Back in ‘95 I was approached by some old school hockey guys, along with Theo Fluery and Joe Sakic, with a proposal to partner up with them to bring a junior hockey team back to Calgary to play in the WHL. I said count me in and was beyond flattered when they named the team after me - The Calgary Hitmen - and used the colors of my wrestling gear as the team colors!
At the press conference announcing the debut of the team we unveiled a really cool, edgy logo. So cool that as soon as it appeared in the papers the next day calls came into my office non stop from people wanting to know where they could buy T- shirts and jerseys with the awesome new logo. I was WWF World heavyweight champion at the time and when I wore the logo on TV The Calgary Hitmen filled phenomenal numbers of orders to legions of my fans - and hockey fans - from all over the world. Wherever I’d go, from Bangkok to Buffalo, people would show up at autograph sessions and ask me to sign their Hitmen jerseys. Sick and dying Make A Wish kids were often brought to meet me backstage at the wrestling shows, many of them wearing Calgary Hitmen shirts. That anyone would regard me as a role model is something that I always took seriously and did my best to live up to it. In a time when kids are bombarded with so many negative images, kids need heroes. Being The Hitman gave me the opportunity to carry the message that if you work hard, shoot straight, be true to yourself and do the best you can at everything you do, you can make your dreams come true.
Not a bad launch for a local junior hockey team, eh? But back at home, in Calgary, there was trouble. There was a handful of local media types- you could count them on the fingers of one hand - to whom the very thought of a junior league hockey team having any association with a lowly pro wrestler was just too much for them to take.
And as for the cool (successful) logo these nay sayers proclaimed it to be too violent! The logo that replaced it, a cartoon balloon that said Hitmen, was so wimpy that they couldn’t give merchandise away - and after one season it was quietly retired in favor of the original one, which the team still sports today. I honestly believe that if they had kept the lame one, in those early days, it could easily have been the difference to the ruination of The Calgary Hitmen!
During the height of the logo controversy, which fed on itself and took on an overblown life of it’s own, I couldn’t help but smile when I was kicking back watching Hockey Night In Canada and Don Cherry, who I’d never met, brought it up defending both the logo and the team’s association with me. He saw anything that promotes junior hockey and brings in new fans as a good thing.
There are those who said of course Don Cherry wouldn't have a problem with a logo that may have been a little tougher than the rest because the way Grapes likes the game to be played has always been more grit than glamour. Still, it meant a lot to me when he defended me personally and I never forgot it. Now it’s Grapes who is under fire - again.
My view, not that anyone asked me, but here it is anyway, is that Don Cherry is there to entertain us. And he does it very well. His down to Earth delivery is a breath of fresh air from too many look- alike -sound- alike cardboard cut out type announcers. They’re his opinions. He’s talking for himself and like anyone else we’re not going to see eye to eye on every point. So, just agree to disagree and get up and get a pop or something.
I’ve met Don Cherry on a few occasions now and he’s just like the guy on TV. What you see is what you get. The real deal. Journalist Jack Todd, and others, have said that Cherry’s first and most obvious motive is to make money and they allege that he doesn’t care what you or I or anyone has to say about him because he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Let me tell you a little story.
When Wrestlemania came to Canada for the first time, back in 1990 at Toronto’s Skydome, the WWF invited Don Cherry to be on the show. Despite the fact that there was big money on the table and it would have been an easy and quick pay day Cherry respectfully declined. Not that he has any problem with wrestling, he just felt that he’d stick with what he’s known for and does best. It was a classy decision that only begins to define a man who is tirelessly involved with community causes and charity work. The Rose Cherry Foundation, named after the departed love of his life, assists sick and dying children - and he donated all the proceeds from a recent reprinting of his life story to research on liver disease.
Don Cherry is at times brash, abrasive, arrogant and controversial - but he is a part of Canadiana, love him or hate him, and we’re better off with him than without him.