TORONTO (Feb. 15) — It was Apr. 27, 2006 and I felt sorrowful.
While in my hotel room at Le Centre Sheraton in Montreal, covering Games 3 and 4 of the Canadiens–Carolina playoff series for The FAN–590, I called Jim Bray, sports editor of the National Post, and wondered if I could write a story. I told Jim it would be a cathartic exercise. Without hesitation, he gave me the green light.
Pat Marsden, the CTV icon with whom I worked at The FAN from 1996 to 2004, had died the previous day of bone and lung cancer. It got me thinking about the media legends I had come to know, before and during my time at Canada’s first all–sports radio station. And, it spawned a lead paragraph that applies, even more–so, nearly 15 years later: “For a young sports fan–turned–reporter growing up in Toronto,” I wrote, “the media giants that have passed away in recent years are almost as illustrious as the great teams they followed.”
The story involved a quartet of names that were instantly recognizable to Canadian sports fans: Marsden, Jim Hunt, Tom Cheek and Jim Proudfoot. As I sit here today, that list — sadly, but inevitably — has swelled many times over. The most–recent addition is Frank Orr, the Hockey Hall–of–Fame writer for the Toronto Star (1961–1997), who passed away on Friday. For me, it also includes, in no particular order, Frank’s one–time running mate at the Star, Jim Kernaghan; Bill Stephenson (CFRB Radio); Milt Dunnell (Toronto Star); George Gross (Toronto Sun); Dick Beddoes (Globe and Mail, CHCH–TV, Hamilton); Trent Frayne and Jim Christie (Globe and Mail); Ward Cornell (Hockey Night In Canada); Don Wittman (CBC Winnipeg); Jack Matheson (Winnipeg Tribune, CJOB Radio); Jim Kelley (Buffalo News, The FAN–590); Mike Shalin (Boston Herald, The FAN–590) and the old Toronto Argonauts coach, Leo Cahill, with whom I worked at The FAN in the early–90’s. In all, 18 people — no longer with us — whose support, friendship, self–assurance and frequent kind words helped to cradle me through 23 wonderful years (1988–2011) in the toy store of sports media.
IN MY YEARS KNOWING JIM PROUDFOOT, HE WOULD POINT TO MILT DUNNELL AND SAY, “THERE’S MY MENTOR.” I WOULD LATER POINT TO JIM AND SAY, “THERE’S MY MENTOR.” HERE ARE BOTH TORONTO STAR LEGENDS AT THE 1971 “RETIREMENT” PARTY FOR DUNNELL (LEFT). MILT CONTINUED TO WRITE COLUMNS FOR THE NEWSPAPER UNTIL 1994.
Some personal recollections…
PAT MARSDEN became a local sports figure with CFTO–TV (Channel 9) here in Toronto in the 1970’s; then a national figure while calling Canadian Football League games for the CTV network in the 80’s. Prior to joining John Derringer (and, later, Don Landry) as morning co–host at The FAN–590, Marsden — in his post–CTV years — did afternoon sportscasts on CFRB radio (now Newstalk–1010). Occasionally, I would handle our sportscasts at the same time. As always, we would monitor one another. On the afternoon of Oct. 11, 1991, we were both leading with news that Walter Gretzky, Wayne’s father, had suffered a stroke and was in perilous condition. Three times an hour, I called the hospital for updates. Just after 4 p.m., Marsden reported that Walter had died. I had spoken to the hospital moments before and was told he was “critical, but stable”.
I immediately called Marsden at CFRB. “Pat, where are you getting that Walter has died? I just got off the phone with the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital. They said he was alive and stable.”
After three or four seconds of silence came a reply: “Oh shit… you’re kidding.” Which I definitely was not.
Turned out that a listener to CFRB had driven past the Toronto Argonauts practice on the CNE grounds that bordered the Gardiner Expressway and noticed the football players kneeling. Wayne Gretzky was part–owner of the Argos. The listener concluded that Walter had died, thus the group “prayer” session. Pat should have known to not go with the caller’s assumption. He thanked me, profusely, then offered an immediate correction on the air. We’re happy to say that ol’ Wally is still kicking around, nearly three decades later.
FRANK ORR initiated the modern approach to covering hockey in Toronto. Prior to Frank, local newspaper scribes were quasi–extensions of the Maple Leafs; those, in the 1960’s, often having travel expenses paid by the team. Orr covered the club during the Harold Ballard era of the 1970’s and early–80’s, understanding that readers deserved (and increasingly wanted) a critical eye in the press box. Even while following the good Maple Leafs teams of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming, Frank could see how Ballard’s frugality and obnoxious behavior held back the club. His print battles with Pal Hal were the stuff of legend.
A tall, gangly man with an impish sense of humor, Frank would bust up his media friends. One night, when the Leafs were terrible in the late–80’s, he leaned in toward me while leaving the press box. At the Gardens, wheelchairs were positioned at the corner–glass at ice level for handicapped spectators. Orr pointed to a pair of vacated chairs and said “this game is so bad, Howie, even the quadriplegics have gotten up and left.”
BIG FRANCIS, AS WE CALLED HIM. FRANK ORR. A HALL OF FAME WRITER AND PERSON.
JIM HUNT was a local icon by the time he joined Bob McCown, in 1991, as co–host of Prime Time Sports (McCown’s original partner, Bill Watters, had left to become assistant general manager of the Leafs). When the Buffalo Bills were in their stretch of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances (1991–94) — and prior to my years covering the Leafs, full time — I would often drive with Shakey to Rich Stadium for home games (our radio station had a press box seat). Hunt lived in the Leaside neighborhood of Toronto and I’d pick him up at Lawrence Plaza. One night, we were motoring back from a game when Shakey said he had to pee. Desperately. We were on a stretch of the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) without an exit, so the poor fellow needed to wait. I tried to distract him from the discomfort. “Don’t worry, Shake, there’ll be an exit soon. In the meantime, just think of the place we drove past a few minutes ago… NIAGARA FALLS!!!” The image of billions of cascading gallons was too much for the old guy to withstand. “Howwwaaarrrd!!” he shrieked.
TOM CHEEK was the original radio voice of the Toronto Blue Jays, miraculously calling the first 4,306 games in franchise history (Apr. 7, 1977 to June 3, 2004) before missing an assignment when his father died. Just more than a week later came the stunning news that Tom had been diagnosed with a brain tumor that would take his life on Oct. 9, 2005. He is best–remembered for his “Touch ’em all, Joe!” exclamation when Joe Carter won the 1993 World Series at SkyDome with a home run off Mitch Williams of Philadelphia. I had the privilege of ghost–writing Tom’s autobiography (pictured below) in the winter of 1992–93, after the Blue Jays had captured their first championship, against Atlanta. I’d been hounding him for a few years to consider the idea. He wasn’t interested. In November 1992, I got an unexpected phone call. “Berger, let’s do the book.” This, after Warwick Publishing had approached Tom. “At least we have a World Series to write about.”
My favorite memories of Tom are the moments spent at his place in Oldsmar, Fla. with my family during hockey road trips in the early–2000’s. On the night before a Maple Leafs game in Tampa, me, Susan and the kids would drive north to Oldsmar and go for dinner with Tom and his wife, Shirley. I still have a video clip of Tom bouncing my 10–month–old daughter, Lauren, on his lap. When she looked up at him, the ol’ broadcaster started to laugh as only he could… with that deep, baritone voice. I miss Tom and think of him often.
BILL STEPHENSON talked to more sports fans each day than anyone in the history of Toronto radio. The CFRB–1010 morning show, hosted by Wally Crouter, routinely topped the Bureau of Broadcast Management (BBM) ratings in the 1980’s and early–90’s. CFRB had a strong signal and an enormous reach. For more than 40 years, Stephenson did sportscasts on weekday mornings and became a local treasure. In the 80’s, he developed a national profile as a sideline reporter for CFL games on the CTV network. I didn’t know Bill particularly well, but one memory stands out. In 1994, he was the radio voice of the Toronto Argonauts, working with analyst (and former linebacker) Peter Martin. The CFL was in the midst of a short–lived experiment with American teams and the Argos were in Baltimore for a playoff game. I was also there, covering for The FAN–1430 (as we were known until February 1995). A day before the game, the Argos practiced at old Memorial Stadium, where Johnny Unitas and the NFL Colts had once played. Standing on the sideline of that historic venue was rather surreal. Several hours afterward, late on a perfect September afternoon, I spent 90 wonderful minutes walking around Baltimore’s inner harbor with Stephenson and Martin. We talked football, radio… and life. It was the only extended time I ever spent with Bill. I found him to be engaging and cordial.
He was 85 years old when he died on July 23, 2014.
DON WITTMAN will always be a Winnipeg sports legend for his years on radio and TV in that city. He became a national figure as lead play caller for CFL games on the CBC network in the 1980’s, working alongside Ron Lancaster and Leo Cahill. He and Pat Marsden of CTV would split Grey Cup telecasts, each calling one half. I got to know Don while covering Grey Cup games for the radio station in 1988–89–91–92 and ’94. In February 1996, I was with the Maple Leafs in Winnipeg for a Saturday night game. Sometime in the first period, I felt a tap on my shoulder in the press box of Winnipeg Arena. It was ol’ Wit, asking if he could interview me on radio in the first intermission — the rough equivalent of a Police Chief interviewing a cadet. I meekly accepted the invite and made it clear, in my first answer, that this was an absurd role–reversal. “Don, let’s set the record straight,” I told his listeners, “I should be in your chair right now, asking about all the decades you’ve spent covering sports in this city and across the land.” He chuckled and said something like “oh, don’t be silly.” But, I couldn’t help it. Nothing about Wittman interviewing me felt natural.
Don was a kind and thoughtful man who lost his life to cancer in January 2008.
WARD CORNELL was the intermission host for Maple Leaf games on TV from 1959 to 1971, when succeeded by Dave Hodge. As with many of my contemporaries, I grew up watching him on Saturday and Wednesday nights. I met Ward for the first time in the summer of 1999 and it remains a humbling moment. I was having lunch with a radio colleague at a restaurant on Eglinton Ave., just north of Holly St., where I worked from 1988–2002. At one point, a short, balding man approached my table and asked if I was Howard Berger.
There was something vaguely familiar about the man, but I didn’t recognize him.
“Howard, I’m Ward Cornell,” he said, reaching out to shake hands. “Just wanted to say how much I enjoy listening to you on The FAN.” To suggest I was dumbstruck would be an understatement. “Mr. Cornell,” I replied, “what an incredible honor. It’s so nice of you to come over. Please sit down and join us.” He was 75 at the time, but had lost nearly all of his familiar jet–black hair and looked quite a bit older. I soon found out why. Cornell told the story of overcoming a tough battle with cancer that affected his breathing.
“I don’t know that I’m long for this world, but I’m trying to enjoy every day.”
“Well, you certainly made my day,” I responded.
Cornell died of Emphysema in Uxbridge, Ont. seven months later, on Feb. 5, 2000.
JIM PROUDFOOT meant more to me than any sports media colleague, past or present. I so treasure the time I spent with him in the press box at Maple Leaf Gardens and on hockey, baseball and football road trips in the 1990’s. For me, the gold standard of company was dinner with Proudfoot and his Toronto Star colleague, Dave Perkins, while covering Blue Jays playoffs in Oakland, Atlanta and Chicago. Chester, as Jim was known, and Perky flat out taught me the media biz. They were friends, mentors and cherished supporters (Dave still is). I could write volumes on the memories I shared with Proudfoot, but one is still most vivid.
We were in Vancouver covering the 1986 Grey Cup (Hamilton vs. Edmonton) and Jim arranged for us to sit in the press box at Pacific Coliseum, one night prior, for the hockey game between the Canucks and Winnipeg Jets. The Coliseum, at the time, stood across from Empire Stadium, original home of the B.C. Lions (1954–82). In his pre–columnist days, Proudfoot covered football for the Star. Before entering the Coliseum on this late–Saturday afternoon, we walked around the perimeter of Empire Stadium… Jim regaling me with stories of Grey Cup games he had covered there in the 60’s and 70’s. I could have listened forever.
Another Vancouver memory still cracks me up.
Jim and I stayed at the Westin Bayshore hotel while covering the 1998 NHL All–Star Game, several weeks prior to the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in which NHL players took part for the first time. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant then sat in the lobby for a couple of hours. Just after 10 p.m., Chester rose and stretched. “Well, Howard, I think I’ll go upstairs… enjoy an aperitif… put on a filthy movie, and hit the sack.
“Have a good night.”
I was paralyzed with laughter.
Jim died of complications from a stroke on Apr. 1, 2001. I think of him often. So does Perky.
JIM PROUDFOOT, AS I BEST REMEMBER HIM. WITH AN ELFIN SMILE AND WICKED SENSE OF HUMOR.