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.
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.
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.”
“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.