The following is a fascinating interview with Don Cherry in May of 2008 from the Russian magazine “Sport Express”.
Don talks about his favourite Russian player of all time, and about others including Alex Ovechkin, whom the Habs encounter on Friday night. This article has been translated into English.
Don Cherry Loves Ovechkin
Don Cherry: “We will beat you in Vancouver!”
Who doesn’t know Don Cherry? Everyone knows Don Cherry! There is no better known hockey commentator in North America than this former Boston coach and owner of countless crazy jackets, more colorful than a flock of peacocks. All of Canada drops what they are doing during the “Coaches Corner” segment of the popular “Hockey Night in Canada” show to tune in and see what the former Adams Trophy winner and number one Canadian patriot will say next.
Recently, the largest television channel in Canada organized a nationwide vote for the “Greatest Canadian of All Time”. Canadians’ love for hockey is not as universal as you might think, and public and political figures won the top spots. Wayne Gretzky only made it to tenth place. Two places behind Don Cherry.
Old-time Don is uncompromising in his Canadian conservatism. He praises those who play with wooden sticks, and mercilessly flames Sidney Crosby for his lack of manliness. He has become famous as a fierce hater of Europeans and “Frenchies” who don’t know how to fight decently. He smothers the final words of anyone who excessively and extravagantly celebrates goals. He makes patriotic speeches and honors Canadian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. In general, he is a wonderful character in his own unique way.
I have to admit that Don has me slightly intimidated. An old friend of mine, a leading reporter for the Canadian Press agency, warned me that Don would just a soon try and punch a Russian in the eye as say a single word to him. In reality, everything turned out much easier. The colorful 74 year old commentator whom I met at a Detroit practice session, along with his no less well-known TV partner Ron MacLean, was unbelievably pleasant. Even Don’s jacket on this non-broadcast day was a muted grey color. And his opinions of Russia were far from as radical as you might have expected.
Cherry adores both talking about and sharing his insights about hockey.
BURE WAS THE BEST RUSSIAN
-You have a reputation as a great patriot of Canadian hockey…
-Could you define “Canadian Hockey”? What does that mean to you?
-“I will tell you that I am not a big fan of the hockey that the NHL teams are playing now. I would give me great pleasure to see how Pavel Bure would play in today’s league—with his ability to play open hockey, he would hit 70 goals. By the way, he is my favorite Russian hockey player of all time.
-To be honest, you just surprised me. As I recall, you weren’t very flattering of him.
-“At one time, yes. If you remember, at the very beginning of his career I once said something about Pavel. This happened after he sneakily tripped Cam Neely (former Boston star and one of the greatest “big” forwards of the NHL..ed.). After that I was okay with him. But Pavel turned into one of my favorites after he elbowed Shane Churla (former Dallas forward.. ed.) in the head. When I saw that, I immediately said “this is my kind of hockey player!”
-And what did you call him, when he knocked down Neely?
-“A skunk. (equivalent to “rat” in Russian.. ed.). But I will repeat that I grew very fond of him. That guy had courage. He played hockey like it should be played. It was a real tragedy what happened to his knee…”
-You’ve seen a lot of Russian players. Why exactly do you choose Bure?
-“Boldness. He reminds me of Bobby Orr with his love for risk. By the way, just like Bobby it was for this reason that he was forced to leave hockey at a young age. If he saw a hole, he went for it. If he had to hit someone, he wasn’t afraid of hitting the boards. Unfortunately, those types of hockey players don’t last long in the game. Yes, in my opinion, he should be a standard for all Russian players. I haven’t seen anyone better.”
MALKIN NEEDS TO BE SHAKEN UP
-So let’s return to Canadian hockey..
-“It’s very simple. Did you see the goal that Dan Cleary scored in the first match of the finals? That is my type of Canadian Hockey. Forward to the net, throw the puck into the zone, a lot of fights, a lot of powerful hits… I also love fights (and who doesn’t?), but strong hits are more important.”
-And how did you like the Russian players in the series? All three attackers and Gonchar on defense?
-“Why wouldn’t I like them? But I will tell you that when I was coaching at Boston, I had the best attacking defenseman of all time, Bobby Orr. Now there was a player! This attacking defenseman took hip checks and blocked shots.”
-Sort of like Malkin, for example?
-“Someone needs to shake that boy up. You are Russian, so you tell me—why has he been playing so terribly the last two rounds?”
-He told me yesterday that he was nervous.
-“I hope he gets it together. If he doesn’t start playing better, his team won’t win a single match. They are depending on him very heavily, eh? It seemed to me that he was really shook up after a hard hit by Richards in the Philadelphia series. He hasn’t played the same since.”
-Do you like his style? He tries to stay out of the hot spots on the ice…
-“He will be okay, if he can only get mad and start to play like someone has offended him. He doesn’t have enough of that in him right now. If he can’t—the series will end in four games.”
HOCKEY NEEDS ANIMOSITY BETWEEN CANADA AND RUSSIA
-It seems that of all the Russian players, Ovechkin is most “your type”.
-“Oh yes. I really like Ovechkin. He plays like you have to play hockey. He has speed, he shoots, he hits… I think that he is the best player in the world. Anyway, from my point of view.”
-Can you share your impression of the first World Championships held on Canadian soil?
-“I really liked it. The Russians played great, but we weren’t any worse. If there wasn’t a stupid penalty at the end, you could say that the teams were equal. Of course, we didn’t have some players available, but that was the same for the Russians. Generally it was really a good thing that the Russians played better, because an animosity between Canada and Russia is really necessary. For some reason, in Canada everyone loves to watch just because of that.”
-Did the Russian team surprise you?
-”Yes, that they played with such emotion. I am always impressed when a team plays strongly and with passion. This might be the influence of Ovechkin. He is a great guy! He isn’t afraid of contact, and he loves to fight for the puck.”
-Do you think he has a chance to become one of the greatest players…
-…in the history of the NHL?
-“Whoa, now hold on a second. In history? Let’s not go nuts here. In the top ten—if he keeps up the same tempo, for sure. But the best?…. Hmmmmm.”
-So who is the best?
-“Oh, Bobby Orr! Who else? Think about it—this guy left hockey due to a knee injury when he was 31 years old. His last high-production year was when he was 27, in 1975. Look at the statistics—I know them by heart: 46 goals (league leader!), 89 assists. And this is for a defender! And now, most important: his +/- rating in his best season was +128! (actually, +124.. ed.). The guy who will win the prize this year for +/- only has a +45 rating (Pavel Datsyuk, actually +41..ed.). He is the best player in the history of hockey. Neither you nor I will ever see anyone better.”
I AM THE LAST CANADIAN
-What do you personally remember most from the Russian-Canadian hockey animosity?
-“My favorite episode was the “Punch-up in Piestany” (the mass fight at the Junior Hockey World Championships in Czechoslovakia in 1987..ed.). This was one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever experienced in hockey. I was especially surprised by how well the Russians could dish it out. I thought we’d mop the ice with them, but those boys stood up. Great memories.”
-By the way, do you remember Andrei Nazarov, the only Russian enforcer in the NHL? He is working now as a commentator for the playoffs. What do you have to say about him?
-“He was a decent guy, who could drop the gloves well. Generally speaking, the Russians have gotten closer, but as far as enforcers go, they really can’t compete with us.”
-In Canada there are stereotypes concerning Russian players, which, by the way, you have done your part to spread. Concerning the lack of passion, the fear of contact…
-“Ahh, that’s ancient history! Canadians adore Russians! They love them more than they love their own! When I was returning from Quebec, I heard someone on the radio say that he was happy that the Russians won. Can you believe that?”
-And why was he happy?
-“How the hell would I know? Everyone has lost their minds. I alone remain 100% Canadian. Right now I am probably more like you Russians. You love Russia, and in the same manner I love Canada. And half of the Canadian (censored…ed.) go mad about the Russians.”
OVECHKIN THE CANADIAN
-So you personally now view Russian hockey players in a new light?
-“This is all because of Ovechkin. We keep returning to the exact same players in our conversation- Orr, Bure and Ovechkin, and there is a reason for this. I don’t think that you have ever had a player like Ovechkin. Never. He plays like a Canadian! Seriously, think about it. Just like one of ours. Can I give him a higher compliment?”
-And what do you think of Fedorov?
-“He is good. Fedorov, Larionov—I like them. But Ovechkin stands alone. He is following in Bure’s footsteps—the best Russian.
-What type of future is there for the great hockey animosity between Russia and Canada?
-“An outstanding one. Canadians will take care of this. Of course we don’t have anything against games with the Swedes or the Finns, but oh how we love to beat the Russians!”
-Do you think that in Vancouver in two years these two teams will be the unconditional favorites?
-“Yes. The Swedes and the Finns- are normal teams, but the Russians will be in the lead. With Canada.
-And your prognosis for the final?
-“Just let it try and not come true! We will beat you.”