Don Cherry was an original behind Bruins’ bench
He was as much a ringmaster as a coach, and his players on the Bruins’ bench were gleeful participants in the raucous, intoxicating Black and Gold circus. They were having fun, buckets of it, big buckets, and none of them wore a bigger smile than Don Cherry.
There was also, undeniably, the rarest of connections between the Bruins coach and the fans who stuffed the Garden on a nightly basis. They loved his dog, Blue. They loved his stories of years in the minor leagues. They loved his crazy sports jackets and his tongue that often was as tart and unpredictable as his wardrobe. Surely he dressed in the dark, maybe in the mixing room of a Chelsea paint factory.
He fashioned his crew as a blue-collar team, in a time when the crowd on Causeway showed up in tattered jeans, flannel shirts, and work boots, the stout among them stopping for a pregame shot-and-beer at the Iron Horse. It was a hardscrabble and intimate bunch, both in the stands and in uniform.
“We really had a family,” Cherry said the other day, eagerly looking forward to his return to the Garden Wednesday night. “And it was us against everybody . . . the other team, the owner, the front office, the media, the refs, the league . . . everybody.
“And it worked for us, eh? We sure won a lot of games.”
And hearts. Cherry’s teams swept up hearts like a member of the Bull Gang cleaning up caps after a Rick Middleton hat trick. They came up short on Stanley Cups. But they lacked nothing in entertainment. Fun oozed out of games as if blood from a heavyweight’s split lip.
Cherry, 84, is coming back to Hub to be feted by The Sports Museum, our cherished guardian of sports memories, at its annual Tradition ceremony (Garden doors open Wednesday at 5 p.m.). He is among an august group of honorees, including Paul Pierce, Julie Foudy, Jim Lonborg, Deion Branch, and Richard Petty.
Terry O’Reilly, quite aptly, will introduce his old coach. It is impossible to discuss that era of the Cherry-coached Bruins (1974-79) without mentioning O’Reilly. Age 23 when Cherry was named coach, even with Bobby Orr still here it was O’Reilly who soon became the franchise face and fury.
The fit was symbiotic. A coach, with both Orr and Phil Esposito soon gone, who both needed and craved to reboot the franchise’s Big, Bad image. A player who could deliver it with both hands. In Cherry’s five seasons, O’Reilly delivered 107 goals. But more to the point, or punch, he amassed 859 penalty minutes.
“We were in Philly one night and Terry got into a good scrap with [Dave] Schultz,” Cherry recalled. “OK, so next game he’s hurt and he’s got to go easy, right? He can’t use the hand. But I’ve got him on the bench because, you know, we’re not going to give the Flyers the satisfaction of knowing he got hurt going with Schultz.”
In the grander scheme, it was a Cherry tenet always to cover for injured players. NHL paychecks were on the rise, but still fairly modest, in the mid-’70s. A third-liner who missed a week could be demoted and never see a real paycheck again. Want to build a family environment? Protect the injured, they’ll pay back their saved pennies with pounds of their own flesh.
On the night O’Reilly was nursing his bad hand, recalled Cherry, the Garden crowd was abuzz, The Gallery Gods were shouting Taz’s name from the second balcony. Even the better-heeled bunch in the loge, all but able to reach down and tap the coach on the shoulder, were giving it to Cherry.
“Finally,” he said, “I shouted over the glass, ‘Look, O’Reilly can’t go, OK? He’s got a bad hand!’ Imagine doing that today? Injury updates, right there from the bench?”
O’Reilly should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, by Cherry’s eye. Ditto for Middleton, who will see his number raised to the Garden rafters Thursday, with Cherry in the crowd (you know, family). No one poured his heart into his work, every shift, like O’Reilly. Middleton was magic.
“Skating . . . hands, moves . . . Nifty had it all,” said Cherry. “But he had to learn the checking game, eh? First year, I had to introduce him to our goalie, because he was never in our end.”
Cherry’s teams, as great and engaging as they were, had the misfortune of running up against the Canadiens’ last great dynasty (Cups 1976-79). They lost to the Habs in the Cup Final in ’77 and ’78. Worse, they were bounced by them again in the semis in ’79, their fate sealed by the infamous “too many men on the ice” call at the Forum.
“Years later, someone said to me, ‘Well, you wouldn’t be on TV if not for that,’ ” said Cherry, now approaching 40 years as a broadcast icon on Canadian television. “Yeah, I hadn’t thought of that at the time . . . but still, I’d trade it all for the Stanley Cup.”
In retrospect, he also might like a do-over with Harry Sinden, his boss in those years as the Bruins general manager. In the “us against the world” mantra that Cherry perfected, he realized later that he alienated Sinden. The two now have what Cherry characterizes as a cordial relationship, but it is far from what it was initially, when he felt Sinden was “almost like a brother.”
“Mostly my fault,” explained Cherry. “I turned the players against everybody. Like I say, family. We hated the league. We hated everybody. And Harry got caught in the middle. But he couldn’t fire me, because we kept winning. But . . . it was just me being a dink.”
This is likely Cherry’s last bow on Causeway, a curtain call in a town he once owned like no other coach, in any sport, ever in this city. By his own admission, it was not perfect. In the end, it proved to be but five more links in a chain that went 39 years without a title (1972-2011).
But, man, for five years it was fun, strikingly so now when it’s not as easy to fall in love with the characters and coaches who make our games.
For ticket information for The Tradition, go to: sportsmuseum.org or call 617-624-1231.
Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought” appears regularly in the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at email@example.com.