The home that Don built

Don Cherry has just finished making up the beds, meticulously arranging the new fleece comforters, which are resplendent in vivid royal blue with white Toronto Maple Leaf logos. “Lemme show you how bad it looked without them,” he says, pulling down a corner to reveal the pastel floral pattern of the original covers beneath. “I’m not sayin’ the kids’ll even know the Maple Leafs, but it looks homey now, know what I mean? Looks like a kid’s bedroom. The other way, it looked like an institution.”

In fact, this is an institution – it’s officially rated as a hospital – but that’s the last thing Cherry wants it to look like. This is Rose Cherry’s Home for Kids, a respite care facility named for Don Cherry’s late wife. Near Milton, Ont., it’s designed for children who are so medically fragile or technology-dependent that their parents can’t leave them with a regular caregiver. Often brain-damaged or with severe heart or lung abnormalities, these kids may be tube-fed or on continuous oxygen. But here, there’s 24-hour specialized care so these kids’ parents can do what other parents take for granted: have a day off, go on an overnight etaway or – the ultimate luxury – take a week’s vacation. The six-bed home also offers palliative care. Tragically, it’s necessary, for the aching reality is that some of these youngsters are so exquisitely vulnerable that something as minor as an upper respiratory infection could lead to pneumonia and death.

“See those little things, those there?” Cherry asks, pointing to colourful clown dolls adorning the entranceway. “They used to be over in a corner, but now as the kids come in, their first impression is the clowns, see? I don’t know whether it works or not, but that’s the way I want it and my name’s on it and the whole deal and that’s the way it’s gonna be.” Cherry, 72, makes an effort to look stern and authoritarian, but he knows he’s not fooling anyone. “I’m not good with this,” he acknowledges in a voice many decibels softer than his familiar Coach’s Corner TV rant. “I get all upset. Just seeing the beds, I start to get tears in my eyes. That’s how it affects you.”

When Rose, Cherry’s beloved first wife, died of cancer nine years ago, he and his family were besieged by requests to lend her name to various charities. As the family considered hundreds of worthy causes, this one stood out for all the wrong reasons. A respite home is a tough sell because unlike camps and other programs for children with disabilities, there are no photos of laughing kids swimming or playing sports. Nor can there be promises of “cures” or “breakthroughs.” There is only the amorphous objective of making life a little easier for some families. Even Cherry had serious doubts they could ever fundraise the $3 million needed to take a big old house set in 77 acres of forest and turn it into a hospital.

Cherry was already helping out innumerable charities and individuals, although most of it he refuses to publicize. “Dad says it’s not charity if you talk about it,” says his daughter, Cindy. But she reveals that he’s always received bags of mail – even letters addressed to “Don Cherry, Canada” find their way to his Mississauga, Ont., home. He has an entire room devoted to mail and spends 20 to 30 hours a week reading and responding to letters, favouring the handwritten ones. (He scorns e-mail as being too easy.) He’ll send notes to ailing kids (“To my pal Mike, all the best”), words of encouragement to people in despair (“Don’t quit!”) and autographed photos and T-shirts for countless raffles and silent auctions.

But spearheading this particular cause looked to be an enormous challenge. Still, Cindy had decided that because her mother’s primary focus had been family and because these families needed help and because no one else was filling the need, this was the perfect charity to bear her mother’s name. Her dad still needed to be convinced.

Cindy first broached the subject eight years ago, a year after Rose died. Cherry had just come home from a gruelling two months commentating, with straight man Ron MacLean, on the hockey finals for CBC-TV. “I come in from the playoffs, I’m exhausted and Cindy calls – ‘Dad, we got a charity.’ I says, ‘Aw, Cindy, gimme a break, will ya? I can’t get involved in anything else.’ She says, ‘Well, we’ll just take a drive up.’ So we get in the van and I’m like, ‘Where are we? We’re in some wilderness or what? And why do we need 77 acres? It’s ridiculous. The kids aren’t gonna be going through the woods.’ But you can see as you drive in, it’s like a fairyland almost. And at the end when you come to this great big house, it’s like Hansel and Gretel. It’s nestled in, and there’s deer and butterflies and the whole deal. Then I started to get into it, and the more I heard the more I got involved.”

The kindness of strangers and friends
“Fairyland” is not the kind of F-word that normally comes out of the mouths of tough, macho, blunt-spoken ex-hockey players like Don Cherry, so when he spoke of this project, people sensed his passion. Still, the first fundraiser brought in only $1,500 – a drop in a $3 million bucket. Discouraged, Cherry said sarcastically to his daughter, “I got it figured, Cindy – in 500 years, we’ll have it paid.” But slowly, word got out, to the corporate and construction world. Companies donated the needed materials and even labour, despite being told there would be no wall plaques commemorating their gifts; after all, this house was supposed to look as much as possible like a home, and homes don’t have commemorative plaques.

Cherry’s belief in the project faltered badly when black mould was discovered and the house had to be demolished. “There was a great big hole in the ground and I was standing there thinking, ‘What are we doin’ here? This is a joke!'” But, almost miraculously, a major construction company came along to start rebuilding from scratch. Masonry students from a local college offered to lay stone at no charge. A roofing company put on the roof for free. Cement, electrical work, lighting, carpet, beds – the donations kept on coming. The annual November gala and July golf tournament started selling out, despite having no major celebrities (other than Cherry himself). He says, “The people come for the kids, not to see celebrities. If that’s the way you wanna go, don’t come.” Hockey stars like Tie Domi and Bobby Orr, however, started showing up on their own. The companies for which Cherry does endorsements, pitching cold remedies, beer, pet insurance and submarine “sammiches,” all began donating to the cause.

Rose Cherry’s Home for Kids officially opened in late 2004. Today, the attractive 7,500-square-foot home is warm and welcoming, its large windows hung purposely low so the spectacular views and the visiting deer are visible from wheelchair height. There’s also a Snoezelen room, a multi-sensory area of soothing music, shifting lights and gentle breezes, to delight the senses.

“My daughter absolutely loves the Snoezelen room,” says Louise Baines of Oakville, Ont. Teigan, a beautiful 14-year-old, suffered brain damage at birth that has left her non-verbal, non-mobile, cerebrally blind, epileptic and with the functioning level of an infant. She stayed at the home last year while her parents and two siblings took their first family holiday without her – a week in Mexico. “Some days, you just sit down and go, ‘I don’t want to change one more diaper,’ but this made a huge difference for us, giving us renewed energy to be better parents,” says Baines, who’s now on the home’s board of directors. Baines, never a hockey fan, was surprised to find that there was more to Don Cherry than a blue-collar, outspoken blowhard who was almost as loud as his suits. “He’s extremely warm and caring with a really big heart. But then, he’s always fought for the underdog.”

A parent in pain
It’s called Rose Cherry’s Home for Kids, but Don Cherry says it’s really for the parents. “A lot of people don’t know how desperate parents can get. Desperate – I guess that’s the only word you feel when you see your kid sick and not going to get any better. You’re desperate.” He sighs. “I know what these parents are going through. I know how they feel.”

It’s true, for Cherry’s involvement is gut-wrenchingly personal. Back in the ’70s, when Cherry was coaching the Boston Bruins, his 13-year-old son, Tim, became very sick very quickly. He was deathly pale, couldn’t eat and developed excruciating migraines and swollen feet. As soon as the doctor took his blood pressure, which was sky-high, the boy was rushed across the street to the hospital for emergency dialysis. Tim had kidney disease, the result of a severe strep infection that had scarred his kidneys a few years before.

Months of dialysis began. “It was the worst time of my life,” Cherry says. “Rose was a rock, driving Tim back and forth three times a week for treatment. I, like a coward, a big stupid dumbhead, went on exhibition with the Bruins.” He admits now that he was avoiding the terrifying reality that without a kidney transplant, Tim would die. “One day, Rose says to me, ‘That’s it. One of us is giving a kidney. It’s either you, me or Cindy.'” All three of them were tested. As it turned out, Cindy’s kidneys were a perfect match to Tim’s, and she didn’t hesitate to give one up for her brother, in a double surgery from which they both recovered beautifully.

Cherry says, “We’re not a very intimate family. We’re not lovey-dovey and stuff like that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cindy kiss Tim or the other way around. I’m not very affectionate. I can’t remember the last time I kissed Cindy or hugged her. We’re Scotch, and you know how Scotch are. But when the chips are down….” So the Cherrys don’t give hugs; they give vital organs instead.

Born to be behind the bench
Toughness has always been a mark of pride for Don Cherry, ever since he was a belligerent, hotheaded youth in Kingston, Ont., with the dubious distinction of being strapped more than any other kid in school. A loner and a poor student, he was nevertheless a promising hockey player, and his fearlessness in the face of authority gained him a certain respect among classmates. Just before he dropped out in Grade 9, a teacher tried to humiliate him in front of the class, saying, “You’re a big deal now. We’ll see how you’re doing when you’re 35. You won’t have a penny in your pocket.” When she demanded exactly what he was planning to be when he got older, he retorted, “Certainly not a teacher like you!” She kicked him out, as his classmates applauded him.

Embarking on what would be a 16-year career in the minors, Cherry, a brawny, loud Scots Protestant, met Rose, a tiny, quiet Italian Catholic, in Hershey, Pa. He was 20, she 19. Rose was hardly a hockey groupie, especially in those days before helmets and mouthguards. As she recalls in a videotaped TV interview, “Don got in a fight and he got cut. I waited for him after the game was over and I saw this fresh cut and it still was oozing blood and these stitches, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ I said to Don, ‘Why do you like this game? Look at your face!’ and he says, ‘Oh, I love it!’ He was still pumped from the fight. And that was our first date.”

As tough as Cherry was, he says Rose was tougher. During his checkered career, Rose packed up and moved the family 52 times. Sometimes, they shared space with cockroaches and mice, for it was years before Cherry’s income topped $5,000. Rose never complained. The day they moved to Trois-Rivières, Que., Cherry left Rose and Cindy at a motel, not realizing the motel restaurant was closed and there was nothing else open for miles. They didn’t eat for more than a day and a half while Cherry played hockey, then went drinking. When he eventually returned to his hungry family, Rose didn’t complain; her expression said it all.

“How she ever stayed with me is unbelievable,” Cherry says. “Yeah, I wish I hadda done things better. I was sort of insensitive sometimes. But I think most of us hockey players at the time were. We were tough birds and we did drink a lot. We had a tough life, we had to travel by bus, we had to play a lot of games in a row. See, nowadays, if they play three games in three nights, they almost faint. They have private jets to take them. And their biggest decision is what kind of dressing to put on their garden salad.”

While Cherry’s TV persona may leave the impression that he’s rude and obnoxious, in truth manners are extremely important to him. “That’s from my mother,” he says. One of the greatest compliments he ever received came a few years ago from an older woman cleaning tables in an airport lounge. As Cherry picked up his own dirty dishes, she smiled at him and said, “Somebody brought you up right.”

Cherry’s mother, a tailor, did indeed prize good manners, although she could also make a blunt statement when needed. Once when Cherry’s father, a big bull-necked baseball player-turned-electrician, criticized his wife’s cooking, she dumped an entire bowl of creamed onions over his head. He never criticized her cooking again.

Practising tough love as a parent (and coach)
Cherry disciplined his children much the way he disciplined his hockey team – through intimidation, threats and swift punishment, even if it ultimately hurt himself. “I wouldn’t let Cindy act like the rest of the kids, running around like idiots, monkeys and that,” he says. “I remember one time in Hershey. We were at an outdoor dog show, and her friends were running around the stands bothering people. I told her to sit down, and she started to cry, and I said, ‘If you do it one more time, we’re going back in the car.’ And in Hershey, it’s hot in summer. It gets to be 98. And she did it again, so we went and sat in the car, roasting to death for, like, two hours. But the next time I told her not to run around, she didn’t.” Another time, when Cindy defied her father and touched some crystal glassware in a fine store, he went into instant action. “I took her and I spanked her – you know, whacked her on the bum – and the lady come over and she said, ‘You know, I don’t approve of what you’re doing. But I wish more parents were like you.'”

Far from resenting her father for his approach, Cindy respects him for it. “I hate to say it because it’s not politically correct, but the element of fear made you know it wasn’t just idle threats,” she says. She remembers that when her father was coaching the Rochester Americans toward a playoff spot in the early ’70s, he forbade the team from going to a certain bar with a bad reputation. The team’s top scorer ignored the warning and went to the bar. Cherry found out and had him traded. Formerly the golden boy of the team, the player faded into obscurity, and the team lost its chance for the playoffs. “It proved that you don’t mess with Dad,” Cindy says.

After retiring from hockey in his mid-30s, Cherry couldn’t even get a job as a labourer. “I was the lowest you can go. When a guy is unemployed, you feel less of a man. I can see how a lot of guys who can’t get a job would commit suicide.” When asked how important his Christian faith was during that time, he says, “Oh, the Lord and that? Oh, I’m big time on that. As the hockey players say, 110 per cent. I’m not an evangelist and I’m not a kook, but one afternoon, I was the lowest of the lows, and I said, ‘Lord, I’ve worked hard, I’ve always tried to be honest and everything. What am I going to do?’ I know this sounds kooky, but a light came, and He said, ‘This is what you do – you say you want to make a comeback in hockey.’ So I went right down to the Rochester Americans, I got made coach and, within three years, I was coaching Bobby Orr. I was born to be behind the bench, and He come along and helped me with that.”

Love lost … and found
The next time of despair came when, after more than four decades of marriage, Rose died. Like many widowers, Cherry felt lost. He was eating beans out of a can and rinsing the spoon under the tap. “I was quite worried about him,” says his son, Tim. “Mom had taken care of everything, all the banking, the taxes, the business side of it and him, and suddenly that’s gone. He missed sitting in the sunroom, having coffee with her and talking together for a couple of hours.”

While Cherry may have had millions of fans, he had few friends. “Rose and I never had any friends that we would go to dinner with or on a vacation or visit their home. We were into ourselves. We didn’t need anybody else. So I was lonely, I guess.” And then he met Luba, a striking Ukrainian Catholic in her 50s whom he married five years ago. He says, “People think she’s my daughter, but that’s okay. You know, the story is if you’re gonna get one, get a good-lookin’ one.” Both Tim and Cindy say their father is much happier and looks much healthier than when he was alone.

A legend who prefers a simple life
Up close, Cherry’s appearance belies his age of 72. His smooth face bears no traces of the 400 stitches it’s borne from hockey clashes. What’s his secret? Botox, perhaps? He laughs. “Botox! Who’s he playin’ for?” No, he confides, the magic comes from pure cocoa butter, which he swears not only heals scars but prevents wrinkles. “I put it on every night. Seriously. Smells nice, too.”

With Cherry’s face seemingly everywhere, it would be no surprise to see him flogging cocoa butter next. He’s already on TV, radio, commercials, print ads, a series of top-selling hockey videos and, most recently, a cameo voice-over for the animated Disney movie The Wild, garnering decent reviews for his role as a penguin hockey broadcaster – in other words, himself. He’s frequently offered other roles to play, but his acting skills are limited to just one character. “Memorize a four-page script? Not a chance,” says his son, Tim. “Dad still gets butterflies before he goes on the air, and he’s always nervous whenever he has to get up in front of people.”

When he’s not working, Cherry is quite happy to hang around his home or cottage in his Zuma pants and T-shirt with his beloved dog Blue No. 3. Or he’ll spend time with his grandchildren, going to eight-year-old Grace’s karate tournaments or shooting pucks at 12-year-old Del in the driveway.

But Cherry can’t get too far without somebody asking for an autograph or a picture, whether it’s at an airport, a restaurant or a funeral. On a recent Sunday morning, he was sitting by himself in a hotel sauna when a man came in with two young children bearing hockey sticks to autograph. Did he sign them? Of course he did. It was for the kids.

For more information about Rose Cherry’s Home for Kids, go to www.rosecherrys or call 1-877-406-7673.