By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Oct. 10) – I’m not sure why I still find myself surprised over the emotions generated by Don Cherry and Ron MacLean in their weekly appearance on Hockey Night In Canada – a television phenomenon, by the way, that will not be matched in most of our lifetimes.
May God be with the person (or persons) that ultimately assumes ownership of that slot on Saturday nights; chances are the concept will be scrapped altogether once Cherry and/or MacLean are no longer available. Nowhere in this country are the opinions of an individual absorbed and disseminated as widely and fervidly as those belonging to Cherry. Not since the heyday of Pierre Elliott Trudeau more than 40 years ago has a Canadian Prime Minister come close to evoking such passion. It is almost certain that Cherry and MacLean are (and have been, for some time) the most recognizable faces in our land.
Through it all, there remains a curious inability, or refusal, to fathom the mystique of Coach’s Corner. Barring a Hank Williams Jr. moment, the most anticipated segment each week during the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship enterprise will never be subject to the rules, or terms of engagement, common throughout the industry; it escapes me why this continues to be a source of befuddlement. As mentioned, the Cherry-MacLean collaboration – the simplest of all TV formats – is nothing short of a marvel; entirely unanticipated in scope and impact among those prescient enough to deploy the former Boston Bruins/Colorado Rockies coach as a television voice in the early-’80s (take a bow, Ralph Mellanby).
Nowhere in sports programming on either side of the Canada-U.S. border is an individual “covered” by others in the trade. Writers at the Canadian Press and various newspapers are actually assigned to Coach’s Corner each week, generating a summation of Cherry’s remarks – be they volatile or benign. Both Cherry and MacLean have long been defined (some say pigeonholed) according to their guise in the production – any notion of “shtick” blatantly overlooked.
RON LISTENS… DON GLISTENS
Cherry is hardly the blathering fool so often portrayed. The fact his comments and opinions are vehemently taken to heart from coast to coast in this country may suggest the appearance of impropriety, as if he has an obligation not to offend. Amid what is still largely a conservative populace, Cherry is an unorthodox figure able to stand out – strongly and persistently – well into his late-70s: a feat many in this nation simply refuse to extol (Americans, by contrast, are generally lauded for such attainment). Tragically, Cherry’s heart-felt grief toward Canadian troops lost in battle – and their surviving family members – is viewed in some quarters as a balancing act, neither genuine nor of relevance to the program. Nothing could more grievously misrepresent the truth. Don was raised in a military environment in Kingston, Ont.; his homage and respect for those in the service is intrinsic.
Several times I have told the story (in print and on radio) about the dying father of a close friend who counted, among his final wishes, a chance to speak with Cherry – for whom he had great admiration – on the telephone. Having apprised the coach of this request, I thought little more of it until receiving a call from my deeply-touched friend several weeks later. Not only did Cherry phone my pal’s father, ravaged by cancer, he ordered a limousine that brought him to his restaurant in Mississauga, whereupon he spent an entire afternoon with the terminally-ill man.
As for MacLean, the fact he dutifully plays the role of Cherry’s foil on Coach’s Corner should not detract from his skill as a broadcaster; his knowledge of, and passion for, hockey, or his unique, largely-unrecognized ability to coordinate and maintain the vast flow of content Cherry assembles each week. Among those in the Canadian broadcasting industry, MacLean is dwarfed in celebrity only by his illustrious partner, as evidenced by the nation-wide outcry – several years ago – when it appeared CBC would not agree to terms of a contract extension. Nowhere in the industry will you meet a more friendly, down-to-earth and accommodating person than MacLean, who has always seemed rather humbled by his ascent to immortality. Moreover – and in direct contrast to his temperament on Coach’s Corner – Cherry loves MacLean deeply… as one would a brother; the specter of losing his peerless friend over that contract impasse routinely brought tears to his eyes.
So, say what you want about Ron and Don. But, do not underestimate the uniqueness of their coalition, or the void that will one day be created by their absence.