When the New York Rangers traded pacifist Rick Middleton to the Boston Bruins in May 1976, former Ranger Brad Park commented, "Now we'll see how good a coach Don Cherry really is."
Park found out, and so did Middleton, and so did everyone else in hockey. Don Cherry was coach of the year in 1976 for bringing the Bruins back to past prominence, but nothing he did that season could equal his work the following winter in making Middleton a checking, puck-blocking, hustling winger. It wasn't easy.
"Of everything I've done, Middleton has to be my greatest achievement," Cherry said. "It took five months and he was in tears sometimes, and I berated him just about every day, but he became a hockey player.
"Yeah, I grabbed him and shaked (sic) him. I've done that with a lot of players. But now he's diving head first at the puck. When he first came here, he'd put on a crane act, pulling his foot out of the way and hiding it," added Cherry, who leads his team against Montreal in Boston tonight.
The Canadians lead the best-of-seven final Stanley Cup series, 2 games to 1.
"The supreme effort of a forward is to block a shot at the point," said Cherry. "That's where you pay the price. If they don't do it, you let them know about it, and then if they won't do it, you get rid of them.
"I get them right on the bench. I even talk about them when they're on the ice. I've been told many times to get them alone, but I let them know right away. These things work as long as everybody gets it. You can't play favorites. I benched Park in Montreal one time for two periods and he got the message. So did everybody else."
If Cherry is tough with his players, he also is a 100 percent booster of those who give him 100 percent. He has chided writers for a year because no Bruin was named to the first or second all-star teams a year ago and he recently made a loud noise because a poll picking hockey's best in 23 different categories also omitted Bostonians. He bristles at any intimation that the Bruins' brand of hockey is less than exciting.
"There's a difference between playing sound defensive hockey and putting people to sleep," Cherry said. "We aren't doing that. We forecheck the hell out of teams. That's our game, forechecking and taking the body.
"It's beautiful what we have here, a bunch of guys who love each other and love to work. It's corny, I know, to tell you that it's all built on hustle. But that's the truth. We really are the lunch-bucket brigade."
Cherry has a story he frequently tells of why he does not try anything fancy with the Bruins. It dates back to the days he was winning back-to-back coach of the year awards with Rochester of the American Hockey League.
"I played tenor drum in a pipe band when I was coaching there," Cherry said. "We learned 10 songs and we practiced those tunes until we could do them perfectly. It was more than a big enough repertoire for the competitions we entered.
"Then the band got a new pipe major. He said that 10 tunes were fine but they weren't enough.So he gave us 10 new tunes and we tried to master 20. We ended up not doing it because we didn't have great musical talent or the practice time. The caliber of the band slipped because we were trying to do too much.
"I remembered that with this hockey team. We know what we can do well on the ice and we don't try to go beyond it. We're a grinder, tight-checking team and as long as we remember that, we're okay."
Cherry has compiled a 188-82-50 record in four seasons, but he hasn't won a Stanley Cup. He is relentless in pursuit of that goal, to the point of baiting officials, fans, opponents . . . anything for a little edge.
A year ago, at Montreal, after Cherry threw a towel on the ice during a playoff game, he screamed that he had been robbed by the officials. Then, walking down a corridor alongside Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, Cherry said, "Lord, the things I don't do for my $29,500 a year."