Ron Wilson’s Loud Voice

TORONTO (Mar. 27) — In the early 1970’s, while in junior–high school, I would play around with the radio dial at night to determine which hockey games I could hear. After 8 o’clock, AM radio stations in the United States are required — by the Federal Communications Commission — to reduce the power of their signal… essentially so they do not interfere with other AM signals. The actual term is sky–wave propagation, but we won’t get into that.

Of particular delight back then was listening to KMOX Radio in St. Louis. Ottawa native Dan Kelly was the voice of the Blues and he also called the weekly, Sunday–afternoon TV games on CBS. On the radio side, Kelly worked with Gus Kyle, who appeared in 203 NHL games with New York and Boston in the early 1950’s. Kyle was somewhat wacky, yet a good compliment to Kelly — a traditional, no–nonsense broadcaster.


One night, the Blues were playing in Vancouver. The game started at 11 p.m. Eastern and I stayed up to listen. Sometime in the third period, play was called and Kelly went to break with his patented out–cue: “This is St. Louis Blues hockey.” Normally, you’d hear a sponsored commercial. On this occasion, however, something happened at the KMOX studio and the commercial did not air. Kelly and Kyle, unaware of the glitch, were still on live microphones at the Pacific Coliseum when Kyle said, “Gee Dan, I sure have the farts tonight.” I bolted up in bed, not believing what I’d just heard. But, seconds later, the puck was dropped and the broadcast continued as usual.

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On the subject of passing wind, I still laugh uproariously when recalling an incident after Game 4 of the Leafs–Detroit opening–round playoff series in 1993. It involved my mentor — the late Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot. Coach Pat Burns was fielding questions in the media lounge at Maple Leaf Gardens when there was a sudden lull in the conversation. At that point, a loud, crackly fart emanated from the back–corner of the room. Burns quickly snapped his head in the direction of the blast, where Proudfoot was standing with a crooked smile on his face. Other reporters discreetly shuffled to the opposite side of the lounge, fearing an aftershock.

Two days later, Jim and I were in Detroit for Game 5 of the series and riding the downtown monorail (known as the “People Mover”) to Joe Louis Arena. Still mortified over his gas attack, Jim explained to me, “Gee, Howard, I tried to time it so there’d be enough noise to drown out the sound. But, just as I reached the point of ‘no return,’ everyone suddenly stopped talking.”

Moments after arriving at the arena, Proudfoot and I walked past the corridor leading to the visitors’ dressing room. As the Leaf players warmed up for the pivotal match, Burns was pacing back and forth, seemingly oblivious to anything else. We offered him a cursory wave and continued on to the media room for dinner. Not three seconds later, we heard the Leafs coach bellow, “No farting in the press box!”

BURNING EYES: This story dates to the 1970–71 NHL season and was told to me by Darryl Sittler, a Leafs rookie that year. After practice one day, a number of players were having a sauna at the Gardens when George Armstrong opened the door. Armstrong had been captain of the Leafs during their 1960’s Stanley Cup dynasty and was now in his final pro season. He looked around in the sauna for a place to sit, which brought a deluge of griping from teammates, who angrily informed him there was no room for anyone else. Armstrong responded by urinating on the coals and slamming the door. A cascading mist of bodily fluid enveloped the sauna and nearly asphyxiated the players, sending them in a dash for fresh air.

“It was awful,” remembered Sittler. “Our eyes were burning and the smell was terrible.”

Recalling the incident with me years later, Armstrong laughed.

“There was plenty of fu–ing room in the sauna after that!”


GONDOLA MALAISE: On a Wednesday night in March 1978, the Leafs were being routed by the New York Islanders at the Gardens. My father and I were at the game and we left midway through the third period. While driving home, we listened to the game on CKFH–1430, the station founded by Leafs broadcasting legend Foster Hewitt (thus the “FH”). In 1977–78, Ron Hewat called most of the games on radio with fellow CKFH employee John McGilvary.

At one point in the final period, the Islanders carried the puck up ice and Hewat suddenly stopped calling the play — right in the middle of a sentence. All we could hear was crowd noise in the background. Dad and I looked at each other, confused, when poor McGilvary came on in a panic. He clearly hadn’t studied the team rosters beforehand. “Uh, number five in blue shoots it into the Leafs zone and the goalie stops it behind the net” — that kind of thing.

Having done color commentary several times with Joe Bowen, I can barely imagine how I’d feel if he suddenly walked away from the microphone in the midst of the play. McGilvary, therefore, was in a crisis. He began by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, you probably realize Ron Hewat is no longer doing the broadcast. He isn’t” — and just as McGilvary said “feeling well” — someone could be heard retching in the background. McGilvary cupped his hand over the mike as poor Hewat heaved up in a garbage–pail behind him. It sounded like he was dying. I’m sure it wasn’t fun for the broadcasters, but Dad and I nearly drove off the road in hysterics.

SHOWER ECHO: Friggin’ Doug Gilmour. I can hear it to this day. When the Leafs were still playing at the Gardens, the dressing room was much smaller than the oasis at Air Canada Centre. The showers were close to the equipment and dressing stalls. Gilmour was not only the best player on the Leafs, but the top prankster. And, I took the bullet several times.

After a Leafs victory — the dressing room packed with media — Gilmour would be in the shower. He’d purposely wait for a female reporter to stand near me… and, for a relatively quiet moment. Then he would yell, “Berger, stop looking at my ass!” The echo from the shower room amplified the sound. Typically, the female reporter would look at me with revulsion and I would die of embarrassment. Turning around, there would be Gilmour with that silly, toothless grin.

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We landed in Calgary once and I needed to interview Gilmour about some important matter. While standing at the luggage carousel, I asked if I could speak with him and he sounded hesitant. “Howie, I’m tired after the game last night; let’s do it another time.” I began virtually pleading with him to reconsider. Finally, Doug said, “okay, call me when we get to the hotel and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

I hopped on the team bus to the Calgary Westin. We checked in and I went upstairs. After getting settled, I called the front desk and asked for Gilmour’s room. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the operator, “we have no one by that name with us.” I couldn’t understand it. “Could you please look again? He plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs and I just checked in behind him.” After a brief pause, she reiterated, “no, sir, we don’t have a Doug Gilmour registered at this hotel.” Naturally, I was frustrated and I went to the lobby to wait for another Leafs player, as I needed an interview for my pre–game show.

Dave Andreychuk got off the elevator and I said, “isn’t Gilmour in the hotel?”

“Yes, of course. He’s in the room right next to me.”

Now, I was totally perplexed. There was a man standing behind the front desk. I told him about the phone–operator twice looking for Gilmour’s room and asked him to check again. After going through the register, he confirmed there was no one by that name in the hotel.

I threw up my hands and went back to my room.

Later on, I ran up to Gilmour and we got on the team bus to the Saddledome. “Doug, what happened to you today? I called your room twice and the operator said there was no one registered under your name.”

“Nah, that can’t be true,” he replied.

“Yeah, Doug, even the desk manager couldn’t find it.”

“Aw, Howie, you must have made a mistake.” Then, he laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked. When he explained, I was ready to kill him. Turned out Gilmour — for reasons of privacy — always checked into a hotel under the pseudonym “Jake Robert”.

“Thanks a lot, Doug.”

“No sweat, Howie. Call me tomorrow.”

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Another time, we were in San Jose. Rich Sutter had just become a Leaf at the trade deadline. After the morning skate, I interviewed Sutter for my pre–game show. It was in the hallway outside the Leafs dressing room and deathly quiet. Rich talked softly, so I had the microphone practically down his throat. Unbeknownst to me, Gilmour was standing 15 feet away, working on his sticks. He waited for a brief lull in the interview — crept up closer — and said, “Howie, get that microphone out of my butt!” I rolled my eyes and Sutter laughed. Then Gilmour began cackling when I played back the tape and realized he had screwed up the entire interview. But, it was hard to stay angry at the little rat.


UN–WELCOMED FEET: In early–November 1995, the Leafs were on a three–game trip to Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton. After the game in Vancouver, I was on the team’s charter flight up to Edmonton. We arrived just after 1 a.m. and took a bus to the Westin Hotel. Room keys were laid out on a table and the players went upstairs. But, I had to check in at the front desk. After a long day, I was looking forward to collapsing into bed. I got up to my room; opened the door, and noticed a large pair of feet sticking out from under the blanket. “What’s going on here?” said a man with a gruff voice. “Oh, pardon me, sir. The front desk gave me the wrong key. Sorry to disturb you.”

I went back downstairs and explained the situation. The desk manager apologized profusely and assigned me another room. Up I went again in the elevator; got to the door, and turned the key. This time, I saw two humps in the bed — clearly a man and his wife. “Hello? Who is it?” said the lady. “Oh, I’m so sorry ma’m. I got the wrong key when checking in. Please accept my apology.” Now, I was steaming mad. I got off the elevator, stomped toward the front desk and yelled “what the f–ck’s going on here?!” Pat Burns happened to be in the lobby. “Jeez, Howie, what’s the matter?” he asked.

The desk manager also had a quizzical look. “For crying out loud,” I snarled, “don’t you have a vacant room in this damned hotel? I’m waking up half the guests.” He threw back his head and said, “no… again?” This time the man accompanied me up to another room. And, he knocked. I held my breath as he carefully opened the door. Thankfully, there were no big feet or humps.

“The room’s on me,” said the manager and I fell into bed — exhausted.

FRANTIC LEAFS COACH: This story is a bit embarrassing, but it also generated convulsive laughter. At the beginning of December 2008, the Leafs went out west to play Los Angeles, San Jose and Arizona. The L.A. and San Jose games were on consecutive nights; then we had a day off in Phoenix before the Leafs–Coyotes match. That night, Cliff Fletcher invited all team staff and traveling media to his palatial estate in Scottsdale for a party. The players stayed for about two hours and then headed back to the team hotel in Glendale, across from Gila River Arena. Management, coaches, training staff and media hung around til the wee hours.

At the time, Brian Burke had been general manager of the Leafs for less than a week, and Ron Wilson was in his initial season as coach. It was their first social gathering and they regaled us with stories from their Providence College days. At one point in the evening, I walked out to Fletcher’s back–yard, which stunningly overlooked the lights of Phoenix. There, I came upon David Shoalts of the Globe and Mail, who was relieving himself in the bushes (he’ll kill me for this). I asked Dave why he’d chosen that spot. “Well, there’s only one bathroom available to us in the house,” he replied, “and I nearly passed out when I went in there a few minutes ago.”

I laughed and walked back in to join the others. About five minutes later, Mother Nature knocked on my door. And hard. I was in a crisis and prayed that no one was occupying the lone bathroom. Thankfully, it was vacant… and the stench that drove Shoalts into the garden had dissipated.

But, not for long.

Regrettably, I did a similar number on the room. It was absolutely lethal. I found myself in a quandary. No other person could have walked in there without becoming violently ill. And, my biggest fear was opening the door to find either Burke or Wilson waiting for a visit. I frantically searched, without luck, for a can of Lysol or Glade. I then opened the door beneath the sink and noticed that Cliff’s wife, Linda, had a tray of mini perfume bottles. i took out three or four and liberally sprayed them about the room.

After 15 minutes, I realized it was unfair to occupy the lone lavatory much longer. I said a quick prayer and opened the door. To my immense relief, neither the GM; the coach, nor anyone else, was on deck. As I walked toward the livingroom, however, I caught a glimpse of Wilson heading for the “danger zone”. A wall partially separated us, so he didn’t see me. Ol’ Ronnie wasn’t feeling much pain at that juncture (Cliff and Linda had wine and beer bottles all over the house) and we all remember how the coach had a loud, piercing voice. I paused just a moment as Wilson approached the bathroom door.

“Holy sh–t, who died in here!” he bellowed.

I entered the livingroom and held my breath because I didn’t want to burst out laughing. It wasn’t the type of environment to tell a story like that. Further testing my resolve was Wilson, who returned moments later, wincing in apparent pain. “Jeez, someone really sick was in that bathroom,” he groaned. I was close to turning blue.

We sat around for another couple of hours listening to Cliff’s hockey stories. I’d rented a large SUV at Phoenix Airport and had enough room to drive my media colleagues back to Glendale. Kevin McGran of the Toronto Star sat next to me. In the back seat were Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun; Sheri Forde of TSN, and Dave Shoalts. Crouching in the trunk–hatchback area was Michael Traikos of the National Post. I couldn’t wait any longer. I told the Wilson story and began the trip back to our hotel. But, we were all laughing our guts out and I had to pull over on the 101–Loop. My eyes were so wet from tears, I couldn’t see the road.

Two years later — in January 2011 — the Leafs made the identical western swing: Los Angeles and San Jose in consecutive nights then a day off in Phoenix before playing the Coyotes. Again, Cliff and Linda hosted a party at their home in Scottsdale. Wilson was in a dandy mood, having won his 600th career game as a coach the night before against his old team, the Sharks. Late in the party, Ron was sitting with four or five of us and I felt it was the right moment to tell him the bathroom story from two years earlier.

“Oh ho, no way… did I really yell that out?” he laughed.

Yes you did, Ron. Loud and clear.


EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM 

4 comments on “Ron Wilson’s Loud Voice

  1. That’s probably one of the reasons why Wilson hated you. I’m glad you wrote that the two of you buried the proverbial hatchet. Great Writing. I’m looking forward to your stories in the playoffs this year (godwilling). Lou , Shanny, Hunter, and the boy wonder Dubas have collectively knocked it out of the park. Still can’t believe that Shanny picked the devil’s pocket, stole Lou, and all it cost him was a third round draft pick.

    1. Sadly, David, you have little idea what you are talking about. Wilson and I had one incident that happened before TV cameras after a Leafs game in 2009. It can still be Google’d and watched. As such, he “hated” me. In fact, we got along perfectly well, and continue to do so today, as he recovers from a stroke. Perception is not always reality.

  2. I think we all have some stories like that in our history.

    Mine involves my now retired boss, a party at a coworkers house and me driving him home from that party.

    A party where he drank enough to fill a pond and spent the entire drive back afterwards loudly encouraging me (i.e.: demanding drunkenly) to get me to drive faster on the 401 late at night, in a car I had owned less than six months and been barely licensed to drive for more than a year at that point.

    Needless to say, I didn’t comply, stuck to the right lane, 100km/h and heard the complaints all the way home. Funny enough, he barely remembered the party, but took great delight in complaining to my colleagues about how slow I drove home for weeks afterwards.

    Of course I looked at it as keeping him from making a disastrous choice to drive that night, so I didn’t mind the complaining one bit.

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