I watched the second part of the Don Cherry Story “The Wrath of Grapes” last night. This was the final instalment of the CBC mini-series dramatizing the life of this controversial hockey broadcasting icon; player; husband; fighter; father. I thought he was portrayed superbly by little known actor Jared Keeso who elevated the script to credible heights. Don’s late wife Rose was played by Sarah Manninen who was equally appealing. I enjoyed the entire ride for several reasons: I love hockey, I love Grapes and I love underdogs.
I can take claim to understanding the cultural backdrop of this movie for many reasons. Growing up in Sault Ste. Marie in Northern Ontario, hockey was and still is everything. For starters, my mother’s next-door neighbors were Phil and Tony Esposito. Mom was a few years older than Phil and Tony but she recalls how they used to take shots on each other across the street against the garage door of the church. My first cousin went on to coach in the OHL for many, many years and even had a cup of coffee with the Buffalo Sabres as an assistant coach for a few years. These are just two examples that quickly come to mind! I could literally give you a list of dozens of friends and relatives who’ve made it beyond the borders of our steel town but I’d be writing all day. For my money, my cousin Marc sure was damned good. I always felt he should have got a shot with The Greyhounds (our OHL team) but things aren’t always fair in that world. Politics has a lot to do with it – unfortunately. Suffice to say, when I was a young kid, everyone strapped on the blades, hit the outdoor rinks and played non-stop for about four months during the long, cold winters. This, of course, was before the effects of deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels kicked in. (Please don’t write me hate mail with your contrarian positions on global warming. You’re wrong. 97% of climatologists are right. Screw you and the Hummer you rode in on!)
It was always just a game of shinny – a pickup game without equipment where old and young met skilled and non-skilled players and we played for the simple joy of the sport. Sometimes it was just ball hockey on the street where everyone could participate. Just show up, grab a stick and bingo – you’re in the game. (We tried tennis balls and sponge pucks for a while but nothing worked as well as those orange balls. That said – the frozen orange ball left more guys curled up in fetal position in the middle of the road after taking one to the baby-makers. Poor chump would be lying there for five minutes until someone would yell ‘CAR’ and we’d carry him off and throw him into the snow bank. Somebody reassure me they’ve taken those weapons off the market!) All of this happened during the off-hours before you went down to the indoor rink to play organized hockey.
To play indoors, you had to have enough money for the annual dues and the required equipment. That stuff could really add up. You also needed parents who had time and interest. A lot of hockey moms filled those seats everyday while dads were working night shifts at Algoma Steel. It was just the way it was. The league I was a part of was still just amateur hour. Two guys I played with back then made it to the NHL and as for the rest, I’d catch up with them about ten years later in pubs laughing about the old days. The ‘show’ was down at The Memorial Gardens where the Greyhounds played. The ‘downtown’ league as we called it is where some guys were just a bit bigger and better than the rest of us. Hell I was a ‘hundred pounds soaking wet’ back then and wasn’t prepared for what brand of hockey was ahead of me. It all ended one day when my face met with the right hand of a bruiser (yup…he was one of the two guys to make it to the dance). When they woke me up on the bench, I realized it may be time to consider another hobby. Uh – let’s see, what ELSE might impress girls? Music! Yeah that’s it! Somehow a guitar showed up in our house at around the same time I heard Neil Young’s album – Harvest, and soon my dreams of becoming the next Bobby Orr faded into childhood memory. I’m thankful for that. There comes a time when nature forces you to hang up the blades, but that’s not the case with music. (That guitar doesn’t have to go back on the wall until I say it does!) That said we would continue playing pick-up games whenever we could and to this day it’s still my favourite sport to play. Nothing even comes close! (In my very humble opinion).
Many, many years later I was reading an article in The Saturday Evening Post on the secret life of Don Cherry as told through his wife Rose. The article really highlighted how Don carried himself while off camera. I’d watched him on Coaches Corner from day one and like most Canadians was enthralled by how he seemed to be speaking for US! The guys from blue-collared towns who understood the game and all that came with it. Yeah sure he’d go offside on political correctness every once in a while but that could be forgiven. To me, he’s like that crazy uncle after a few beers. He’s just speaking his mind – unfiltered – openly – honestly. Don’t agree with him? Turn off your TV. Don’t like that he’s on a public broadcaster? Don’t like that he’s often loud, obnoxious, offensive, and abrupt? Don’t like his stance on our military, fighting in hockey, visors, hanging with Boss Hogg down at city hall calling folks Pinkos? Don’t like his suits, his restaurants, his branding? You don’t like that? Good. Write a letter to someone who cares…not to me. I like him. If more people just said what they honestly feel about – anything and everything – we’d be getting somewhere. Sometimes, people just find themselves in the position of being a catalyst.That’s what Don has become and he speaks to the blue-collar folks and he does it in his own voice with his own style. My dad has a different take on it. He says Don and Ron are nothing more than an updated version of Abbot and Costello – and he makes great point. It IS first and foremost – entertainment.
That is why when I read Rose’s account of Don’s secret home life it really struck a chord with me. The loud mouth on our TV every Saturday night was actually a quiet, loving family man – a guy who enjoyed the company of his wife, kids and friends, a few beers with his buddies, or going for a stroll with his dog. This story told candidly from his wife Rose, reminded me of just about every one of my friends dads I’d met in my neighborhood growing up. Working class guys who lived to finish their shift at the plant just to get back to their loved ones.
Further on down the road, I found myself in a sports bar in North Carolina with a woman I had been seeing for a few years. Perhaps she was the muse of my life. Why? Hell, I don’t think I’ve written songs like the ones I did when I was with Lois. That night in the NASCAR bar, I was trying to explain to a room full of American rednecks who Don Cherry really IS! What he means to us Canadians. Lois, who despised everything to do with this southern ‘good old boys’ mentality was always quick to turn away when I slipped into my Northern Ontario dialect to begin defining this culture. It was only when I explained to her what his wife Rose had said about Don in that article – then she seemed to listen. The next day she went to work while I lounged around her house (like a good songwriter should) and wrote a song about Don and Rose. I wrote it as if I was Don who was still mourning the fact that Rose (who had passed away several years earlier) was gone for good. The symbols and sentiment came quickly and easily and the song wrote itself in about twenty minutes. This couldn’t have happened without Lois. She arrived home later that day and suggested I mail a copy of the song to the CBC. I sang it on to a cassette with a little note and my phone number and dropped it in the mail.
One month later, I was back in my apartment at 10:00 am when the phone rang. “Hi, is this Jay Aymar?”
“Yeah, who’s this?” I said. “It’s Don Cherry.” Assuming it was my friend who’d occasionally call to prank me with fake voices I responded “F-off Jim!” The voice on the other end of the line laughed out loud – and it was with this laugh I knew it was not Jim – “No, this is Don Cherry Jay. I’m just calling to let you know that we listened to the song last night. Tim, Cindy and me – we wanted to thank you personally.” This is what I remember of the phone call at least. We talked for a few more minutes about how and why I wrote the song and he gave me his blessing to record it. At that moment in time I felt so satisfied for having written that song. My heart told me this guy was really was a good guy – deep down – and there he was taking time out of his day to call and thank me. Not a lot of people would do that – he did.
I’ve since received some very nice letters from Mr. Cherry over the years thanking me for the song. His wife Rose sounded like a true saint and an amazing woman whose life ended much too early. The song was eventually covered by Ian Tyson which was definitely a game changer for me. (Better than any accolade imaginable). Chances are, if you like him, you’ve seen the movie. If you hate him, you’ll likely never see the movie and probably never come to one of my concerts. That’s my Catch 22 you see. The song I’m most identified with in the folk world doesn’t play to the audience I’m performing to. All the better I say. Sure I could pander with songs about social protest, and saving the whales and such….but to glorify Don Cherry to a room full of folkies? That’s tough. That’s a fighter. That’s a good Canadian boy.
As for today…. I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Here’s a free download of Ian Tyson’s version courtesy of Stony Plain Music (go to the CD “From Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories” – scroll down and find mp3 offer for free download)
Here’s a link to a You Tube video with my version: