Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
KINGSTON, ONTARIO — If Don Cherry needs something to do during the NHL lockout, he just might have a gig as a tour guide.
After the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission asked Cherry to lead a walk through Kingston, hockey’s most famous commentator didn’t hesitate. He joined performers from the Salon Acting Company and Arthur Milnes, the Sir John A. 2015 commissioner, in leading a group of 70 people through the streets of his hometown on August 17.
Cherry didn’t skate through his commitment, either. The host of CBC’s “Coach’s Corner” segment on “Hockey Night in Canada” delighted patrons with his own accounts of growing up in Kingston. He predicted the NHL lockout, which occurred on Saturday, and said, “I don’t think we’re going to have a season. They’ll be out until at least January.”
He talked about how fighting in hockey differs from the political battles that play out on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, adding that he stopped dropping the gloves when he was 34 and “fought a kid. He was 21 and I knocked his teeth out and I got a conscious. Once a fighter gets a conscious, you’re done.”
Cherry even performed a rendition of the song from his old school, Rideau Elementary, “where I learned hockey.” (True to form, Cherry also lamented that the song “now has French in it” after the school changed the lyrics in 2009 to reflect the bilingualism of its curriculum.)
Although he is a gruff commentator, Cherry showed genuine sweetness during the tour. He played along with the performers when they joked at his expense and was congenial with tour patrons, answering questions, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He had on a a dapper suit, as usual, but also wore running shoes so he could be comfortable on the 90-minute tour. Often cited as one of the most prominent Canadians past or present, Cherry was stunningly down to earth for a celebrity of his stature.
“Pretty much every one of those lines and stories he had today was totally off the cuff. He would come up to me and say, ‘I got a story about that,’ and then he’d talk,” says Milnes, who is also a Vacay.ca writer. “It was all unscripted. Talk about a total professional.”
In Don Cherry’s Footsteps in Kingston
To the immense credit of the Salon actors, they managed to wrest people’s attention away from Cherry with a mix of wit, humour and dramatic power. Among their usual skits is a powerful portrayal of the Louis Riel trial that shows Macdonald — played wonderfully by Matt Donovan — grappling with the decision to hang the Métis leader in 1885 for treason. During that part of the tour, all eyes that had been captivated by Cherry were shifted to the performance space outside of Kingston’s city hall.
Following the emotional skit, Cherry told the audience that his grandfather had joined the Northwest Mounted Police, the precursor to the Royal Canadian Mountain Police, and was sent to Saskatchewan to capture Riel after he continued to defy authorities.
“People should come to this all the time,” Cherry said after the tour wrapped up at the statue of Macdonald in City Park, not far from where Canada’s first prime minister lived when he was both a young lawyer and retired statesman. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, to tell you the truth, but I was really surprised by how good it was.”
More About the Sir John A. Macdonald Walk
Ticket prices: $15 for adult tickets to the regular tours conducted by Arthur Milnes. Among the notables who have led the tour are former prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin, and the first Canadian in space, Marc Garneau. Tickets can be booked by contacting the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission or the city’s Visitors Information Centre at 209 Ontario Street. The Friday evening tours feature performances by the Salon Acting Company. Their last performance for the 2012 season occurred earlier this month.
Full disclosure: Vacay.ca is the official travel site of the Sir John A. 2015 Bicentennial Commission. The commission aims to make Macdonald’s 200th birthday on January 11, 2015 a national holiday.