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How Don Cherry ran afoul of Sam Pollock, paving a path for Scotty Bowman

A butterfly effect that changed the course of history for the Canadiens.

Don Cherry’s only known photo with the Canadiens

The 1962-63 Montreal Canadiens training camp did not start off well for defenceman Jim Roberts. He was one of the promising defensive prospects who was competing for the departed Al McNeil’s spot on the Canadiens blueline, a list that also included Jacques Laperrière, Terry Harper, and Jean Gauthier, making it stiff competition. If he couldn’t make the team, Roberts would be expected to be a top defender for Montreal’s farm team, the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens. Unfortunately, Roberts didn’t even have the chance to prove himself or to get cut, as he hyperextended the ligaments of his knee during the very first drill of Montreal’s camp, and the initial fear was that he would miss some significant time.

Montreal Canadiens v Boston Bruins
Jim Roberts’ ill-timed injury set off a series of events
Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

In reaction to this, Sam Pollock, the general manager of the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens, did not wait for a full diagnosis and bought the contract of a veteran minor league defenceman from the Detroit Red Wings — 28-year-old Don Cherry. Pollock was familiar with Cherry’s qualities, notably from a bench-clearing brawl Hull-Ottawa had the season before with the Sudbury Wolves, a brawl that earned Sudbury’s Cherry a $15 fine for leaving the team bench. As an aside, Pollock ordered his players to remain on the bench so only Wolves players were disciplined for the incident. When Pollock was asked why he allowed his players to get outnumbered on the ice, he simply shrugged. His team won 7-1.

Cherry arrived at the Canadiens training camp a few days after Roberts’ injury and slotted right into Roberts’ spot in the intrasquad scrimmages.

Cherry took part in his first preseason game on September 21 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The game was in Hull, and the group of players had all the telltale signs of the first round of cuts. Cesare Maniago and Ernest Wakely were in goal; Keith McCreary, Norman Beaudin, Claude Larose, and Herb McGubbin were the right-wingers; Brian Smith, Bob Ellett, Wayne Roddy, and Harold White were on left wing; Billy Carter, John Rodger, Joe Szura, and Bill Masterton would centre; and Gary Bergman, Chuck Hamilton, Jacques Laperrière, Jean Gauthier, Terry Harper, and Don Cherry were on defence.

Despite keeping the defending Stanley Cup champions to a close game of 2-1 after two periods, a change in goaltenders from Magniano to the rookie Wakley was the opening that the Leafs needed to rout the Canadiens 8-1. Cherry did not register a point, or even a penalty, and was outshone by top defensive prospect Laperrière, as well as Gauthier who was called the best defenceman for the Habs despite a bad loss.

Cherry was officially cut by Montreal a few days later, as the Canadiens elected to sign 30-year-old Lou Fontinato to a regular season contract, and kept Gauthier and Laperrière for further evaluation. Cherry’s time with the NHL Montreal Canadiens officially lasted about a week.

Terry Harper On The Ice
Terry Harper was one of the players that Cherry was competing with
Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images

Hull’s next exhibition game was against the Boston Bruins, who were the basement dwellers of the NHL at the time. Sure enough, Hull defeated the Bruins 2-1 on a goal by Harper, showing the strength of the Canadiens' primary farm team compared to top-level teams. The following night in Hawkesbury the Bruins got a measure of revenge by winning 6-2. Cherry received a penalty, his first registered statistic of the preseason.

The Hull-Ottawa Canadiens would then play their parent club four times straight as part of a “goodwill tour” of the province of Quebec.

The first game was in La Tuque, and Hull-Ottawa played the Canadiens to a 3-3 tie, with Gauthier getting a point on each goal (1G, 2A). Toe Blake was very dissatisfied with the performance of his squad, who barely escaped Game One with a tie against their farm team. Game Two moved to Trois-Rivières where the Habs received Blake’s message and routed the Hull Canadiens 9-2. Cherry scored a goal for Hull at 1:57 of the first period to tie the game at 1-1. The third game was in Shawinigan where Cherry scored again, however, it was the only goal for Hull who were pounded by the Canadiens once again in a 9-1 loss.

The fourth game was at the Ottawa Auditorium, and Hull gave the Canadiens everything they had, losing 5-2 after a 2-2 tie after two periods. Cherry did not register on the scoresheet and his competition with Harper, Gauthier, and Laperrière to establish hierarchy was not going strong.

After the series with the Canadiens, Hull-Ottawa continued its exhibition schedule in Pembroke against the Chicago Blackhawks, once again standing their ground against an NHL team, drawing them 2-2. By this point, Wakely had established himself as the starting goaltender for the team, sending Magiano to the Spokane Comets of the Western Hockey League, a secondary farm team for the Canadiens. The following night, the Blackhawks edged the Canadiens 2-1 in Ottawa at the Auditorium, but it cost them dearly as star forward Stan Mikita was injured three minutes into the game and was taken to an Ottawa area hospital for x-rays to his ankle. The entire Canadiens defence received rave reviews for locking down the Blackhawks during these two games, including Cherry who remained strong defensively against top competition without contributing too much to the offence.

After trading wins with the Québec Aces and one more beating at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens completed their preseason calendar and were ready to start the regular season. Cherry, however, did not remain with the team despite a top-four role during the exhibition schedule.

In his book Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories and Stuff, Cherry told the story of how his time in Hull ended, as he was part of the final cuts before the Eastern Professional Hockey League would start their regular season.

After a night of drinking at a bar with a friend, Cherry was approached by Pollock who said, “Don, we sort of had plans for you here, but we understand you were out drinking last night.”

“Well, Sam,” Cherry said, “I only had three or four.”

Pollock replied, “Well, we don’t believe in that around here, and like I said, we had plans for you and I want you to stop.”

Cherry stood his ground, “Look Sam, I can say I’m not going to have any beer and lie to you, but I’ve always had a couple of beers and I see nothing wrong with it.”

“Well, Don,” Pollock said, “I appreciate your honesty. Come to see me tomorrow and we’ll see what we can do.”

The next day Cherry came to Pollock’s office, at which point Pollock informed him that he has been assigned to the Spokane Comets in the WHL, a Canadiens farm team below Hull-Ottawa. The plan that Pollock was referring to, which Cherry found out a bit later, was for Cherry to become a player-coach for the Hull Canadiens.

Don Cherry with the Canadiens affiliated Spokane Comets

Because of his refusal to stop drinking, Cherry lost out on a coaching job within the Canadiens farm system, and perhaps sabotaged a tenure in the organization. Cherry would play out the season on a rough Spokane team that were less worried about wins than getting in fights and where four of the five top scorers were defenceman. His contract wasn’t renewed. He joined the Rochester Americans the following year where he spent the next seven seasons, with the final one in 1971-72 being as a player-coach, launching his post-playing career.

Pollock had been looking for a replacement coach for his two-time champion Hull-Ottawa Canadiens ever since player-coach Bob Armstrong was traded to the Americans for forward Bill Dineen during the 1962 off-season. Pollock started behind the bench of the team for the pre-season, but his management responsibilities meant that he wanted to hand off bench duties to someone else.

NHL Coach Scotty Bowman
Scotty Bowman was Sam Pollock’s right-hand man
Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Cherry would have been his preferred candidate, but after Cherry failed Pollock’s character test, Pollock turned to Canadiens’ scout Scotty Bowman, who was acting as the team’s assistant coach to start the season. Pollock knew Bowman well, having previously selected him to coach the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens in 1958 — a team that Bowman took all the way to a Memorial Cup conquest. Bowman then went on to coach another Canadiens-affiliated junior team, the Peterborough Petes, before returning to the Canadiens as a scout.

Gradually, Pollock handed over bench duties to Bowman and by December, Bowman had stepped full-time into the role that was initially going to be offered to Cherry. The path was set for Bowman. The following season, Bowman was assigned head coaching duties to the new farm team in Omaha, then he made his mark with the Montreal Junior Canadiens, before leaving the Canadiens organization to pursue a head coaching opportunity with the NHL St. Louis Blues. He took the expansion team to three consecutive Stanley Cup finals in the late 60s.

When the ’70s came around, Cherry and Bowman were locked in perhaps the most storied rivalry in NHL history as head coaches of the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens respectively, two teams at the height of their might. In Cherry’s book he wrote that Bowman once told him that “if he and his wife were going to have a baby boy, they would name him Stanley’” and Cherry’s reply was, “Well, when I have my baby boy, I’m gonna name him Finals”. Bowman would always get the upper hand thanks to his legendary roster of future hall-of-famers.

The two heated rivals actually came together to coach Team Canada in 1976 for the Canada Cup, a championship team that was put together by Pollock.

Lest we forget, when Irving Grundman, Pollock’s replacement as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, was looking for a successor to head coach Claude Ruel, one of the apparent candidates was Cherry, which would have brought full circle Cherry’s unfulfilled destiny. Could you even imagine? The job eventually went to Bob Berry, which, in hindsight, might have been a worse decision than giving the job to Cherry.

SEP 26 1979, OCT 11 1979; Cherry, Don - Ind. Coach;
Cherry, in his prime as head coach of the Boston Bruins
Photo By Lyn Alweis/The Denver Post via Getty Images