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'I really sincerely wish I was in Yellowknife' - Don Cherry

Tara Slone at Hockey Day in Canada, Feb. 6, 2019Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo
Tara Slone at Hockey Day in Canada, Feb. 6, 2019 Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo

Don Cherry is notably absent from this week’s Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada festivities - the first one in the 20 years of the program’s existence that he has not co-hosted with Ron MacLean. 

But he will be watching from home.

Longtime Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry, left, celebrates his 86th birthday Wednesday at his home in Toronto with his family.From left and clockwise around the table are Don, grandson Del, daughter Cindy and son Tim.
photo courtesy of Tim Cherry

Coming off his 86th birthday that he marked on Wednesday with cake at his son's house, the former Coach's Corner commentator said he would have rather been celebrating it in Yellowknife.

"I really sincerely wish I was in Yellowknife," he said from his home in Toronto. "We had a lot of fun (in the North in the past) and I want to say hello to everybody and I hope everybody enjoys themselves."

Much like MacLean told Yellowknifer last week, Cherry said he has been pleased to see Hockey Day evolve into an annual event that connects NHL alumni with communities across Canada.

"I’ve been doing them since I don’t remember how long, but a long time," he said. "I remember the very first ones and we were asking then - are they ever going to last?" 

Cherry said the success of Hockey Days have largely been due to the involvement of families and especially children. He recounts past years when he has mingled with schoolchildren.

He recalls, while laughing, the one year a public school had a contest where students had to craft neckties as a nod to Cherry's trademark attire. He had to then choose the best three for that week's broadcast.

"The things that I remember the most when I look back at them, though is that I think of the kids and how much fun the kids had - laughing and joking," he said. "I liked to see their eyes when they would see the players for the first time. They would see the players on television and all of a sudden there they are out on the ice. I’m sure the kids in Yellowknife are going to have a ball.”

Although Cherry has never been to Yellowknife, he was involved with the broadcasts in Whitehorse (2011) and Iqaluit (2003). He said he thinks places in the Far North that don't have exposure to exhibition hockey games or that aren't deeply interconnected with southern developed hockey communities seem to appreciate the game and NHL alumni more.

"I think they appreciate it more because it is in the Far North and not many teams have exhibition games there," he said. "I remember Whitehorse seemed to appreciate it more because it was Far North.

"I'm not saying they get blasé around here - like around here in Toronto - but when you have teams go up to Whitehorse or Yellowknife, they seem to appreciate it more."

In November, Cherry was fired by Sportsnet after his now infamous 'You people' rant, where he scolded some viewers for not wearing poppies to mark Remembrance Day. Many viewed the outburst as an attack on immigrants. Cherry said although he would rather still be doing Hockey Night In Canada, he felt he was obliged to not apologize for comments when given the chance because he meant what he said. 

"Naturally I would rather be in Yellowknife because I had a lot of fun up North," he said. "And I had a lot of fun on Hockey Night in Canada. But they (Sportsnet) had to do what they had to do and I had to do what I had to do."

Don Cherry Grapevine podcast 

It seems in some ways that he hasn’t missed a step when it comes to hockey broadcasting and he admits he may be entering a new era of hockey media broadcast with his latest Don Cherry Grapevine Podcast.

The "very, very, very, very" first episode was Nov. 18 - a week after he was fired.  

The concept is pretty basic.

"I sit at the kitchen table and we just tell stories," he explained, noting that his son encourages him to tell old hockey stories and he follows through to what amounts to about a half-hour podcast.

"My son does it and runs it and my grandson Del helps to make it sound good. Every Sunday morning I tell stories most of the time. I try not to get involved too much with scores because we find by the time it comes out, it becomes too dated."

Cherry said already the podcast has about a million viewers and is reaching about 30 countries already.

The podcast is the latest form of emerging media that he has used to reach his audience outside of his usual offerings. Among others include the recently concluded Don Cherry’s Rock’Em Sock’Em video compilations of the biggest hits, fights, “beauty goals,” and other hot takes.

"This year we felt that 30 years was enough and you quit when you’re ahead," he said of the videos. "So we stopped that and I know a lot of guys in the NHL used to like the videos and that was how they got into the NHL - watching those videos."

Cherry said he is quite aware that those videos were big at Christmas between 1989 and 2018.  

"They were good stocking stuffers," he said. "I used to laugh because some of the parents would tell me that by the time they would serve the turkey in the afternoon (they were) sick of hearing my voice since that was all they heard all morning.

"(Your mother) probably would have said the same thing."

Other reactions 

During the opening faceoff reception on Wednesday, Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina welcomed the organizers and alumni to the North. He mentioned Cherry to MacLean to much laughter.

"I am thrilled to join you today in offering our warmest welcome to our honoured Hockey Day in Canada guests which includes Ron MacLean," he said. "I wish your buddy was here. It just wouldn't be the same without him. I just had to say that."

Yellowknifer submitted three questions to the City of Yellowknife on Thursday asking what the city's reaction was when it was decided Cherry wouldn't be part of this year's broadcast, when it got word of the development, and whether or not his absence was seen as a setback of the full attraction.

The city provided the following statement in response:

"The City of Yellowknife (the City) has, and continues, to work closely with Scotiabank and Sportsnet in preparation for this week's Scotiabank Hockey day in Canada festivities; discussing regularly the many components involved in organizing such a large event," stated city spokesperson Alison Harrower. "The City is thrilled at the many opportunities and events that both Scotiabank and Sportsnet have brought to Yellowknife for our entire community to enjoy. We hope that residents and visitors alike will enjoy the many events, hockey clinics and community visits where the Cup and players will be visiting schools and other community hubs. We hope to see everyone at Somba K’e Civic Plaza on Saturday, February 8 where Ron MacLean is broadcasting live, nationwide."

Digawolf plays at NACC on Wednesday night Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo
Digawolf plays at NACC on Wednesday night Simon Whitehouse/NNSL photo
Tara Slone, left, and Ron MacLean high-five during the Music of Hockey Day in Canada on Wednesday night at NACC Feb. 5, 2019