Don Cherry, you were my hero

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Former NHL coach Don Cherry has been an on-air analyst for the CBC since 1981.

Dear Don,

Hi! Remember me? It's Robin, the young woman who used to cover the NHL for The New York Times back in the day.

I haven't seen you in person since the late 1970s, but I caught your remarks on "Hockey Night in Canada" from this past Saturday as they went viral. You were all out of sorts about women reporters in the locker room. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Don't you remember? I guess you don't.

I'd gotten a lot of publicity for breaking "the locker room barrier" at the 1975 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, but that was a one-off. You were the first coach in the NHL to allow me, a female, accredited sports reporter and member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, into your locker room as a matter of policy. You were coaching the "Big Bad Bruins," and it was ironic that a team with that reputation should be the most forward-thinking in the NHL. Your PR man par excellence, Nate Greenberg, had persuaded you this was the way to go. I was The New York Times' reporter on the NHL beat, after all, and Nate knew his job was to get great coverage of the Bruins. He and you were gentlemen. And GM Harry Sinden, as gruff and penny-pinching as he was, also had a heart of gold and a sense of what was right. The times they were a-changin' then, and the Bruins organization was smart enough to realize it. You should be proud of what you did.

I was a 23-year-old kid in a tough situation. Getting prompt postgame interviews with the players was crucial to my ability to do my job. The Times was a morning newspaper, and I faced a draconian deadline of 11 p.m. I had maybe 40 minutes after the game ended, if I was lucky, to fax in a complete story. Every minute spent waiting for a team official to bring a player out of the locker room to speak to me separately in some dank hallway was excruciating.

After the Bruins, other teams started opening their locker room doors. I remember when then-Atlanta Flames GM Cliff Fletcher fell for my gambit when I asked if the players put it to a vote and were OK with it, would he give me access? I pretty much had a straw count ahead of time thanks to player rep Curt Bennett, a friend. Bennett made the case to his teammates in a closed locker room meeting and came out with a thumbs-up. He told me some of the players were not totally comfortable with the idea, but they thought it was the right thing to do.

AP Photo

Robin Herman was the first female sports reporter for The New York Times.

Still, I was galled that the home teams I covered, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers, were wrestling with this earth-shaking issue. It finally took a change of coaches at the Rangers, from the grim and old-fashioned Emile Francis to the fiery John Ferguson, to open the Madison Square Garden locker room. Lawrie Mifflin, who was covering the Rangers for the New York Daily News at the time, joined me in asking "Fergy" if we could go in. He just shrugged a kind of "why not" and waved us toward the locker room door. That was it. The Rangers' policy had changed with a gesture.

By the time I left The New York Times' sports department in 1978, all but four teams in the NHL were allowing female reporters into locker rooms for postgame interviews. Shortly after that, open doors and equitable treatment of female reporters became league policy. The NHL was, in spite of itself, a leader in social change. And I was glad to see the NHL on Monday promptly reaffirm its open-access policy that has existed now for so many decades.

Remember, Don?

OK, I guess a lot of time has passed since then, and maybe you've forgotten the details. But I certainly wouldn't forget the first coach and team to give equal access to a female member of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Don, you were my hero.

Best regards,
Robin

Robin Herman is a writer and artist, recently retired as an assistant dean at Harvard University. She was the first female sports writer at The New York Times and also wrote for The Washington Post. You can read more from her blog at www.girlinthelockerroom.com.

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