By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 10) – Every person involved with the National Hockey League over the past half-a-century almost surely has a story about Ron Caron, the legendary former executive with Montreal and St. Louis – known as “The Professor” – who passed away early this morning at age 82.
Among an ever-diminishing breed of characters in hockey, Caron stood alone for his famed dual-personality: an engaging, articulate gentleman when his team wasn’t in action; a raving, uncontrollable lunatic during games.
Though he was universally known as a bright, learned man – arguably more fanatical about baseball than hockey – Caron would simply lose his marbles in the immediate moments before, and during, games involving the Canadiens or Blues. All sense of logic, perspective and decorum would abandon him, only to return – somewhat magically – once the final buzzer sounded. I remember Caron for his tenure as GM of the Blues between 1983 and 1996 – a time when the Leafs and St. Louis were Norris Division rivals and frequently squared off in the regular season and playoffs. Given his penchant for hysterics, I would purposely sit next to him early in my radio career at old Maple Leaf Gardens, knowing that he could fly off the handle at a moment’s notice; race over to our unprotected broadcast area; stick his beet-red face between Joe Bowen and Bill Watters, and regale our listeners with a riotous stream of obscenity. Exactly how we avoided being called before the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) back then is a mystery.
THE “PROFESSOR” – RONALD CARON.
As such, the first people I called this morning upon being apprised of Caron’s death were my old broadcast partners at CJCL AM-1430, precursor to Canada’s first all-sports radio station, now known as Sportsnet 590. Neither Bowen nor Watters were at all hesitant to exploit the weakness and idiosyncratic nature of others; Caron being a prime and frequent target. Their most memorable ploy occurred just before Game 7 of a division final series between the Leafs and Blues in 1986 – the winner advancing to the Conference championship against Calgary. The Blues were still playing in their original home – the antiquated St. Louis Arena – and a mere pane of glass separated Caron’s private box from the visiting team’s radio booth to his immediate left.
“Oh God, I’ll never forget that night,” Watters laughed over the phone. “A few minutes before the game, Bowensy and I called Caron out of his box and I said to him with a dead-straight face, ‘Lookit, Ron, just relax tonight… I’ve been told it’s in the bag: the league and CBC both want the Leafs to move on and play Calgary, so don’t waste your time getting all excited during the game. It won’t be worth it.’ Well, there were about two seconds of stone-silence before he erupted. ‘You co–suckers… there’s no way that can happen, no way!!!’ he yelled at us waving his arms and turning red. We just pivoted and casually strolled back into our booth as he continued calling us every name in the book.”
Bowen remembers a slight complication that arose a few minutes later. “As if he wasn’t mad enough, the referee made just a horrific [penalty] call against St. Louis about 30 seconds into the game,” recalled the Voice of the Leafs for the past three decades. “Well, you should have seen [Caron] at that moment. Wilbur and I both looked back at him over our right shoulders with a little smirk and I thought he was going to come right through the glass at us. He went completely off the deep end and was banging the partition like a mad-man.”
MY OLD, MISCHEIVOUS CO-HORTS: JOE BOWEN (ABOVE) AND BILL WATTERS (BELOW). THEY HAD NO MERCY ON RON CARON.
St. Louis ultimately survived, edging the Leafs 2-1 in regulation, and went on to play Calgary in the Campbell Conference final – a series still remembered for a miraculous, third-period comeback by the Blues on home ice in Game 6. Facing elimination, St. Louis erased a 5-1 deficit in the third period and won in overtime on a goal by the late Doug Wickenheiser. But, Calgary squeaked out a 2-1 triumph at the Saddledome in Game 7 and advanced to the ’86 Cup final, losing to Montreal.
By the time I initially covered the Leafs on the road in a playoff series for the radio station, I was fully versed in Caron’s histrionics from the Gardens, yet unaware of the manner in which Bowen and Watters routinely tormented him. That was in 1990, when the clubs met in a first-round series beginning at St. Louis and I don’t think I saw more than 10 minutes of the first two games.
As mentioned, our booth at the old Arena was beside Caron, who may have been at his wildest back then. From my perch in the press box, I could glance left and see both enclosures through a pane of glass. Knowing that Caron would leap from his chair and run next door when a referee’s call went against the Blues, I had to make like Usain Bolt and get to the entrance before him. At least half-a-dozen times each night, I would become rigid under the door-frame and prevent Caron from getting at Bowen and Watters – the unruly GM trying to squeeze through openings between my arms and legs. I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I should be watching the game.’ But, I couldn’t risk Caron turning the air blue for our listeners back home, so I played security guard.
Five minutes after each game, which St. Louis won to grab a 2-0 lead in the series, Caron would come up to me in the dressing room corridor as if nothing unusual had happened in the press box. “Let me know if you need anything, Howard,” he would casually say, patting me on the shoulder. I was tempted to reply, “How about a re-cap of what happened on the ice,” but I resisted.
THE OLD BARN ON OAKLAND AVENUE IN ST. LOUIS: THE ARENA.
Caron would say or do something that would normally spawn hysterical laughter, but no one dared to react in such a way, fearing a complete melt-down. Well, almost no one.
Stan Obodiac, the Leafs’ publicity director in the early-’80s, must have been watching Bowen and Watters, for he revelled in poking the bear at its angriest. Caron would be pounding the glass in the Gardens press box, screaming “No call???!” at the referee for missing an apparent foul by the Leafs. Obodiac would casually saunter over with a big smile and say, “Please, Ron, we don’t like having to clean finger-prints.”
“Oh Stan, you big co–sucker… don’t you see how we’re getting screwed down there?!!” the Prof would reply. “Who cares about finger prints?”
When Harold Ballard and King Clancy were still alive, they would sit together in Ballard’s famed bunker at ice-level in the northeast corner of the Gardens. Both men were into their 80s, yet they acted like a couple of high-school buddies – travelling to all Leaf road games, with Ballard – in particular – making a scene whenever the mood came upon him.
I’ll never forget one of my first road trips with the Blue and White: a three-gamer to Minnesota, Winnipeg and Calgary in November 1983. The Leafs travelled mostly by commercial air in those days and I frequently booked the same flights. On this particular trip, Ballard, who called Clancy “Mikey”, was leading the Leaf entourage toward Customs at Winnipeg Airport after the short flight from Minneapolis. The owner had become rather hard-of-hearing by that point and an attractively-built young lady passed him on the right. In a voice a couple of octaves higher than he probably figured, Ballard yelled, “Hey Mikey, look at the tits on her!”
The woman, of course, was horrified (“You pig!” she answered) and the rest of us lowered our heads to avoid the obvious embarrassment.
Caron knew both men from his long tenure in the league – he was one of Sam Pollock’s chief lieutenants with Montreal in the ’60s – yet he did not spare pleasantries as GM of the Blues. On one occasion while we sat together in the Gardens press box, he became annoyed at something that happened on the ice. Standing up, Caron peered at Ballard and Clancy, whom he sensed were chortling over the Blues’ misfortune. With sheer disdain in his voice, he pointed at them and said, “Look at the two seniles down there.” My lower-lip almost bled from biting on it.
HAROLD BALLARD (LEFT) AND KING CLANCY DURING THEIR FROLICKING DAYS WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS IN THE EARLY-’80s.
In 1984, the Leafs drafted a raw, talented defenseman from the U.S. Olympic team and OHL Belleville Bulls named Al Iafrate. Several weeks before training camp, Iafrate was involved in an accident on the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway (401) in which his vehicle contacted a light-standard. Thankfully, the fourth-overall selection in the draft was not badly injured and he appeared in 68 games with the Leafs during his rookie season.
The Blues made their first of four visits to the Gardens on Dec. 17 and most had forgotten the automobile mishap by then. Not Caron. At one point in the game, Iafrate took liberties with a St. Louis player and wasn’t penalized. Rocketing from his chair next to me, Caron slammed the glass and went into his “No call??!! diatribe. As the play continued, he leaned way out over the partition and yelled, “Iafrate… go break some lamps!” With his French-Canadian accent, the defenseman’s name (pronounced Eye-a-frait-ee) name came out as “Eee-ah-fraht-ee”. I remember my old radio pal Erik Tomas and I pounding one another in the shoulder so we wouldn’t laugh out loud.
One other time with St. Louis in town, I was walking past Caron from the south end of the Gardens press box as he was being interviewed by Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons. The two were chatting nominally when Caron leapt to his feet; picked up his chair, and threw it in disgust, nearly decapitating Simmons. The color drained from Steve’s face, as the incident happened with no warning whatsoever. It turned out that the ref had missed yet another call against the Blues, setting off the volatile GM.
RON CARON DIED EARLY ON TUESDAY AT 82 YEARS OF AGE.
Bowen remembered the first time he encountered Caron. “It was back when I was doing play-by-play for the Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the American Hockey League and they were Montreal’s farm team,” he said. “Ron was sent down by the Canadiens to have a look at some of their prospects and he rode the bus with our team to a game in New Haven. Well, I’ll tell you, he regaled us with stories about hockey and baseball for the entire trip, which seemed to take five minutes. I thought, ‘what a wonderful, entertaining man he is.’
“The next night, I was sitting by myself, calling the hockey game up in the press box, and Ron was five or six seats away. Not a minute after the puck was dropped, he was on his feet going absolutely ballistic. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Just a day earlier, this calm, learned man had told fantastic stories during a long bus ride and here he was losing his mind right in front of me. I remember thinking, ‘how is this guy going to evaluate the Canadiens’ personnel while acting like that?’ But, I guess he was able to do it, as he stuck around the NHL for a long, long time.”
In the early-’90s, after enough complaints from distracted reporters around the league, Caron was seated elsewhere in visiting arenas. The Leafs provided him space in one of the private boxes that looked like jail cells above each end of the rink (remember them?). Hockey Night In Canada had a camera trained on Caron during the 1993 playoff series between the Leafs and Blues – regularly catching the GM in full-gyration from his end-zone holding.
Lost in all of this, however, is that Caron was one of the friendliest, most engaging and cooperative executives in the NHL – an absolute delight to share time with between games. When the Leafs would come to St. Louis for a playoff series, he’d have messages waiting for media members at the hotel with recommendations on where to eat. All you had to do was tell the maitre d’ at one of these establishments that Ron Caron sent you, and the royal treatment would follow. He was so highly regarded around town, and justifiably.
Sadly, he spent the final stage of his life in a Montreal nursing home, and was the subject of a heart-tugging pre-game feature on Hockey Night with Elliotte Friedman a few years ago.
The game lost a true giant when Caron left us today.