But what does it have to do to get bigger in the United States? It’s almost lost its No. 4 spot to NASCAR.
I don’t know about making it more popular, but if you’re asking me about rule changes, I’d start with the Instigator Rule. And I’ll tell you why. If you’ve noticed, our stars have been getting hurt a lot lately. The Instigator Rule was put in to stop the third man in on a fight. Now, let me give you an illustration. Gretzky, the whole time he was in Edmonton, had almost a credit card. Nobody touched him. In fact, when I lived in the States, people used to say, “Hey, don’t tell me that there’s not a rule that you can’t hit Gretzky.” Well, what it was, he was protected by a guy named Dave Samenko and Marty McSorley. If you looked sideways at Gretzky, you were dead. And what happened was, back about 20 years, the fools – the governors – put in the Instigator Rule. And as soon as they put the Instigator Rule in, it was open season on the stars. And if you look, most of our stars have been hurt. We had policemen. We dealt with cheap-shot artists; we took care of them. But once they put that Instigator Rule in, you couldn’t protect the guys. That’s the one rule I would change for sure. Now, to make it more popular? Hey, there’s nobody who’s played in more leagues than me. I played or coached in every league that was in the United States. I would have to say I coached or played in more cities than anybody. I was in them all. And the one thing I’ve noticed about the United States – especially the southern states, where they love the rough tough hockey – I would lay off on calling so many penalties and trying to stop the fighting. I know it sounds barbaric, but let’s face it. Have you ever looked around the building when the fight is on? The fans are going nuts. I’m not saying to turn it into wrestling, but quit trying to cut down the fighting. That’s the most popular thing. Quit trying to drive fighting out of the game.
People go to see the fights.
They like the goals; don’t get me wrong. They like the nice plays and body checks and stuff like that. But in NASCAR, what’s the most expensive ticket? It’s on the corner where the wrecks are. I know, hockey is a beautiful game and all that stuff, but all you have to do is take a look around and look at the crowd when the fight is on. They go nuts. In fact, if they’re out getting a beer or something, everyone yells “Fight! Fight!” and everybody comes in. So, quit trying to drive it out. They’re making a big mistake, as far as I’m concerned.
Denver proved you right. You said that if there were a good team, Denver would support it. The University of Denver showed it. The Avalanche proved it, and then they went backwards. Were you surprised with what they did with the No. 1 draft pick? What do you think of him?
I like him, but two of my favorite players out there are Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. Duchene, as far as I’m concerned, is a superstar. He is one of my favorites. I coached him in the prospects game and he told me a funny story. As we were in the dressing room at that game, he says, “You know, Grapes, ‘Coach’s Corner’ saved my grandfather’s life.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Well, we had a dairy farm. And my grandmother says to my grandfather, ‘Go out and milk those cows.’ So he put on his coat, and then he said, ‘No! I’m going to watch “Coach’s Corner” and then I’ll do it.’ We had a terrible snowstorm at that time. The barn collapsed and killed half the cows, and he would have been in the barn at that time.” When he told me that I said, “Well, ‘Coach’s Corner’ is good for something anyhow.”
And you like Nathan MacKinnon?
I coached him in the prospects game, as well. I predicted whoever gets No. 1, it’s automatic they’ll get him. He was dynamite with Halifax Moosehead. He was a captain there. I predict within two or three years, he’ll be a captain in Colorado. Give him a little time, but this guy is mature and I can’t say enough about him. He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He’s going to be a superstar in the National Hockey League and they made the right move.
You’ve had two movies about your life. You’ve appeared in movies and TV shows. You’ve been on “Hockey Night in Canada.” You’ve coached the Boston Bruins. You’ve become one of the top Canadians in history. What in your mind is your greatest achievement?
Holy smokes. Well, I gotta tell ya. When I walked out into the Boston Garden for the very first time, when I was one of their lower slugs, when I walked out and I stood behind the bench, I looked down and I saw Bobby Orr; that was it to me. Just standing there on the bench with Bobby Orr. Just three years before, I couldn’t even get a job. I don’t know if that was my greatest accomplishment, but that was my greatest thrill.
You’re a hero in Canada, and you’ve accomplished so much, but tell me the truth – when you retire from this, you’re going to move back to Colorado, aren’t you?
I know my son would. I know Rose, if she were alive, would. I remember the grass – it was so green. When the Avalanche were in the playoffs a few years ago, I drove to the house where I lived and I walked around the whole neighborhood. And boy, I’ll tell you, I got choked up. We had a grand time there, that’s for sure.
It was a short run, but it was a great run. People here still have great love for you.
You’re kidding. I didn’t even know they’d remember me.
I’ve been here since 1974, and I would say of all the coaches that have come through here – football, baseball, basketball – the two most popular guys that have ever come through here are Doug Moe and you. You’ve got to put that on your list – people here will remember “Grapes” and Doug Moe.
And you know what, after this article, they’ll remember me for sure.