By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
It was right after a game between the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres in Memorial Auditorium, somewhere during the 1978-79 season. Teams came off the ice and then went down a short corridor before arriving in their respective locker rooms. Then the media would line up in that corridor to talk to the coach and players in that order.
Usually the queue of those wishing to hear the visiting coach was on the short side, but it wasn’t the case on this night. Don Cherry was in town, and that meant we were ready to be entertained.
You never knew where a conversion with Cherry might go, but you knew that the next five minutes would be more fun than spending hours with any other coach in sports – and maybe any other person of any kind. He might talk about the game, or his dog Blue, or anything else. One time Cherry was asked why he put a non-scoring forward on the ice at a key time – someone who surprised everyone by scoring a goal. Cherry looked upward to the heavens and said, “I had a vision …” – which drew howls of laughter. The Bruins coach quickly added, “Of course, if it hadn’t worked it wouldn’t have been much of a vision.”
By the spring of 1979, it was an open secret that Cherry and Bruins general manager Harry Sinden weren’t getting along, and that Cherry would be out of a job. By coincidence, the Sabres had interim hires at the positions of general manager and coach. The dream scenario for Buffalo’s fans was for Scotty Bowman to become general manager and Cherry to become coach. I have no doubt that the Buffalo media would have donated to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign – had such a thing existed then – to pay Cherry’s salary to come here.
Alas, Cherry’s next – and as it turned out final – coaching job in the NHL was in Colorado, with a Rockies team that was awful. One time in Buffalo – still popular with the media – he told this story after a game.
“Remember what happened when I came off the ice after beating the Sabres here?” Cherry said. “I’d point to our locker room and put up one finger – as in No. 1 – and then point to their locker room and put up two fingers – as in they were No. 2. A reporter asked me what I was going to do now that I was with Colorado (a bad team at the time). I said, ‘I’ve got 10 fingers and 10 toes.’ And the guy said, well, the Rockies are at the bottom of the league, which has 21 teams. So to be funny, I said, ‘I guess I’ll have to drop my pants.’
“Can you believe that guy actually put that in the paper?”
Cherry only lasted a year with the Rockies, but soon found his niche with Hockey Night in Canada. He did a segment called “Coach’s Corner” during the first intermission. The public apparently liked hearing from Don as much as the media did. I can remember going up to Toronto to cover a Sabres’ game at one point, and being surprised at how many media members stood in the press box to watch Cherry’s performance between the first and second periods.
That sort of popularity proved lucrative, as Cherry was a good enough self-promoter to cash in on it. A series of hockey videos and books soon followed, as did a chain of sports bars. I remember going to the opening of one in Fort Erie.
Still, Cherry’s remarks frequently danced up to the line of good taste. His anti-international, pro-fighting viewpoints were the subject of discussion almost from the beginning. His name came up as an agenda item at summer meeting of the NHL’s public relations directors in the late 1980s. (Note: I was in the room for that meeting.) Was Cherry’s opinion a helpful one for the growth of the league? Did his remarks about foreign players constitute a possible legal problem for the NHL in terms of civil rights?
But he survived that and everything else to work for more than 30 years. Cherry may have danced to the edge of good taste quite a bit, but his personal popularity sometimes saved him. That’s in spite of the fact that his views on parts of the game became something of an throwback to another era. The game at the NHL level has never been better than it is now, as great players from all nations fill the sport with talent. Fighting is about gone too.
Cherry’s career went on and on – he’s 85 now. You knew it might take a good-sized misstep to push him out the door, and it came last week. “You people that come here… you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you can pay a couple bucks for a poppy or something like that,” he said on the air. “These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.” As has been said, it’s never a good idea to start a speech with “you people.”
There are stories circulating that Sportsnet was looking for an excuse to drop Cherry and his big salary. If so, this was it. The NHL and Sportsnet both slammed him, and host Ron MacLean apologized for not responding to the statement immediately. Cherry was gone on Canada’s Remembrance Day – a twist of fate considering his vocal and longstanding support of the military. Sometimes people overstay their welcome, and this exit was a particularly messy one.
His departure created mixed feelings. I won’t miss the guy that forced North America to look up the word “xenophobic” a few times over the years. I will miss the guy the guy who was genuinely entertaining about hockey for the most part over the course of my entire adult life.
Meanwhile on the ice …
The trip to Europe apparently didn’t do anything for the Sabres’ fortunes. They had dropped three in a row before going to Sweden, lost two games there, and returned home to lose to Carolina, 5-4 in overtime, on Thursday night.
So that’s 0-4-2 in Buffalo’s last six. The team that at one point in the young season was 8-1-1 now has as many wins as losses (9-6-3). In other words, the benefits of that great start essentially are gone.
“Pretty angry,” Jeff Skinner said when asked about the mood of the team. “We’re not happy.”
The game could be divided rather neatly into two halves. The Sabres did plenty wrong in the first 35 minutes or so, falling behind by a score of 3-1. Not helping matters was the fact that the team had three power plays in that span, and didn’t score on any of them. The unit has been unable to find the net as of late.
“We’re not getting enough shots,” coach Ralph Krueger said. “We’re looking for the perfect goal. We need to get something ugly.”
A spark came from a very unexpected source. Curtis Lazar, playing in his first game as a Sabre, scored on a breakaway to cut the Hurricanes’ lead to 3-2. From there, Buffalo attacked much more often and they carried the play for most of the rest of the game. Henri Jokiharju tied the game with 6:25 left, only to see Andrei Svechnikov untie it for the Canes with about four minutes to go.
This seemed destined to be another disappointing loss for Buffalo within a group of them – until Skinner’s shot in the final minute bounced off Johan Larsson and into the net. Alas, Carolina had the puck for most of overtime, and Dougie Hamilton teed one up from the faceoff dot to beat Carter Hutton and get the win.
“Things aren’t exactly going our way,” Krueger said. “Getting the late goal and fighting our way into overtime, I thought there’s something to take with us as far as the fight and resiliency go. But I was disappointed in the loss, and we need to go further back to find out why we didn’t generate more in the first 30 minutes.”
Buffalo stays home to play Ottawa on Saturday night.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)