By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 11) – I find it rather difficult to believe it was a quarter century ago that I began my tenure at CJCL AM-1430 – destined to become Canada’s first all-sports radio station. More accurately, it was 25 years ago that I fell into my radio career.
With not a day’s experience in the field, I was hired by general manager Doug Ackhurst and director of network sports Allan Davis at the princely sum of $270 per week. Given my innumerable attempts at breaking into the biz, I probably would have worked for free. CJCL was best known as voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, then building toward consecutive World Series titles half-a-decade down the road. With lucrative broadcasting rites to the ball club about to expire – and much competition expected from other radio outlets – the Jays urged CJCL management to increase its sports profile beyond just airing games. Somewhere out there was a cheap hire willing to schlep a microphone and tape recorder to press gatherings around the city.
And, so began – on May 30, 1988 – an extremely rewarding term of 23 years at what is now called Sportsnet-590. As many of you are likely aware, the bulk of my term at the radio station was spent following the Maple Leafs around North America, a task I thoroughly enjoyed between 1994 and 2010. In the years prior to assuming the full time hockey beat, I had the thrill of covering the Blue Jays through their seasons atop Major League Baseball – attending the American League Championship and World Series in 1992 and 1993.
WHILE COVERING HOCKEY, I’VE HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF GETTING TO KNOW COUNTLESS PEOPLE IN THE GAME, NONE BETTER THAN LOS ANGELES KINGS COACH DARRYL SUTTER – POSING WITH ME HERE AT THE PRUDENTIAL CENTER IN NEWARK DURING HIS CLUB’S STANLEY CUP ROMP LAST SPRING. I WAS STANDING ON THE ARENA FLOOR, LOOKING AT A CONCERT SET-UP, WHEN DARRYL CAME BY AND INSISTED WE TAKE A PHOTO. LIKE HIS HOCKEY BROTHERS FROM VIKING, ALTA., HE IS A TERRIFIC MAN.
From the perspective of covering sport here in Toronto – and despite the preponderance of hockey – my most vivid memories were provided by the Blue Jays. The run-up to their consecutive championships was incredible because Toronto had become a baseball-first city in the mid-to-late-80’s. That may seem odd to a young sports fan today, but there’s absolutely no question the Blue Jays usurped the Maple Leafs between 1985 and 1993.
By the time the Jays finished teasing their fans – the club lost the American League Championship Series in 1985 (to Kansas City); 1989 (to Oakland) and 1991 (to Minnesota) – the perfect storm had erupted.
In January 1992, the Leafs acquired Doug Gilmour from Calgary. In September ’92, CJCL became The Fan-1430, our country’s first stab at all-sports radio. One month later, the Jays knocked off Oakland in the ALCS and defeated Atlanta to finally win the World Series. April and May of 1993 brought the euphoric Stanley Cup challenge of Gilmour and the Leafs, who lost Game 7 of the Conference championship to Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles Kings. October ’93 saw the Jays beat Chicago in the ALCS and Philadelphia in the World Series on Joe Carter’s “touch ’em all” home run at SkyDome. Simultaneously, Leafs were setting an NHL record by winning their first 10 games of the ’93-94 season en route to another berth in the Stanley Cup semifinals, where they lost to Pat Quinn and the Vancouver Canucks.
What a time it was here in the Big Smoke.
In my years at the radio station, I covered the Stanley Cup final 17 times; the NHL All-Star Game eight times, and every NHL Draft between 1992 and 2010. I attended the baseball All-Star Game here in Toronto (1991); in San Diego (1992) and Pittsburgh (1994). I covered Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif. when Dallas clobbered Buffalo. Speaking of the Bills, I attended the majority of their home games as a reporter from 1989 to 1994, including AFC Championship wins over Los Angeles Raiders (January 1991) and Kansas City (January 1994). I covered the final Blue Jays game at Exhibition Stadium and the first game at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre). I also covered the final hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens, Chicago Stadium and Pittsburgh Mellon Arena, and the first Leafs game at Air Canada Centre. I went to Stockholm and Helsinki for the Leafs 2003 training camp; to Innsbruck and Vienna for the 2005 World Hockey Championships. Between 1988 and 2004, I covered 147 Maple Leaf playoff games. I was assigned the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996 and the past four Winter Games – Nagano (1998); Salt Lake City (2002); Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010). In September 1990, I went to Tokyo to cover the International Olympic Committee session that awarded the ’96 Games to Atlanta. Toronto was among the finalists.
And, my long-time affection for the Canadian Football League was highlighted by covering the Grey Cup in 1988-89-91-92-94-96 and 2004. Argonauts won the championship in ’91 (Winnipeg Stadium); ’96 (a snowstorm in Hamilton) and ’04 (Lansdowne Park, Ottawa) .
As mentioned, a truly rewarding experience from beginning to end.
With all of these assignments, it isn’t easy to narrow best memories. After some careful consideration, however, I’ve come up with a Top 10.
OCT. 25, 1992 – ATLANTA: From the perspective of a born-and-raised Torontonian, nothing in my radio career surpassed the moment the Blue Jays won their first of consecutive World Series. Having viewed most of Game 6 in the ’92 Series from an auxiliary press holding in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, I walked around to our Telemedia broadcast booth behind home plate. From that spot – standing next to colleague Scott Ferguson and behind play callers Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth – I watched as Otis Nixon of the Braves bunted a ball toward pitcher Mike Timlin, who corralled it and and quickly tossed to Joe Carter at first base. As Carter leaped with joy, Blue Jay players stormed out of the visitors’ dugout to celebrate the initial World Series championship by a team outside the United States.
MY 1992 AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP AND WORLD SERIES CREDENTIALS.
FEB. 24, 2002 – SALT LAKE CITY: After the bitter disappointment for Canada at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan – a team of our country’s best NHLers failing to win a medal – it was delightful to be among media four years later when Canada broke a 50-year championship drought. That the victory occurred against the United States on American soil made it even more special. Prior to the game – outside the arena – Walter Gretzky, father of Team Canada’s executive director (I think you know his name), had an enormous crowd of people gathered around him as he led cheers while holding a Canadian flag. Inside the E Center, the environment was unlike anything I had experienced – only to be topped eight years later in Vancouver. Leafs coach Pat Quinn was behind the bench for a 5-2 gold medal conquest of the host country in which Canada pulled away with goals in the final four minutes by Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla. In my reporting role back home, I wasn’t getting along particularly well with Quinn at the time, but I remember feeling extraordinarily happy for him when he walked onto the ice to accept his medal. I’ll also never forget the scenery when I left the rink late in the afternoon – the setting sun casting a gold radiance on the snow-covered Wasatch Mountain range east of Salt Lake City. What a day.
REAR OF MY LEATHER JACKET FROM THE 2002 WINTER OLYMPICS IN SALT LAKE CITY.
JUNE 14, 1994 – NEW YORK: Covering Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup final at Madison Square Garden is embedded in my mind for a crowd noise I have never heard – before or since. I was standing between center-ice and the blue-line, behind the team benches, when the Rangers knocked off Vancouver, 3-2, to win their first NHL title in 54 years. Obviously, there was unfettered joy at the final buzzer. But, the sound I’ll remember occurred with about 20 seconds left when the Rangers – after Canucks swarmed goalie Mike Richter and came within inches of tying the match – finally cleared the zone. What happened in the Garden at that moment wasn’t so much a noise as a reverberation. The building literally shuddered, as fans stomped in excitement and relief. By comparison, the roar when the clock expired was conservative; New Yorkers finally able to celebrate a hockey championship.
MAY 27, 1993 – INGLEWOOD, California: Having attended roughly 1,400 Maple Leaf games as a reporter, there is one that stands out – by quite a margin – to this day. Until Boston overcame that 4-1 Leafs lead at TD Garden last month, it was also the most debated and discussed match involving the Blue and White. Game 6 of the 1993 Stanley Cup semifinals at Los Angeles Forum provided Leafs an opportunity to play Montreal for the NHL championship. The story line is old and annoying for hockey fans in this city: Leafs overcoming a 4-2 deficit in the third period to force overtime, whereupon Wayne Gretzky accidentally cut Doug Gilmour with the follow-through of a shot; was permitted to remain in the match, and scored the winning goal seconds later with former teammate Glenn Anderson in the penalty box for Toronto. What I most remember, though, also involved a once-in-a-lifetime noise. It happened the moment Wendel Clark tied the game in the final minute of regulation – coming off the bench to take Gilmour’s feed and whip a 30-foot shot past Kelly Hrudey. Again, it was a combination sound and feeling, as 16,000 devastated L.A. fans slumped into their seats: a collective gasp and whomp! The Forum became so quiet you could hear Leaf players bellowing in excitement on the visitors’ bench. But, Kings had the last laugh – Gretzky and Co. advancing to the Cup final with another victory two nights later at Maple Leaf Gardens.
PHOTOS I SNAPPED TWO SUMMERS AGO OF FREEWAY EXIT TO – AND EXTERIOR OF – LOS ANGELES FORUM: SITE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE LEAFS GAME I HAVE COVERED.
OCT. 11, 1992 – OAKLAND: If the World Series triumph in Atlanta was the most memorable moment from my years covering sport at The FAN-590, this one – two weeks earlier – was the most important in Blue Jays history. Still is, nearly 21 years later. Any person remotely familiar with baseball here in Toronto has seen a replay of Roberto Alomar’s dramatic home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series. I was fortunate to be in the Oakland Coliseum that day and see it live – from roughly 25 feet. With the A’s leading, 6-4, I left the press box to wait in line outside the visitors’ clubhouse. For a reason I still cannot explain, I stepped out of line and walked down the ramp toward a fenced-in area beside the Blue Jays’ dugout. From that location – standing next to Jerry Howarth – I watched Alomar launch his game-tying, two-run homer to right field off Eckersley in the top of the ninth inning. I can still see the Toronto second-baseman throwing his arms in the air as soon as the ball left his bat. It erased a 6-1 Oakland lead and led to a 7-6 victory in 11 innings that provided Blue Jays a 3-1 lead in the ALCS. Without Alomar’s clutch hit, most believe the Jays would not have made it to the World Series against Atlanta. Toronto lost Game 5 in Oakland but eliminated the A’s at SkyDome in Game 6.
THIS WAS ESSENTIALLY MY ANGLE, AT FIELD LEVEL IN THE OAKLAND COLISEUM, OF ROBERTO ALOMAR’S DRAMATIC HOME RUN OFF DENNIS ECKERSLEY, OCT. 11, 1992.
FEB. 24, 2010 – VANCOUVER: Eight years to the day of Canada’s gold medal victory in Salt Lake City, I was back at the Winter Olympics – this time on home turf – for the most emotionally charged hockey game of my life. Interestingly, it was not the day of Sidney Crosby’s “golden goal.” I had the privilege of covering that moment, as well, for the radio station. This one occurred four nights earlier, when Canada faced Russia in the quarterfinals at Rogers Arena (re-named Canada Hockey Place during the Vancouver Games). It has long been said that Canadian hockey fans are conservative by nature… and by comparison, particularly to their European counterparts. Not on this night. Though a rivalry with the U.S. has developed in the previous decade-and-a-half – the neighboring countries meeting for Gold in the 1996 World Cup and the 2002 Winter Olympics – nothing in Vancouver compared to the raucous environment for the Canada-Russia playoff. This was a Canadian crowd like I had never seen and it reinforced the notion that our country’s true rival – established in the famed September 1972 series – was the Russians. The noise began in the warm-up and only let up during intermissions. That Canada waltzed to a 7-3 victory enhanced the din from 17,740 fanatics. It was truly a remarkable experience. There was obvious excitement for the Gold Medal game four days later against the U.S. and a wild explosion when Crosby scored in overtime. The inclusive environment, however, did not come close to the match against Russia.
FEB. 10, 1990 – HARTFORD: There was nothing particularly notable about this occasion, but it ranks in my personal Top 10 because I worked with Joe Bowen on the radio broadcast of the Leafs-Whalers game. It was the first of four such assignments prior to CJCL-1430 losing the Leaf rights in the summer of 1995. I was in Hartford as part of an annual driving trip with colleague Chris Mayberry, then working for the old CKEY radio station (on the AM-590 band we would ultimately assume). Chris and I attended four games in two days! We drove to Boston on Friday and saw the Bruins and Islanders at the old Boston Garden on Saturday afternoon. Then we made the two-hour drive south to Connecticut – a nerve-racking journey with stop-and-go traffic. I had to arrive by the 7:30 puck-drop and we made it to the Hartford Civic Center with about a half-hour to spare. Up in the broadcast booth, I wondered if Joe if he had any tips. “Just have fun, Howie,” he replied… and I certainly did. Leafs were annihilated, 6-2, by the Whalers, so I wasn’t sure if Joe would ask me back. But, I called two other games with him – a home encounter against Detroit and a Saturday night road match in December 1990 against Gretzky and the Kings at the L.A. Forum. In April 1995 – my first season traveling, full time, with the Leafs – I worked a game in St. Louis with Ken Daniels, who has been TV voice of the Detroit Red Wings since 1997. As for the remainder of my weekend trip with Chris, we saw two games on Sunday: Calgary at New York Rangers in the afternoon; Pittsburgh at Philadelphia in the evening. On the way home, we stopped in Bethel, N.Y. and saw the site of the legendary Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969.
MEDIA CREDENTIAL AND PROGRAM FROM THE MAPLE LEAFS FINAL GAME AGAINST THE WHALERS IN HARTFORD – A 3-1 LOSS ON JAN. 20, 1997. WHALERS WOULD MOVE TO GREENSBORO, N.C. THE FOLLOWING SEASON AND BECOME THE HURRICANES.
JULY 27, 1996 – ATLANTA: Nearly four years after covering the Blue Jays first World Series championship, I was back in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. These Games will forever be recalled in our country for gold medals won by Donovan Bailey in the men’s 100 meters and by the Canadian 4×100-meter relay team. I was fortunate to cover both events, but it was Bailey’s triumph – on a humid Saturday night at Olympic Stadium (now Turner Field, home of the Braves) – that stands out. First, the men’s 100 meter final is the glamour event of the Summer Olympics. Second, I was in a tremendous location to cover the race – in the upper deck at roughly the 80-meter mark. The runners passed directly below me from left to right. And, third, as a Canadian, it obviously had special meaning when Bailey prevailed. Though no reporter from our country actually cheered the result (taboo in any press location), we were all standing when the gun sounded. It was a remarkable 9.84 seconds – a world record at the time. The 4×100 triumph one week later – same place, a bit earlier in the evening – was also thrilling, as the Canadian relay team of Bailey, Bruny Surin, Robert Esmie and Glenroy Gilbert defeated the host Americans by half-a-second.
MAY 25, 1989 – MONTREAL: The first Stanley Cup final I covered for the radio station turned into an historic event – the only time a visiting team paraded the silver mug around the ice at Montreal Forum. That team was the Calgary Flames, who beat Canadiens, 4-2, in Game 6 to win the first and only Stanley Cup in franchise history (which dates to Atlanta in 1972-73). With the cramped press box at the Forum, I was situated in an auxiliary location – the upper-white seats that literally hung over the south goal in the Ste. Catherine St. end of the building. Apart from the historic significance, this game had some personal meaning. Lanny McDonald – the prolific winger I had cheered as a Leaf in the 1970’s – scored a big goal for Calgary in the third period. It was Lanny’s final goal, and game, in the NHL. After arriving home the following day, I contacted McDonald’s former line-mate in Toronto – Darryl Sittler – and got a reaction. I don’t remember exactly what Darryl told me, but the strength of his friendship with McDonald was so palpable in the way he spoke. For trivia buffs, a future Leaf – Doug Gilmour – scored the game-winning goal for Calgary on that unforgettable night 24 years ago.
THE MONTREAL FORUM IN 1991. TWO YEARS EARLIER, I WAS SITTING IN THE UPPER-WHITE SEATS BEHIND THE GOAL IN THIS PHOTO. FROM THERE, I WATCHED AS CALGARY FLAMES BECAME THE ONLY VISITING TEAM TO WIN THE STANLEY CUP ON FORUM ICE.
JAN. 31, 1993 – PASADENA: Given that the Super Bowl is the largest annual sporting event in the world, I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren I covered one such game: the 27th edition, at the Rose Bowl, following the 1992 NFL season. I won’t be able to tell them I saw much of a contest, as Dallas obliterated Buffalo, 52-17. It was the second of four straight AFC championships for the Bills – an accomplishment that has never been appropriately recognized; engulfed, rather, by mockery for losing all four Super Bowls. This result didn’t help. The Cowboys’ mini dynasty (three NFL titles in four years) – led by Troy Aikman, Emmett Smith, Michael Irvin and Co. – was underway, with owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jimmy Johnson providing a comical side-show. What I remember most about this game occurred long after it had been decided. I was walking down steps adjacent to the west end zone at the Rose Bowl – on my way to the dressing rooms – when a commotion stirred. You might recall Dallas linebacker Leon Lett casually loping toward the Buffalo goal-line after recovering a late-game fumble. Out of nowhere – and for no reason except pride – Bills receiver Donald Beebe tracked down Lett and knocked the football out of his hand before he could score the Cowboys’ 58th point. The incredible play happened 30 feet in front of me.
SOUVENIR SEAT-CUSHION PROVIDED TO MEDIA AT THE ONLY SUPER BOWL I COVERED FOR THE FAN-590. IT WAS BUFFALO’S THIRD OF FOUR CONSECUTIVE APPEARANCES IN THE NFL CHAMPIONSHIP; BILLS WERE DEMOLISHED BY TROY AIKMAN AND THE DALLAS COWBOYS, 52-17, BEFORE 98,374 FANS AT THE ROSE BOWL.
WINTER OLYMPIC GAMES – 2002 SALT LAKE CITY (LEFT); 2006 TURINO, ITALY (RIGHT).
2006 BUFFALO/CAROLINA EASTERN FINAL (LEFT): HURRICANES WON IN SEVEN AND WENT ON TO DEFEAT EDMONTON FOR THE STANLEY CUP. LEAFS/THRASHERS AT PHILIPS ARENA IN ATLANTA (RIGHT): ALREADY A COLLECTOR’S ITEM.
LEAF GAMES AT PHILADELPHIA – NINE DAYS APART – IN 2006-07 SEASON.
1991 MAJOR LEAGUE ALL-STAR GAME HERE IN TORONTO (LEFT); STILL WONDERING WHO “HOWARD BEURGER” IS, 14 YEARS AFTER THIS LEAFS GAME IN VANCOUVER.
ANAHEIM DEFEATED OTTAWA IN FIVE GAMES TO WIN 2007 STANLEY CUP.
FACEBOOK: HOWARD BERGER [THORNHILL ON]