What I Learned from Watching the Entire First Decade of 'Rock’em Sock’em Hockey' Videos

My spirit was broken by the pornographic repetition of hip checks and on-ice brawls, all set to a mind-shredding soundtrack of mediocre mid-90s dance music.

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May 27 2015, 7:36pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs is all well and good, but since there are no Canadian teams left standing, it's tough out there for hockey fans in the great white north. In order to fill the gaping hole of Canadian hockey in my soul, I decided to watch the entire first decade of Don Cherry's Rock'em Sock'em Hockey videos. Other than seeing my uncle's VHS copy of the first or second installment of RSH when I was a kid, my regular dose of Don Cherry has been limited to his appearances on Coach's Corner (and at the swearing-in ceremony for the worst mayor in Toronto's history). So I wanted to see what wisdom I could glean from Grapes—and maybe learn something about my own intestinal fortitude along the way.

Cherry has been regularly criticized for (among many other things) promoting the more violent aspects of the game—most of the videos conclude with his favorite fights of the year (usually involving now-dead Red Wings enforcer Bob Probert). And while that's clearly out of step with the current culture of head-injury awareness and toning down the fisticuffs, Cherry was often hammering home the importance of playing safe while playing aggressively.

But after about a dozen hours of being berated by Cherry's infamous bark-speak, not to mention witnessing literally hundreds of slow-motion bodychecks, I started to feel a bit like Alex in A Clockwork Orange—my spirit broken by the pornographic repetition of hip checks and on-ice brawls, all set to a mind-shredding soundtrack of mediocre mid-90s dance music and accentuated with used car dealership commercial graphics.

You may ask yourself: to what end? Maybe it was to prove my Canadianness, or maybe just see how much Grapes one man could take.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #1
From the get-go, it seems like such a weirdly insular presentation—just Grapes talking into a camera in what looks like his basement, complete with a neon Molson Ex sign in the background. It's like there's nothing else for him to do. The chintzy "rock" song soundtrack leads straight into a full-on amphetamine ramble from Cherry, all while struggling to hold his famous dog Blue for the shot.

This first video, released in 1989, was the brainchild of Grapes' son, producer Tim Cherry, and served as an extension of the late-'80s show they made together called This Week in Hockey. It feels like something that probably took them an afternoon to film—just another easy money project. The very essence of a cash grab.

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Probably 90 percent of the footage is from Canadian games, and a select few at that. The clips are randomly assembled in generic categories and paired with fairly inane and uninsightful commentary ("He loves to score!"). The production is such that it's hard to tell if this is this a bloopers video or not: there's lots of players falling down, shooting pucks in the wrong net, and giveaways.

The free-flowing associations makes it all seem weirdly insider-y, like a tape Cherry made to show to his buddies at a bachelor party. He talks about players like he knows them personally, or maybe he's only featuring players who he personally likes. In any case, we end up with Cherry telling stories about the hardest hits he's seen in the past, before cutting to loads of slow-motion bone-crushing presented almost pornographically over a robotic drum track and slap bass soundtrack and no commentary except, "Boy, weren't they beauty hits?"

The conclusion is, of course, a fight highlight: "What's a Don Cherry show without a few tussles. Let's give all the sweethearts a chance to turn it off." After which it's a glimpse of the late great enforcer Bob Probert in his prime, to which Cherry adds, "Too bad [Probert] is out of hockey. Let's hope he makes it back." (Probert had been arrested for cocaine possession at the border at the time.)

This tape (yes, Cherry even calls them tapes) clocks in at only 30 minutes, so I'm feeling OK with the project so far.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #2
The second edition again features what seems like a pretty limited assortment of clips—lots of Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Edmonton Oilers. But Cherry dips into the vault of history to show the famous Bobby Orr playoff goal where the Bruins great goes flying onto his belly after scoring.

Cherry randomly tells the tale of one of his favorite games—the one that ended his coaching career and sent him on to Coach's Corner.

There's a musical interlude called "Grape Jam," which is a Beastie Boys–esque rap containing lyrics like "He has a six-inch collar / he's no creampuff," "Europe—it's a nice place to visit, but stop sending us hockey players," and "Visors, don't like 'em." Apparently, the tune was created by comedian/actor Jeff Lumby and "Humble" Howard Glassman, so it seems that Grapes wasn't taking himself too seriously here.

This is the first time Cherry includes clips from Coach's Corner, but there's no obvious reasoning behind what makes the cut, other than ripping on Swedes and Fins by challenging them to "hit or fight or do something."

Again, there's no commentary on the hits section, and more fights at the end, which makes the whole tape seem like violent foreplay leading up to the hockey fight montage.

Over the credits, the outtakes of Cherry trying to say "rock'em sock'em hockey" are actually appalling. How long does it take to get clean takes of the commentary in the rest of the video? Simply imagining how much raw Don Cherry is required to patch together 45 minutes of an RSH video is making me feel overwhelmed.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #3
It's the same bunch of players in all these videos: Calgary Flames goalie Mike Vernon, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins. Surprisingly, there's not a lot of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, both of whom were in their prime in the previous season. Was it too cost-prohibitive to get them to sign releases—or did they own the footage for their videos? Oh, wait, here's a clip of Gretzky taking a puck in the side of the head.

The clips are even more random than before: hits, bloopers, saves, and more all fly by in the same montage. Grapes attempts to tie them together by offering actual tips for players, complete with used-car-dealership-commercial graphics, which are pretty underwhelming, even for 1991.

It looks like the Coach's Corner section is going to be a permanent thing in these videos now. However, this one features a particular lowlight: Cherry doing a pre-game bit in LA where he's sporting a flamboyant earring, pimp hat, and wraparound shades, and says in his most effete voice, "my friends Sly and Arsenio lent me a few things." He's actually borderline making fun of homosexuals, and people from California, and anyone who doesn't like fighting. "Hockey without violence is like a silver ballet."

Yikes. It's one thing for Cherry to throw this together in the heat of the moment during a live hockey game, but another entirely to include it in the permanent record of RSH. I'm starting to wonder about the judgment of both Don and Tim right about now.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #4
There's a new logo this time. And a new locker-room vibe. The narrative conceit this time is showing clips based on Grapes' dictionary ("trolley tracks," "tick-tack-toe," "top shelf," etc). Cherry drops the words "beauty" and "brutal" a little more often, and I wonder if he's the origin of the Canadian usage of both.

This round of Blue's Bloopers is just a bunch of refs getting hurt. The series sometimes finds a weird glee in watching people being injured, while at other times, Cherry will get super pissed off at cheap shots and knee-to-knee collisions.

There's no consistency to his philosophy of sport other than focusing on the most aggressive moments in hockey, and ignoring much of the finesse—only highlighting great plays when they're accompanied by some brutality or performed by otherwise aggressive players.

Once again, the choice of Coach's Corner rants is super questionable: When recounting the story of seeing a puck fly into the crowd and hit a woman in the face, Cherry says: "Keep your eyes on the puck. I've seen some awful smacks. It's always some woman yapping away."

Four videos into the series, we're starting to see some recycled lines, which will undoubtedly become catch phrases, like, "It's tea time again for you folks who don't like the odd tussle." Still, for all the aggression in RSH, it seems odd that there are only a handful of fights on each tape. Maybe I'm just starting to crave more violent stimulation.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #5
From the strobe-lit proto-techno dance club opening, complete with Grapes fully embracing the pimped out persona he was teasing just two tapes ago, it's clear that this is a very different era of Rock'em Sock'em. The graphics are still decidedly chintzy, but there's far more effort in the overall production. The opening sequence, entitled "Chain Reaction," features a succession of players dishing out hits and then being slammed in a virtual daisy chain of bodychecks. Cherry delivers straightforward commentary for a while, steering clear of the editorializing that played so prominently in the previous tape.

Cut to Cherry playing pool in a man-cave, with Blue hanging on the side of the table. Grapes makes a bank shot to introduce a segment about, wait for it, bank shots. Sure, it's obvious, but it's a step up from the random stream-of-consciousness footage from the previous four installments.

Don's best! Photo via Flickr user Stephen Dyrgas

What has hit a new nadir, however, is the graphic treatment used to introduce each segment: live-action flames paired with the animated melting ice surrounding the video screen. Simply describing it can never do it justice.

This is also the tape that contains the infamous Don Cherry dance-rap track "Rock'em Sock'em Techno," which is in fact a collaboration between Grapes and a group called BKS, featuring Chris Sheppard. The performance is actually a bit of a head fuck, considering it's equal parts C+C Music Factory, trippy graphics, and, well, bodychecks.

Weirdly, the dance traxx keeps bumping throughout the show—though it's hard to imagine Coach's Corner fans being particularly happy to hear the same proto-house music tune for 15 straight minutes.

There are far more hits in this one, as if Cherry is finally coming to terms with the fact that his audience really just wants the violence. The hits make it a bit like watching an action film with a massive body count: death after death after death with no consequences. At least half of the hits look like penalties, and yet Grapes celebrates pretty much every one.

Cherry's insistence during the fights that "nobody gets hurt" is particularly ironic considering many of the dudes in those fights would later be the subjects of brain-injury studies and enforcer documentaries exploring how their aggression and violence was being exploited, sometimes to tragic ends.

Following the final match-up of bruisers Tie Domi and Bob Probert (again, "nobody gets hurt here"), Cherry delivers a positive message: "Hey kids, whether it's in sports or in school, there's no limit to what you can do."

Cue another dance track: "No Limit" by 2 Unlimited.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #6
At this point, I'm more than a little terrified of how weird the next tape is going to be. It's only really been just over three and a half hours, but I'm starting to hear Cherry's voice everywhere. Maybe this is the key to his coaching style: relentless badgering. Maybe I should be channeling his intensity into something more constructive than being able to recognize a "beauty glove save" or knowing not to cross center ice with my head down.

Still, I press on with the 1994 edition, where Cherry's editors are in love with slo-mo hits but where Grapes has (fortunately) toned down the presentation. We're back to the one-shot intro format, backed by rustic barn-boards and simple lightning-bolt graphics to introduce each of the segments.

The new format is to just go through a bunch of playoff series without really giving any context for what round we're in. Just team vs. team: this was a brutal series. It's actually surprising how little insight Cherry has into the game sometimes. He simply points out the obvious and name-checks his "buddies."

Holy shit! A bizarre 3-D spacecraft flies across the screen and I wonder if I'm seeing things, or was that really there? When it comes to inexplicable graphics, truly anything is possible.

More techno music, and another Probert fight to close out the show. This is getting a little predictable until...

Grapes' tips for kids! (I guess this is why RSH #6 clocks in at 90 minutes.) There are no actual kids here: just Cherry skating around on an empty rink delivering commandments like: Don't walk on cement with your skates; get your own water bottle (apparently, according to Cherry, a kid in Mississauga died from meningitis contracted when someone else using his water bottle); never go blind into the corner; you can't get hurt when you're up against the boards; don't hit from behind—it's a cowardly act and he hates it. Most importantly, "Don't cry wolf. That's not the Canadian way, that's what they do in Europe, like soccer." Cherry is one of the few people with such a concerted dislike for Europeans.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #7
This one is filmed inside the Hockey Hall of Fame, which gives the impression that there's actually going to be some sort of narrative arc. Nope, same bangin' dance tracks (more 2 Unlimited!), including a techno version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kurt Cobain has only been dead a year at this point and is definitely rolling in his grave.

Cherry seems more inclined to just let the clips play, only piping in every once in a while. It's kind of a nice change, but feels a little bit like a cop out. There's a pretty good segment on dives, though.

This one also ends with a "lesson." Now he's showing actual kids how to buy the right equipment. I bet the kids are wondering, "Why is he always yelling? He's just suggesting that we wear equipment that fits correctly—why is he so angry about it?"

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #8
"What makes a tough hockey player: someone who goes into the corner and knows he's gonna get hit. Remember: always keep your head up. Let's go!"

What kind of opening is this? At least the soundtrack has gone from dance music to some weird programmed electro metal—all grinding beats and gnarly guitar distortion.

I think I actually prefer the random weirdness of the early tapes. At least there was a charming unpredictability to what Cherry was going to introduce. This is by no means polished, but it's definitely by rote. Also, I'm starting to think that the shitty graphics are really an aesthetic choice. There's no way that they don't have access to better technology, unless Tim and Don are trying to keep the overhead as low as possible.

It's been a while since Cherry strolled down memory lane and talked about his brief career as a goon for the Boston Bruins' AHL team and a not-great coach for the Bruins later, but here he is reliving being on the losing end of a Stanley Cup final. And then onto his brief stint as a the coach of Colorado, where he almost got fired for choking a player. The upside of this digression is that Cherry offers up the possible source of his grudge against Swedes: Hardy Astrom, the goalie for Colorado when he was coaching the team, who apparently wasn't very good. "I called him the Swedish sieve," says Grapes.

Probert comes back for one of the fights of the year. "I love these guys... My kinda guys." Also, when talking about another fight: "A Russian hockey player who looks like a Canadian—never saw that before." Sure, Grapes.

Rock'em Sock'em Hockey #9
There's something weirdly butch about Don Cherry chucking weight to the sky in a gym. Maybe it's the black tank top and the backwards baseball cap. Or maybe it's lines like, "A blister never stops a hockey player, if you know what I mean." What am I even saying?

In any case, Cherry leads off with Gretzky and Lemieux, featuring them prominently for the first time ever. Is Cherry selling out? What are the politics of who gets into these videos?

It's all the same sort of footage as the previous videos: players on the same team colliding; refs getting bonked around; glove saves; overtime goals. And yet, at nine or so hours in, I think I've finally acclimatized to Grapes' incessant banter. It's just like breathing—the barking goes in one ear and straight into my pineal gland. It's rhythmic: hit, hit, hit, "Bawnago!"; hit, hit, hit, "Like a real Ca-na-dian!"

Maybe that's the case this time around because there are far less graphics, and Cherry's voice is the only cue that we've switched gears into a different segment. Maybe the graphics were standing in the way of my attaining oneness with the Rocking and Socking. I think I'm almost ready for some more playoff hockey—just in time for the Stanley Cup finals.

Next up in the lesson plan is tips for parents, which Grapes delivers with grandson Del Cherry on his knee looking super stunned. Questions from parents include: When should my kid start to skate? Three. Should my kid play hockey all year round? You can't play all the time; you've gotta have that hunger... This shit goes on for a full 15 minutes.

Don Cherry Tenth Anniversary
It's at this point in the series that Cherry loses the Rock'em Sock'em title in a naming-rights dispute, but that's not the only thing that's changed. This is the year Cherry grew the goatee that would define his visage for the next while. It's not a bad look for the first edition on DVD. Very Y2K. Welcome to the future!

The graphics are pretty classy this time around. Just player names and little explosion. We've come a long way from the fire and ice video screen. Much like Coach's Corner, however, these are starting to feel like the same video year after year, with minor variation. Though I'm actually surprised at how tame the commentary has become. There are no clips of Cherry insulting women hockey fans or European hockey players.

However, for the third time now, the editors have chosen to run Cherry's effete pimp bit, where he insults people from California and homosexuals. Which comes after another clip where Cherry says to Coach's Corner co-host Ron MacLean, "Tough guys can blow me kisses—guys like [McLean]: whoa!"

Don Cherry #11 (and beyond)
I probably should have stopped here. After all, these things aren't even called Rock'em Sock'em again until the 20th video. But I was curious about how Cherry and Co. dealt with the new millennium. So I rolled through Don Cherry #11 and #12, and then started scanning various bits from some of the later tapes. In these later videos, Cherry begins his stint as the coach of the OHL's Mississauga Ice Dogs, so we get to see him barking orders at actual players. During one video, the narrative conceit is answering viewer questions. Occasionally, the music improves, such that #12 features rock music more traditionally befitting the aggressive play. Much later, the visuals get super slick—such as the opening to the 25th anniversary DVD.

Follow Chris Bilton on Twitter.

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