Don Cherry is on the set of Hockey Night in Canada during a press conference for Keep Your Head Up, Kid: The Don Cherry Story — a new movie about the legendary hockey commentator’s life.
A photographer snaps his photo, and when the job is done, he asks Cherry if he will take a photo with his son, who stands nearby in a Boston Bruins shirt.
"Of course," says Cherry.
The photographer snaps a few photos then switches spots with his son to get his own photo taken, with a thumbs-up pose.
"You always tell it like it is Don," the man says. "I can’t tell you how much we appreciate that about you."
Better than words, the scene tells the story of Cherry’s place in Canadian hockey. Love him or hate him, he is one of the most recognizable faces in the sport. The kind of face professional photographers will go out of their way to get a personal photo with.
It’s a face that we’ve seen for decades on Coach’s Corner, in Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos, and showing up at random rinks across the country. But Keep Your Head Up, Kid portrays a Don Cherry that will be new to many.
The four-hour television movie airs on CBC in two parts on Sunday, March 28 and Monday, March 29.
"So much like Rose"
Written and produced by his son, Tim Cherry, the movie chronicles the first part of Don Cherry’s life, before he joined Coach’s Corner in the early 1980s.
And that story is as much about his wife, Rose Cherry, as it is about him.
During the press conference for the film, Cherry choked up as he recalled the first time he witnessed actress Sarah Manninen portraying his wife.
"I saw Sarah in the scene talking like Rose, and I had to leave," he told CBCSports.ca. "She was so much like Rose."
Rose died of cancer in 1997.
The film tells of Cherry’s long, persistent journey through the minor leagues. In a 20-year career, he played one NHL game with the Boston Bruins in 1955. Through it all, Rose stood by his side.
"If she hadn’t of stuck with me, what would I have done? Not once did she ever complain. Not once," he said. "That means a lot to a guy that can’t make the National Hockey League."
Success, failure, and perseverance
Actor Jared Keeso portrays Cherry in the film. He calls it a "story about success and failure and perseverance."
Keeso grew up playing minor hockey in Listowel, Ont., and he recalls the ritual of watching Cherry in Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em videos on roundtrips and before games.
"So I have a huge amount of respect for the guy, and it was a great honour to get to play him in the story of his life," he said.
Manninen, who plays Rose, was given scrapbooks and silent home-movies from the Cherry family to prepare for the role.
She watched an episode of CBC’s Life and Times featuring Rose, again and again to get her voice and mannerisms down.
It was Rose’s endless support that carried Don to where he is today, Manninen said.
"It was everything. She was everything," she said. "They moved 53 times. Don at 36 was unemployed. There was struggle. It wasn’t like they had this great, easy life."
Keep Your Head Up, Kid is the story behind a man who is both adored and reviled across the nation for speaking his mind every Saturday night.
And for Cherry, a man who is normally used to the spotlight, these chapters reveal a vulnerable part of who he is. It took Tim Cherry six years to convince his dad to allow the film to me made.
"I just thought it was too personal, to tell you the truth," Cherry said.
When he was finally persuaded, Cherry made sure the story didn’t shy away from the gritty truth about his career.
"I was a jerk and a selfish guy — there’s no doubt about it," Cherry laughed. "Especially when I was coaching."
Cherry hasn’t watched the film yet, and he says he knows it’s going to be difficult when he does on Sunday night, "just the same as everybody else, with the commercials and the whole deal.
"I’m going to watch it alone, down in my basement with my dog Blue and my goldfish," he said.
"I’m very nervous, I’m very nervous." Cherry said, pausing then laughing. "I’m very nervous."