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Foster Hewitt (Toronto Star Photo)
The new arena opened in our community in 1948. Saturday night, people of all ages from the neighbourhood flocked to the shiny new structure to enjoy public skating. While I was often part of the crowd, there were also some nights when my friends and family thought I had taken leave of my senses. I was home, sitting by the radio, listening to Foster Hewitt with his play-by-play of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey.
The chances of this poor farm boy getting to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch my favourite pucksters in person, were next to nil. But whether it was the Wings, the Bruins, the Rangers, Canadiens, or the Blackhawks, “the voice of hockey” made the game come alive. It has been estimated that between six to eight million joined this hockey nut, taking in the action many miles removed from radios in living rooms, service stations, grocery stores, and automobiles.
Broadcasters like Foster Hewitt have never been paid the tribute they deserve for igniting listener’s imaginations—the next best things to sitting in the stands watching first hand.
Fast forward to the medium of television, with both sight and sound combining to transfer viewers from their armchairs to centre ice in Montreal, Toronto, or Detroit — now another step closer to leaning forward on row 55, 300 feet from the playing surface. And, with the more advanced the technology; there are even advantages to this alternative perch. The saving of hard-earned dollars; the play-by-play which supersedes any natural ability to know who is skating with the puck; the triple close-up replays of the goals scored — and the relief of paying the price of a family night out at a Swiss Chalet to park — AND being spared the hassle of exiting the arena and the parking lot! AGAIN, THANKS TO THE MEN AND WOMEN BEHIND THE MICROPHONES, who view the action and tell it like it is.
Bringing the highlights and scores of big-league hockey contests goes back to anxious fans living in the 1890’s. One method involved sportswriters describing the action, which was sent by telegraphers to the counterparts in various cities across the country. Sometimes they were described verbally in large centres. Other times they were posted by “projectors” on exterior walls for crowds to see. A third option was the use of a bullhorn to convey the news to those waiting for news of how their favourites were faring.
In 1920, the first radio broadcast was aired in Canada from Montreal. This new medium caught on very quickly, and within a couple of years, the nation was swept up in its novelty — almost to a fever pitch. So it wasn’t surprising that sports events were soon taken to the homes of people who could never attend the competitions in person.
Early in 1923, like a summer cloudburst, hockey suddenly made its debut over the airwaves. The first play-by-play description of Canada’s National Sport is credited to Norman Albert, an employee of the Toronto Star. On that newspaper’s own station, CFCA, on February 8th, the action of the third period of a game between Midland and North Toronto at the Mutual Street Arena was heard locally. Six days later, Albert was behind the microphone again, this time to give a summary of the first two, and then the description of the third period of an NHL contest between the local St. Patricks and the Ottawa Senators. Toronto fans were happy with the result — a 6-4 victory for the Irish.
CFCA would follow through with 12 more final frame’s action—including three more NHL matches. Albert would take care of two of them; the rest were called by the renowned Foster Hewitt.
“The Voice of Hockey”, as he began to be recognized, had already tackled his first such assignment on February 16. Once more the broadcast covered the third period—of an amateur match-up between Kitchener and the Toronto Argonauts. He nearly suffocated in his stuffy phone-booth structure, all the while trying to keep the glass from steaming up and obstructing his view of the play.
What made it worse — the game went into overtime — four five-minute periods, adding to his misery. Another problem, since he was using a live telephone line, was the operator butting in asking what number he wanted. It was not a “baptism of fire”, but rather of steam — and he vowed never to do it again.
On February 22nd, the first complete game was heard—featuring the Port Arthur Bearcats and the Winnipeg Falcons. The first complete professional contest was aired on March 14th. Pete Parker described the competition between the local Regina Capitals and the Edmonton Eskimos. Of course, Mr. Hewitt’s vow didn’t last. That had been his first step into incomparable fame, which eventually spanned an amazing 55 years.
In 1927 he was invited to call the action on the ice on the occasion of the opening of the Detroit Olympia, the home of the NHL Red Wings. When Conn Smythe bought the Toronto St. Pats NHL franchise that same year, he called upon Foster to exclusively broadcast all the newly-named Maple Leafs’ games in the Arena Gardens. That was followed by the same privilege granted when the team moved to the brand new Maple Leaf Gardens.
In fact, in 1931, Smythe gave Hewitt the opportunity to choose his broadcast position in the arena which best suited him. The famous “gondola” was the result. It was from that vantage point that the Toronto games soon became a coast-to-coast feature.
Anecdotes abound from the life and experiences of the one who has been referred to as “the yardstick by which other broadcasters are measured”.
. One of them precludes the story of the fantastic erection of the classy Carlton Street building. As Smythe contemplated the need for a new home for his Blue and White crew, money problems, complicated by the recent Stock Market crash, plagued his plans. But early in the 1930-31 campaign, Frank Selke Sr. produced a special programme to be sold at games that boosted the need for a new arena. Foster mentioned them on one of this broadcasts that these were available for ten cents each. 91,000 requests for them came in. Those 91,000 dimes convinced backers and bankers that there was indeed great interest in the game—hence a new arena made good sense.
Brian McFarlane, who was son Bill Hewitt’s “colour man” in the telecasting booth, affirms that neither Foster nor Bill ever missed a game due to injury or illness. But there was a close call for the father of this famous duo. One morning of a game day he woke up with laryngitis. When he opened his mouth to speak, he resembled the croaking of a turkey. It sounded hopeless. But he engaged the help of a doctor, who sat him in front of a steaming pail of water and balsam. Around his shoulders he placed a blanket to make sure the “fumes” didn’t escape. There he stayed the rest of the day. He drank coffee and bundled up and headed for his perch above the ice surface. He almost went crazy wondering what would happen when he tried to call the play. But, though a bit scratchy at first, his voice improved with the using, and he made it through the match. His signature “He Shoots! He Scores!” was on the air as usual.
It’s not surprising that the club brass at first feared his description of the action would encourage fans to stay home rather than pay to cost of a seat. But the opposite was true. Between six to eight million were known to listen to his description of the action on the ice. When he moved to TV, that estimate skyrocketed to 25 million.
Dick Beddoes once wrote that “He did more to promote hockey than any of the Hall of Fame characters called builders.”
Space will not permit the profiles of all the many talented play-by-play announcers. There are over 30 winners of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award—all worthy in their own right of acclaim. Choices listed here are mainly subjective. However, we have attempted to honour those akin to “All Stars”—those known both for the popularity and their longevity.
There are two sports casters who contend with Foster Hewitt for going an early start in the shinny communication business. One was Frank Ryan. While Hewitt did call at least one NHL match before he was conscripted by the “Little Major” to call his newly-named Maple Leafs, he was not permanently engaged until 1927.
But when the Boston Bruins played their first game on December 1, 1924, Ryan was Johnny-on-the-spot describing the action over the WBZ radio. A Boston Traveller sports-writer, he debuted on the same occasion as the fledgling NHL sextet. His wife excitedly listened to him on a primitive crystal radio set, which required earphones for sound. While she complimented him on his efforts, he was not satisfied with his first attempt in this field. At the earliest convenience he huddled with the Hub’s owner, Charles Adams, to discuss ways and means to improve broadcasts.
Only 1340 fans had turned out for this opening contest. But as his technique for calling the games improved, attendance did as well. He was often credited with the ongoing Bruins’ success as a franchise. Very intense about the responsibility of his position, he created a card index system to learn the names and numbers of opposition players. In 1948 he stepped up to TV as a medium to take the game to the people in their homes. He remained the “voice of the Bruins” until his retirement in 1952 — 28 years after his initial shaky steps in the sound booth.
There is a favourite tale attached to his biography. In 1961, he was ill enough to be hospitalized. Not only that, but a priest had been called in ready to give him the last rites. Out of the blue he opened his eyes and said: “When I get out of here, I’m taking you to a Bruins’ game”.
He was told to “be quiet, because the clergyman was anointing him!”
But he did revive and claimed he intended to make good his promise.
Another, whose vintage communication talents made the game come alive for listeners, was John “Jack” Filmore, a native of Hamilton, Ontario. He actually called the home games of the old New York Americans, for whom the original Madison Square Garden was built. He called the Star-Spangled Amerks’ contests during their inaugural campaign. Even though his rapid-fire delivery kept the attention of those sitting at home by their radios, the fact that he didn’t commence his game description until the third period started about 10 p.m., was an added challenge. He also added the Rangers’ games in 1926, and continued coverage until he passed away at age 43.
Bertram Lebhar Jr., better known as Bert Lee, took his place in time for the Rangers’ 1939-40 schedule. He carried the broadcasting torch until the 1953-54 campaign. His description of game action, as was often the case with gifted announcers, was the inspiration which prompted others to follow in his footsteps. Sal Messina, TV “colour” man in later years, claimed that he listened to Lee’s radio work while growing up, and it got him “hooked on hockey”!
“He was theatre! I could envision the NHL by listening to him!”
It was said that he often lost track of time, and ran overtime. Letters of complaint to the radio station were faithfully answered by Bertram Lebhar Jr. (executive), apologizing for Bert Lee (announcer).
Stan Fischler, both a journalist and a broadcaster, recalls that Lee would try to create optimism when the Blueshirts were doing poorly — which was often during the World War II years. He would turn to side-kick, Ward Wilson, and exult: “Time enough for one goal, Ward; time enough for twenty!”
After brief stints by Jim Gordon and Win Elliott, Marv Albert, whose brothers Steve and Al were also broadcasters, took up the mantle on Broadway. While his story includes a smudged page or two, he did faithfully man the microphones at the Garden for nearly thirty years. Son Kenny picked up where he left off.
Bruce Martyn began calling hockey play-by-play in his hometown of Sault St. Marie, Michigan in 1950. Three years later he migrated to Detroit where he occupied himself in announcing football and basketball—namely the Lions and the Pistons. Eventually the Red Wings heard of his vibrant descriptions of their sister pro teams, and he was brought on board for the beginning of the 1964-65 campaign. He faithfully took his place behind the microphone for 32 years. They were not banner years for the Motor City crew, and Martyn was never able to be part of a Cup-winning organization.
He aped Foster Hewitt in proclaiming a goal, with “He Shoots! He Scores”. He also loved to call the Olympia “the old red barn”.
He was honoured by the club in 1997, when he was invited to call the play of the second period of the tense action of the finals against Philadelphia. His description of Darren McCarty’s tally is available on YouTube. The current voice of the Wings at that time was Ken Kal. He spoke of what a thrill it was to be joined in the booth with the one who was his “hero and idol” when he was growing up. He was given the Foster Hewitt Award in 1991.
Longevity has been a big factor in singling out these particular men in the broadcast booths. And while Bob Elson got the Blackhawks games on the air as early as 1934, and stuck it out for 15 seasons, he cannot match the perseverance of Pat Foley. It was announced in 2019 that he had been involved in with the Windy City club for 36 years. That represents a lot of inhaling and exhaling into a microphone.
His career in Chicago commenced in 1980, and his skilled announcing of their ups and downs on the ice soon earned him the title of “the Voice of the Blackhawks”. “Excitable” is one way to describe the way he conveys what he sees during the ebb and flow of shinny action. Take a moment of check out YouTube, which recorded his description of Jonathan Toew’s post-season overtime winner against St. Louis in 2016, and you will have all the proof you need. On one occasion, he and the telecast crew took a moment for levity. For more than a minute he called the lick-by-lick progress of a little boy in the stands consuming a soft ice cream cone.
My tribute to Rene Lecavelier is not less imperative than any other. However it is limited because I cannot speak or read French (it’s a long time since my last high school French class in 1953), and the bulk of his biography in found in that language.
It is general knowledge that, after joining the CBC in 1937, spending time as a war correspondent from 1942 through 1944, he returned to his home environs with a growing interest in sports.
He was the first to telecast Le Soirée du Hockey (the French version of Hockey Night in Canada) in the inaugural CBFT television game in 1952. For 34 years he was to francophone listeners and viewers what Foster Hewitt was to English-speaking Canadians. His version of Hewitt’s “He Shoots! He Scores!” was, “Il lance….et compte!” It was his privilege to call Paul Henderson’s historic marker which won the Summit Series for Canada against the Soviet Union in 1972. He was also brought back from retirement to call the Rendez-Vous ’87 series between the Soviet Union’s national team and the NHL top players.
He was elected to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame 1994.
There are many who will conclude we saved the best to the last. Countless fans of Danny Gallivan contend there has never been one better at play-by-play presentation. Three separate hockey announcers, who shall remain anonymous, announced opinions making them part of that fan club. One said:
“The greatest announcer ever to pick up a mike!”
Another commented that his “style is unequalled!”
A third maintained that “while Foster Hewitt was the first good play-by-play man, Gallivan refined it; he was the master!”
Certainly, he was one of a kind, mainly because of his “Gallivanisms”. He invented shinny terms never heard or thought of before. He spoke of “cannonading drives”; “scintillating stops” and “goalie’s paraphernalia”. But his most unique was his description of Serge Savard’s changing direction on a dime: “Savardian spinerama”! When a Canadian university professor protested to Danny that there was no such word as “cannonading”, he responded: “There is now!”
While in college, he was the “voice” of the St. Marys Junior team in Halifax. It so happened that a CBC executive spotted him while he was calling a game between Halifax and the Montreal Juniors. Therefore, in 1950, when Doug Smith, the regular Habs’ commentator took sick, Danny was conscripted to fill in. What is so bizarre about that scenario is that Gallivan had never seen an NHL game in his life, and he did not know any of the opposition players.
But he quickly learned. When the new NHL season got under way in 1952, the young Maritimer was in the Forum broadcast booth—where he stayed for 32 years. When he stepped away from the microphone in Montreal, Bill Hewitt’s untimely retirement prompted him to motor to Toronto to call mid-week matches in the Queen City for a time.
Unless readers happened to be out of town or fulfilling some ridiculous work shift, they will know about the coverage of Bob Cole’s last game on April 6, when he called the game between the two vintage rivals—the Leafs and the Canadiens. All the highlights about his 50 years on HNIC have been hashed and rehashed. So it is superfluous to include his biography here.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, there are many names which could have been added to this list. But this is a column, not an essay. So, for the conservation of space (and sanity), communication icons like Budd Lynch, Dan Kelly, Fred Cusick, Ted Darling, Jiggs McDonald, Harry Neale, Dick Irvin Jr., Brian McFarlane, and Joe Bowen — plus many current commentators — are not included.
It has been said: “The test should not be about ratings. What should weigh is the knowledge that a public broadcast delivers programmes that matter!”
All of the above — and countless more — have delivered programmes that mattered!
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