By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 3) – If you pay attention to Internet lunacy, it would appear that Bob Cole has made a comeback of sorts. If you know anything about the broadcasting business, the dean of hockey television in this country has never fallen from his perch.
The piecemeal announcement over the weekend that Rogers Communications will retain Cole when its 12-year grip on Canadian TV rights kicks in next season was met with overwhelming approval. Always dignified, Cole did not mention anything about his new deal when signing off from the United Center on Sunday night, after Los Angeles Kings had eliminated Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference final. That chore fell to Hockey Night In Canada colleague Ron MacLean, who told viewers on a post-game segment that Cole would be back next season – his 46th as a national play-caller on radio and/or TV for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Cole often refers to his big break as calling Game 6 of the 1969 Stanley Cup semifinal between the Bruins and Canadiens at Boston Garden. Jean Beliveau scored on Gerry Cheevers in double-overtime to end a memorable clash and put Montreal into the Cup final against St. Louis.
MY PHOTO OF BOB COLE AT THE STAPLES CENTER IN LOS ANGELES PRIOR TO A 2012 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF GAME BETWEEN THE KINGS AND PHOENIX COYOTES.
For whatever reason, veteran sports broadcasters in our country have never been as revered and appreciated as their colleagues south of the border. Such American icons as Chris Schenkel, Jim McKay, Howard Cosell, Vin Scully, Pat Summerall, Curt Gowdy, Jack Buck, Dick Enberg, Dick Stockton and Marv Albert either worked or are still working TV into their 70’s and 80’s. Al Michaels will be 70 in November and is not slowing down. Many retire on their own rather than being shuffled aside.
Here in Canada, it’s more about youth.
Veteran voices occasionally fade and then flourish again when their superiors come to realize there was no reason to have diminished them in the first place. Cole and the late Don Wittman of CBC were examples of this and one can only hope that Chris Cuthbert will not be similarly neglected now that Rogers controls Canadian hockey rights. It appears Cuthbert will continue to broadcast Canadian Football League games on TSN. The man that described Sidney Crosby’s “golden goal” at Vancouver in 2010 should be recognized now – not later – as among the best and most innovative play-callers this country has ever produced.
Because the true legends of sports broadcasting in our land tend to be immortalized posthumously or long after retirement. Johnny Esaw, Bill Hewitt, Jim Robson, Pat Marsden, Don Chevrier, Ward Cornell and Brian McFarlane fall into this category. Notable exceptions are Brian Williams, Danny Gallivan, Dick Irvin, Dave Hodge, Harry Neale and now Cole, who are justifiably allowed (or were allowed) to work until stepping aside. When Neale was replaced on Hockey Night’s prime crew, he moved permanently to his home in East Amherst, N.Y., outside Buffalo, and was hired to work with St. Catharines native Rick Jeanneret on Sabres’ TV games. The Leafs brought back Neale as a third man in the booth with Joe Bowen and Greg Millen for several local telecasts this season.
On Sunday nights in the 1970’s, Cole, Fred Walker and Fred Sgambati alternately described NHL radio games. CBC had a package of national broadcasts that often involved the Maple Leafs or Canadiens playing on the road. In September 1972, Cole was in the CBC Radio booth for all eight games of the legendary Canada-Russia series. A double record-album of his calls was later produced. It wasn’t, however, until the latter part of the 70’s – when he gradually replaced an ailing Bill Hewitt on Saturday Leaf telecasts – that Cole burst into nationwide prominence.
Joined by Neale to form an unparalleled tandem, Cole was the TV voice of hockey in our country for nearly 30 years. He will long be synonymous with Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the ’80’s – his assertion to all of Canada, May 19, 1984, that “there’s a new kid on the block” as the Oilers were seconds away from dethroning the four-time Cup-champion New York Islanders – still among the most famous lines in Canadian sports broadcasting history. Before playing in his final NHL game on Apr. 18, 1999, Gretzky put in a special request to talk with Cole in the dressing room corridor of Madison Square Garden – the Great One’s warm greeting replayed for viewers during the match. Cole and Neale were in the CBC telecast booth on that historic afternoon. Cole called the Stanley Cup final on TV beginning in 1981 and was joined by Neale two years later after Neale had been fired as GM of the Vancouver Canucks. Bob and Harry, as they were known across the land, did the championship round through 2008, when Detroit defeated Pittsburgh.
Hockey Night then chose to replace the veteran duo as prime crew with the younger tandem of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson in 2009. Hughson and Simpson – also a superb unit – will call their sixth championship round beginning tomorrow night in Los Angeles.
ANOTHER SNAP-SHOT I TOOK OF COLE DURING THE PLAYOFFS TWO SPRINGS AGO – THIS ONE IN THE DRESSING ROOM CORRIDOR AT JOBING.COM ARENA IN GLENDALE AZ.
Toward the end of his term as No. 1 play caller on CBC, Cole was criticized in some circles for losing his way. It was said that he could not identify players quickly enough and used more generalities when the play moved up-ice. What the critics didn’t understand is that Cole was simply calling hockey the way it’s supposed to be called on television – with the fewest words necessary. Viewers can see what is happening on the ice; they don’t need to be constantly told which player has the puck and on which side of the rink the play is developing. That’s for radio. It is perfectly acceptable on TV to say, for example, “the Blackhawks move it quickly over center-ice.” Once in the attacking zone, player identification is more important. And Cole does it very well.
As for Cole’s occasional tendency to mis-identify a player, tell me of a hockey play-by-play man to which that doesn’t happen now and then. These aren’t the old buildings in which Cole made his name – the Boston Garden, Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, St. Louis Arena, Philadelphia Spectrum – whose broadcast locations were virtually on top of the action. In many of the newer, more spacious NHL rinks, telecast positions are much farther away from the ice. And the game has become incrementally faster. Given that Cole will be a spry 81 three weeks from today, I’d suggest he’s performing quite remarkably.
It’s alright to feel good about the St. John’s native returning under the Rogers umbrella next season – even if you had previously written him off. It simply proves, once again, that the great ones cannot be denied.
25 YEARS AGO TONIGHT
How remarkable it is to consider that a quarter-century has passed since the home of the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts – SkyDome – officially opened at the foot of the C.N. Tower. I covered the ceremony 25 years ago tonight (June 3, 1989) for CJCL AM-1430 – still more than three years before we became Canada’s first all-sports radio station. My most vivid memory is the one that everyone has from that night. Proudly showing off the mechanism for opening panels of the world’s only retractable-roof stadium (at the time), organizers were shocked when torrents of water spilled onto the floor, soaking VIP’s who were dressed to the 9’s. Immaculate hairdos and thousand-dollar suits were destroyed by the mini-Niagara Falls. How it was possible that event organizers did not know of the rain-storm pelting downtown Toronto remains a mystery to this day. What a scene that was!
Here is my copy of the official opening ceremony program:
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