The spiritual side of Don Cherry

Learning to not judge a book by the cover

I must admit that when I watch Don Cherry on Coach’s Corner, spirituality is not the first word that springs to mind! But obviously I have been overlooking a little-known but important part of his life.

He remembers the day he was laid off as a construction worker. “The jackhammer was my speciality,” he says. “Strong back, weak mind.”

He was embarrassed and humiliated to have to tell his wife Rose and their children that he was unable to get a job. Eventually he found employment – painting at $2 an hour.

He even tried being a car salesman. “I established myself as the worst car salesman in the world,” he jokes.

His conclusion? “I couldn’t seem to do anything right.” As far as he was concerned, he was “a failure at 36 years old. Nothing to look forward to in life.” It was one of his bleakest moments.

“One afternoon,” he recalls, “I lay down in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking of the mess I’d made of my life. Suddenly something seemed to tell me to get on my knees and ask the Lord to help, which I did. I prayed, ‘Lord, is this it? What am I going to do? I can’t get a job. My life is just one big failure. I am embarrassed to look my wife and kids in the eye.’ ”

He gets a tad mystical at this point, saying, “A light or something came in the room and somehow I knew exactly what I was going to do. A voice or something came into my mind: ‘a comeback in hockey.’ ”

But the reality was, he hadn’t played in two years. “It would be tough sledding.”

He called, then visited, the general manager of the Rochester American Hockey Club, Doug Adam.

“I’m going to make this club or die,” Cherry later told his wife.

Unfortunately, “the feel of the game” escaped him. “I was doing okay,” he says, “but it wasn’t there.”

However, whenever he was discouraged, the inner voice would coach him, “Keep going.”

“I was back, feeling great, playing super, getting picked as a star of the game, top of the world.”

Unknown to him, black days were forming on the horizon.

He was understandably heartbroken when he was benched.

Long story short, after a fan attacked Doug Adam, Cherry was made coach, something he knew how to do. “I was born to coach,” he says.

The team played terrifially well, but missed the playoffs by a single point. Cherry was fired.

One day, Cherry received a call from one of the nine businessmen who had bought the Rochester Americans, Bob Clarke, asking him to coach.

Without batting an eyelash, Cherry accepted, then offered to be general manager, as well, for the same dollars, all fifteen thousand.

“We packed the arena with fans,” Cherry recollects. “The players I had were players nobody wanted, just like me. It was us against the world.” The team won and, he says, “just kept winning. In fact, we were first overall in the league and I was rated Coach of the Year.”

When Cherry was contacted by the Boston Bruins Hockey Club of the NHL and asked to be coach, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I remember my first game behind the Boston bench,” he says. “As I looked around at the crowd and out on the ice to see Bobby Orr and all the great Bruins who I was coaching, I thought back to my room in Rochester where I couldn’t get a job sweeping floors and how I asked the Lord for help and to show me the way. I remembered how black and despondent and embarrassed I was. In only three years He pointed the way and I was back on top of the world. In just three years, and they say there is no God. The Lord rescued me in my darkest hour.”

I am reminded of the Lord’s words to Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NASB). Perhaps I should heed the title of a 1962 song by rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley, “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.”

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Following a 35-year career as an ordained minister, Burton K. Janes is now a freelance editor, writer and online instructor. He lives in Newfoundland where he maintains his own blog burtonkjanes.com

  • I was taught by one of Don Cherry’s former pastors (Dr. Victor Shepherd). He tells of a story of where Cherry would listen intently to his sermons and tell him after what he did right or wrong in hockey commentary style. 🙂