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A coach in God's corner

Rock' em, sock' em Cherry tries to practise what he preaches

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Don Cherry

DARREN CALABRESE / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Don Cherry

Don Cherry is such a devout Anglican that on a visit to National Post columnist Fr. Raymon J. de Sousa, he impressed the Catholic priest by reciting the Book of Common Prayer's Confession -- from "Dearly beloved brethren" to the end of the Absolution.

Yes, that Don Cherry, the tough ex-hockey player and coach and controversial take-no-prisoner sports commentator, a fan of rough play and on-ice enforcers who unrepentantly vents against pushy female reporters in male locker rooms and effete European hockey players. But also the spiritual sportscaster who at Christmas tells young Hockey Night in Canada fans not to forget that Dec. 25 is the celebration of Jesus's birthday.

The 79-year-old Cherry is a lifelong Anglican and a member of a group dedicated to preserving worship in the noble cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. "Its language is almost Shakespearean," he says. "The revised prayer book just doesn't capture the beautiful language of our Anglican past."

Committed Anglican though he is and fancier of finery almost sacerdotal in flamboyance, this high priest of hockey never aspired to becoming a clergyman. "I only ever wanted to be a professional hockey player, like most Canadian boys at the time," says Cherry, who was born in Kingston, Ont., during the bleak days of the Great Depression.

And a professional hockey player he became, mostly with American Hockey League teams such as the Hershey Bears and the Rochester Americans.

Cherry credits his strong relationship with God for helping him through one of life's blackest troughs. At age 36, he was not only an over-the-hill failed hockey player, rebuffed by coaches, but a laid-off construction worker with little education, no skilled trade and zero job prospects.

One day, he was lying on his bed staring at the ceiling and thinking dark thoughts. "I was almost ready to end it," he recalls. He got down on his knees and asked God what he should do. "God told me to go back to hockey. I listened, and with his help, I made it back."

Exercising relentlessly in a rubber suit, Cherry lost 20 pounds and, in what he calls a "comeback PR gesture," Rochester's GM rehired him, but not without further damage to his wounded ego.

"After being captain of the championship team the year before, I was put with the rookies. It broke my heart. My gloves even had holes in them!"

Over his years with the Rochester team, as player, captain, coach and general manager, they won the AHL's Calder Cup four times.

Eventually, Cherry moved up to the NHL as head coach of the Boston Bruins. "Three years after I knelt down and prayed to God, I was coaching Bobby Orr," he says.

To this day, Cherry turns to God whenever he has important decisions to make. "For the unimportant ones, I'm on my own."

Was it tough to be a Christian on the benches and in the locker-rooms of professional hockey?

"The worst was on the 10-hour bus rides," he says. "The language was very rough -- hey, I used it myself -- but no one ever took the Lord's name in vain."

Admitting that he sometimes makes decisions that are at odds with his faith, he says, "I always get a guilty feeling about them, and I try to smarten up the next time." And perhaps in the penitent spirit of the Anglican Confession, the unabashed broadcaster will admit error and offer apology, as he publicly did a few years ago after he "threw two enforcers under the bus" in some critical comments in the Coach's Corner segment on Hockey Night in Canada.

But athletes aren't Cherry's only heroes. He has particular admiration for two Anglican priests whose lives intersected with his at his home parish of St. Paul's in Mississauga, Ont. They are Rev. Ben Lochridge, a former U.S. marine who gave up a six-figure salary in New York to become an impecunious Anglican priest, and Rev. Betty Jordan, who, after ministering to drug addicts and street people in downtown Toronto, joined St. Paul's and "turned it around in four years" before moving to Guyana to serve the homeless there.

As an openly Anglican celebrity, Cherry advises Christians in public life to use their prominence to aid the body of Christ. He is frankly bewildered why Christians have come to feel they offend others by professing their faith. "Don't be afraid to say you are Christian. Be proud of it."

Diana Swift writes for the Anglican Journal, where this article originally appeared.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 D15

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