Thirty years in, Ron and Don are still laughing it up on Coach’s Corner.
Where the hell is MacLean anyways?” shouts Don Cherry—not angrily—just impatient that we get on with a photo shoot that’s interrupting his normal Saturday routine and delaying a meeting to plan the line-up for tonight’s show. Resplendent in a baby blue floral-patterned jacket and matching tie, Grapes, who turned 83 in February, still cuts quite the figure, a vital and colourful force of nature who stands out even in a dimly lit studio just off the Coach’s Corner set at CBC’s Toronto headquarters.
It’s 4:30 on a wintry Saturday afternoon, Don’s battling a head cold, he’s worn out from a busy week promoting his new book and is vexed that the absence of his long-time TV partner and beer-drinking buddy Ron MacLean is slowing down proceedings.
So where the hell is MacLean? Well, he’s over there behind a camera stand, clad in his underwear and dancing the one-legged hop men resort to when changing clothes on the fly. Ever affable and obviously a very good sport, Ron, 56, has agreed to a last-minute wardrobe call, obligingly switching suits so that his doesn’t clash with Don’s ode to springtime.
As Cherry’s wingman since 1987, Ron is all too familiar with the demands of working with one of this country’s best-known celebrities, not to mention the seventh greatest Canadian ever (so voted by viewers of a 2004 CBC show, where he beat out the likes of Sir John A. MacDonald, Alexander Graham Bell and Wayne Gretzky).
“C’mon, let’s go!” barks the old coach as Ron emerges in his new togs, looking immaculate as usual. The rest of the shoot goes smoothly until the photographer suggests a change of pace: “How about one with Don facing Ron?” Breaking out his familiar ya-gotta-be-kiddin’-me grimace, Grapes growls a firm “Nooo”—Donald Stewart Cherry is a man who’s clearly used to doing things his own way.
This off-stage glimpse into the world of Ron and Don goes a small way to explaining the enduring success of their Coach’s Corner show, which airs every Saturday night during the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada. Broadcast from its pod-like set at CBC, this seven minutes of back-and-forth conversation sprinkled with plenty of shouting, laughing and unscripted chaos somehow remains as enormously popular today as it did three decades ago when the pair first started working together.
Like most avid fans over the years, I’ve imbibed heavily on Grapes’ Kool-Aid. I remember his TV show (Grapevine, which was produced by son Tim), read all his books (including the latest, Don Cherry’s Sports Heroes, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Grapevine), listen to his daily radio spots (Grapeline), enjoyed his Rock’em Sock’em videos (though not all 28), drank beer at Don Cherry’s Sports Bar and Grill (Eat, Drink, Be Cherry) and haven’t missed many Coach’s Corner episodes since it began in 1981, with Ron MacLean becoming his permanent partner in 1987.
To put this longevity into perspective—an eternity in the ever-changing world of TV—the pair have been going strong on air one year longer than veteran broadcaster Peter Mansbridge has been anchoring CBC’s The National. And unlike many of today’s shows that appeal to niche audiences, this one has amazing cross-generational appeal, witnessed by the fact my 13-year-old son watches it religiously.
So, as the NHL enters its centennial year in 2017, it seems fitting that Ron and Don have been instructing us on the finer points of the game for almost a third of the league’s existence. Over this incredibly long run, Coach’s Corner has become such a fixture that I can’t even bear to contemplate what Hockey Night in Canada would be like without this beloved duo talking it up after the first period.
For those who have somehow never seen an episode, the format follows a time-honoured comedic tradition. Ron, the straight man, tees up the subject matter while Don gets the laughs playing the old-school hard-ass Archie Bunker-inspired redneck. The show’s subject matter is notionally about hockey, but Don often strays off course, making bold pronouncements on politics, patriotism and, of course, fashion.
It’s a weekly routine that hearkens to the feuding comedy duos of vaudeville, radio and late-night television cross-talk fame: it’s Abbott and Costello, Art Carney and Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon, Felix and Oscar all rolled into one, with the sport of hockey providing the backdrop.
But according to Ron, the closest comparison would be to the original comedy duo—Don Quixote and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza. “If Grapes is the errant knight Quixote, then I’m Sancho Panza,” says MacLean, explaining his surprising literary allusion in a November telephone interview from Windsor, where he’s shooting material for that Sunday’s Hometown Hockey broadcast, which he also hosts. “Don’s up there teaching all the same virtues that a knight would espouse—honour, valour, bravery, respect—and the wisdom that’s revealed comes out through our spontaneous conversation.”
Next: Cherry rides onto our TV screens clad in shiny armor…
Tilting at windmills, or what Cherry would call those left-wing, pinko establishment types who want to ruin the country and its national sport, is a huge part of Coach’s Corner. Whether it’s encouraging fighting for its sheer bravery, lauding the toughness of “good Canadian boys,” supporting much-maligned hockey parents or honouring our fallen troops, every Saturday night Cherry rides onto our TV screens clad in shiny armour (an impossibly loud suit made to order by The Coop clothing store in Toronto), his shield there at the ready for him to be carried out on.
Among his legion of supporters there’s Bobby Orr, the superstar defenceman who played a year under Cherry in Boston. An icon in Canada, Orr once joked to me that: “I walk down the street with him and, people ask: ‘Who’s that with Don?’ ” Still close friends, Orr will defend Grapes to the last. “He’s paid to give his opinion. If you disagree with him, you shouldn’t dislike him as a person. I wish I had the nerve to say what he’s saying.”
While the show’s consistently healthy ratings suggest there’s great entertainment value in Cherry’s knight in shining armour act, others consider him a blowhard conservative at best or, as chronic Coach’s Corner-hater Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star would have it, a misogynistic, xenophobic, barbaric troglodyte. DiManno, no shrinking violet herself, refers to the show as “Romper Room for reactionaries” and frequently lobbies for Don’s ouster, writing: “Sports TV is no place for an octogenarian.”
But harsh words and ageist slurs won’t make Cherry tone down his opinions, whether it’s supporting the war in Iraq, praising the late controversial Toronto mayor Rob Ford or, more recently, lauding the election of Donald Trump. “When the lefties give it to me, I look at it like a pat on the back,” he says cheerfully, in an interview from his Mississauga, Ont., home, noting it took him a while to learn the survival tactics of the “jungle” of broadcasting. “On television, it’s not how good you are but how tough you are,” he says. “If you go on air tentative, you’re done. I’ve always felt if I’m going to get fired, I’m going out on my shield, doing it my way.”
Doing it Don’s way—sharing controversial views without apology—not only draws the ire of those on the other side of the political spectrum but infuriates his network bosses as well. In 2003, when he criticized the government for not supporting the American war effort on a U.S. radio station, it prompted his old CBC boss Harold Redekopp to publicly denounce his network’s biggest revenue-generating star, issuing a press release calling his comments “uninformed and inappropriate.”
In a 2004 Coach’s Corner show, in which Cherry pointed out that players who wear protective visors were mostly “Europeans or French guys” (the implication being that they lack toughness), Redekopp blew a gasket, again employing double-damning adjectives, this time calling his opinions “inappropriate and reprehensible” (one Bloc Québécois MP labelled them racist) and slapped a seven-second delay on Coach’s Corner so that, in future, these opinions could be monitored.
Don sees life as a constant battle, regardless of the arena: ice-rink, Coach’s Corner desk or network boardroom. Throughout the many stages of life—a rough-and-tumble minor hockey league player (he played one NHL game), construction worker (his ears still ring from damage done by the noise of the jackhammer), NHL bench boss (coach of the year for the Boston Bruins, a bust for the Colorado Rockies) and TV personality, his guiding principle has always been the underdog scrapping for every inch of space. A player who never backed down from a fight, a coach who feuded with his general managers and owners and a broadcaster who stares down network bosses and media critics, he never gives—or asks for—quarter.
“I’ve kept the mindset of a 32-year-old minor-league defenceman,” he says. “I always try to go against the grain.” Early in his TV career, Toronto sports writer Trent Frayne wrote a scathing column, cutting Cherry to shreds. “Holy smokes!” he remembers. “Getting ripped like that really hurt, and I took it personally.” While Don has developed a tough skin, his family often gets caught in the crossfire. Cherry’s beloved first wife Rose (who passed away in 1997) and kids, Tim and Cindy, hated the attacks and current wife, Luba (who was introduced to him by Ron) “still gets very upset when someone writes something negative about me.”
In the bland world of Canadian television—where strong opinions are frowned upon—Don stands out like his old bull terrier Blue would at the Westminster Dog Show. Though viewers may disagree with his rants or cringe when he crosses the line, they respect the fact he’s never, ever boring and seem forever willing to cut him slack. His fiercest critics, like Montreal Gazette sportswriter Jack Todd, who frequently takes Cherry to task for his political harangues, agree: “I want to say this loud and clear: if the Don is turfed from HNIC, I’ll miss him,” writes Todd.
Because when the camera’s red light goes off, you realize Don isn’t simply parodying a small-town, working-class stiff—he’s the real deal. “Maybe I’m not too smart,” Cherry says, referring to the fact he never finished high school. “But at least I’m honest.” Drawing heavily on the values learned growing up in an Anglo-Irish household in Depression-era Kingston, Ont., he represents an older Canada, a time when men served King and country, put in a hard week at a blue-collar job before punching out for a weekend of watching hockey and plenty of beer. “He’s the lunch-pail star who doesn’t look like a star or talk like a star,” wrote Ken Dryden, the former Montreal Canadiens’ goalie whose star-studded teams routinely beat Cherry’s rowdy Bruins.
Next: That MacLean ever made it in TV, much less became a big star, is a minor miracle…
When Don’s complete disregard for political correctness threatens to land him in hot water, Ron is always there to protect his partner, which must feel a bit like keeping an out-of-control 18-wheeler from veering off the cliff. This means slamming the brakes on Cherry’s most ill-advised opinions either by theatrically rolling his eyes, playing the devil’s advocate or defusing tension with a groaner of a pun.
Born in Zweibrucken, Germany, MacLean led the peripatetic life of a Canadian service child, bouncing around between various postings in Nova Scotia and the Yukon before finally settling in Red Deer, Alta., (or “Red River” as Don always calls it) where he met his future wife, Cari, at high school. It was here that his broadcasting career began, first as a DJ for several local radio stations, eventually finding a role as a local weatherman.
That MacLean ever made it in TV, much less became a big star, is a minor miracle, considering the horrible anxiety he battled in his early days of broadcasting. Subject to frequent panic attacks—on air, he’d often get scared, breathless and overwhelmed by a racing heart. “It would hit me hardest when I’d do weather,” he recalls. “It was like I was naked out there with five minutes to go and nothing to throw to.” Over time, he learned what triggered the attacks and how to overcome them—or at least develop coping mechanisms.
Hired by HNIC in the mid-’80s to host local Calgary broadcasts, he proved his chops, quickly earning a promotion to the national anchor’s job in Toronto, which included hosting the Coach’s Corner segment. Once he landed in the seat beside Don, he’d have to develop a whole new set of coping mechanisms.
“It took Don and me a couple of years to develop a chemistry,” he remembers. “Early on, I was really under the gun from CBC management to try to rein him in and not let him dictate the subject matter,” he recalls. But, according to Ron, it wasn’t working and from what I recall of the show’s early days, there was plenty of on-air awkwardness. “After a few years, I started letting Don talk about whatever he wanted to talk about—and you could see we were really clicking.”
Against all odds, MacLean has become a star in his own right, a fact that’s played out by the acclaim he receives every Sunday when he and the Hometown Hockey crew roll into a small community. He owes his newfound celebrity to the fact he’s tried to inject his own opinion more into the show. “On TV, it’s extremely important to have your own voice,” he says, noting it’s always been the key to Don’s success.
Traditionally, the host isn’t supposed to have an opinion, he’s there to let Don’s star shine through. “It’s a total balancing act,” he admits. “While I try to be the host and facilitator to Don, I’ve given myself more licence in recent years to work my voice into the broadcast.” Even Cherry, who says he initially viewed Ron as “a weatherman who didn’t understand hockey,” grudgingly admits his partner has grown into the role. “But for a while there in the first few years, it was touch-and-go whether we’d last.”
John Shannon, now a commentator for Sportsnet but in the 1980s a HNIC producer in Calgary, obviously saw something in the weatherman whom he hired to helm the regional telecast. “Ron exuded warmth, and his ability to create a conversation on the air was what stood out.” Between 1994 and 2000, when Shannon served as HNIC‘s executive producer, he gained a new admiration for what Ron brought to the show. “He has the innate ability to have a conversation so that the guy at home watching the game feels he’s sitting there talking to a friend about the game.”
These conversational skills, it seems, were largely unappreciated by his new bosses at Rogers Communications. In 2014, Rogers spent $5.2 billion to purchase North American Broadcasting rights, taking over production of Hockey Night in Canada from the CBC. Hoping to make a big splash, they brought in George Stroumboulopoulos, a younger, hipper broadcaster who would reach out to millennials, and demoted Ron to Sunday night hockey telecasts, though allowing him to retain his seat at Coach’s Corner.
At the time, the demotion was seen by many as a huge setback, a nightmare common to many 50-something workers who get shuffled to the side at the peak of their careers. Ron, however, took it all philosophically. “I was beginning to feel that at the age of 54, I was becoming obsolete,” he says. “It was a new world order, and digital technology had changed everything. I realized the focus was moving away from destination television—which is what Coach’s Corner was—to distribution television,”—streaming the games on multiple digital platforms.
While this may have made sense to Ron, it eluded the viewers. Despite making a valiant attempt, Stroumboulopoulos—with his skinny suits, hipster references, downtown-Toronto vibe and non-hockey background—was never accepted by HNIC‘s core audience. Ratings fell, and viewers—young and old—began grumbling about the new host.
Next: Rogers did the right thing, restoring Ron to his anchor’s role this past June…
“Demoting Ron was a colossal mistake,” says Bill Brioux, long-time television commentator and blogger at Brioux.TV. “Rogers made the change to appeal to millennials, and they thought bringing in Stroumboulopoulos would be a magic fix.” So ageism was involved in their decision? “Absolutely,” affirms Brioux. “Even in his 50s, Ron was just so good at what he does. Why on earth would they make that switch?”
Realizing their error, Rogers did the right thing, restoring Ron to his anchor’s role this past June—a win for hockey fans and older workers everywhere. “There’s something comforting about having Ron back,” says Brioux. “When they removed him, viewers felt something was missing.” Ron agrees: “Having been there as long as I was, I had built a relationship with the viewers. I guess the companionship element is still a big part of the television secret.”
How much longer the two can keep this buddy act going is a question that weighs heavily on viewers’ minds. “The Lord’s been good and I’m healthy so I’m going to keep doing this as long as I’m having fun,” claims Don. He’s amazingly fit for an octogenarian, working out with weights and a rowing machine in his home’s furnace room. Despite the fact he hides his mug behind a white goatee, his face is virtually wrinkle-free; it’s easy to see why he earned the nickname Babyface as a player. Of late, he’s cut down on charitable appearances (“If there are 500 people there, they all want autographs or pictures”) and finds solace in his basement with his fish, watching baseball, old movies and the History Channel and reading about historical figures: Sir Walter Raleigh, Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Francis Drake and Lord Nelson being his favourites.
While Don no longer goes out after shows while on the road (“We used to hit it pretty good”), he and Ron will often split a 12-pack back in their hotel room, watching a sporting event. Ron, who retired from refereeing competitive hockey in 2000, regularly works out at his Oakville, Ont., gym and plays adult hockey twice a week. Drinking beer and watching music videos constitutes his relaxation. Besides reading “a million hockey books” during the season, his current literary tastes tend toward the esoteric, including Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom be Found? and the poems and essays of Joseph Epstein.
“They’re having a blast. Five minutes before they go on air, you should see the joy they have, the sparkle in their eyes,” says Shannon. “Why would they quit?”
Good question. Watching’s Coach’s Corner the evening I visited the set, the pair are clearly showing no signs of slowing down. In that particular show, Don wore a snowflake-patterned jacket, he mispronounced a couple of names, Ron got off a lame pun, Don praised a tough Canadian player (who doesn’t wear a visor), told a story about nearly being electrocuted while broadcasting a pond-hockey event and wrapped it up by honouring an RCAF pilot who had died that week. Vintage stuff and, as always, was highly enjoyable.
“If we knew what we were doing, we’d probably screw it up,” jokes Ron. Every Saturday morning at 9:30 during hockey season, he’ll call his partner to discuss material for the night’s Coach’s Corner. “Don’s Bicycle Shop. Big Wheel Don speaking,” is how Cherry has answered that call for the last 30 years. The joke, like the show, like the sport, like their enduring on-screen friendship, just never seems to get old.
Maybe the answer to the pair’s longevity isn’t that complicated after all. It doesn’t rely on scripted gags, glitz or high production values like an American-made sports show. It’s just a coupla small-town, beer-drinking Canadian boys getting together on a Saturday night, talking hockey and having a laugh.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2017 issue with the headline, “The Icemen Cometh,” p. 37-44.