They stood and they clapped and they cheered, all 21,302 wedged into Montreal’s Bell Centre and clad in the red, white and blue of their beloved Canadiens, and the throngs of Maple Leaf supporters, too, dressed in blue and white.
Cries of “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” rained down from the rafters as the Montreal Canadiens celebrated the long career of the Hall of Fame broadcaster just over six-and-a-half minutes into the second period, with a video tribute on the massive scoreboard above centre ice.
And chances are Bob Cole was fuming.
Not that Cole didn’t enjoy the same outpouring of love he’d received last month in Toronto, and in Vancouver and Edmonton and Winnipeg before that.
Make no mistake, Cole appreciated the sendoffs. Who wouldn’t?
It’s just that the Canadiens scored seconds after the recognition and subsequent applause, Jordan Weal giving Montreal its first lead of the game.
No, it didn’t ruin Cole’s moment. In Bob Cole’s world, his moment ruined the goal.
And in Bob Cole’s world, you see, just as it’s been for the past 50 years, it’s about the game.
“As soon as we stepped out of the booth,” said Megan Cole, on hand Saturday night with her two sisters and brother, and the grandchildren, for the final hurrah of her father’s brilliant broadcasting career, “and we heard the horn and the crowd roar, we knew, ‘Oh my God, this is the worst time for Dad!’
“Because we know nothing comes above the game.”
On this Saturday night in Montreal, the 82nd and final regular-season game for both the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs was supposedly meaningless because the Canadiens had been officially knocked out of the post season the previous night, and the Leafs had already punched their ticket through to the playoffs.
But a couple of wonderful storylines emerged by game’s end.
There was Cole, of course, wrapping up a broadcasting career that started 50 years ago this month, with these Montreal Canadiens beating the Boston Bruins in a playoff game in Boston.
And then there was young Ryan Poehling, playing his very first National Hockey League game on Hockey Night in Canada, and doing the kind of thing that’s only supposed to happen in the movies.
Poehling, still only 20 and playing college hockey eight days ago, scored three goals in his debut and, for good measure, potted the game-winning shootout goal in the Canadiens’ 6-5 win over the Leafs.
“She” was, as Cole’s been known to say once or twice, “a dandy.”
“Yeah, I know,” Poehling said, laughing at the suggestion he stole the thunder from Cole’s farewell performance. “Really though, to be able to do this in his last game is kind of an honour.
“It’s special. It really is.”
A Minnesota kid, Poehling was still nonetheless familiar with the iconic hockey broadcaster, but perhaps not quite as familiar as, say, the Toronto-born Leafs’ star John Tavares, who was saying after his team’s morning skate Saturday he grew up listening to Cole.
Shortly after meeting the media, Tavares sought out the play-by-play legend for a photo, calling it, “an honour”.
“You always identify Hockey Night in Canada with his voice,” Tavares said. “At least that’s how it was for me growing up.
“He made it really special to watch and dream about playing in the NHL one day. He’s a legend, an icon and someone who should be celebrated as a great hockey guy who made such an impact on so many people in this great game.”
“Bob Cole,” said the Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher, “… when you talk about watching Hockey Night in Canada, that’s what the Gallaghers remember.
“My mom was probably the most entertained by him. He had a way of calling games that just captivated you.
“It was definitely cool to meet him the first time. I remember telling him my second year in the league that my mom was a big fan. Still, every once in a while, he gives my mom a shout-out. It was nice to be part of his last game.”
Despite the hoopla – the media interviews and the handshakes and the best wishes from the coaches and players right down the line to the folks who work at the Bell Centre – there was still a tinge of sadness to Saturday’s game.
Hard to believe, but when Hockey Night in Canada kicks off next season, there will be no Bob Cole, who by then will be 86.
Picture the symphony with a guy on banjo. Some things just don’t seem right.
Cole’s workload was reduced the past few years by Rogers Sportsnet, which took over NHL broadcast rights and farmed out Hockey Night in a partnership with the CBC.
For the first time in his career last season, he watched from home as other broadcasters called the playoffs.
This season, he called 16 games.
Make no mistake, Cole will miss the hockey, and he’ll miss it a big way.
Imagine doing something you absolutely loved for 50 years and then, poof! it’s gone?
Most of us can’t.
“How can you be bored at what you do?” he asks. “How can you work at a job where you’re bored? And you’re counting the days to retirement?
“I don’t know how people can do that. I’ve gone back to the hotel after a game, and I can’t get to sleep. I’m too wound up. And that’s a good thing.”
Saturday, Cole woke up in Montreal, and did what he’s done on every Saturday in the winter for 50 years – got all dressed up with a shirt and tie and headed to the rink.
And just as he’s done for those 50 years, he met with the coaches. Toronto’s Mike Babcock, who calls Cole one of the great ambassadors for Newfoundland and Canada, seemed genuinely excited to know Bob Cole was just around the corner in the bowels of the Bell Centre waiting to meet with him, to get the Leafs’ lineup for the evening.
It’s been his thing, and he feels naked if he doesn’t have them – the team’s line combinations for the game that evening.
Cole will go back to the hotel and then, from left wing to right wing, jot down on sheets of paper the names of players on each line, and go over their pronunciations.
It’s his security blanket, and it’s that preparation that’s partly made him so good at his craft.
“I’m all week preparing,” he said, “watching games late at night from the west coast.
“You have to be ready. If you’re not prepared, you won’t be able to do your job.”
The word “retirement” is not one Cole prefers. If he had his druthers, he’d be calling games through the post season and into next year, too.
But he also acknowledges all good things must come to an end. Doesn’t mean he has to accept it, though.
“Nah, I never wanted to quit,” he said. “I’m going to miss it.
“It’s the seriousness of it all. Getting ready for the games, getting everything together, getting ready for the weekend, and off you go to wherever it is.
“Going to practice, talking to coaches, anticipating the drop of the puck. It doesn’t get easier. It’s ever going to be easy. But you love it, you know?
“I don’t know, but maybe it’s the pressure. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed. Being under pressure, and having to deliver. It’s a personal thing with me. Whether it’s calling a hockey game or curling or whatever, you’ve got to get this right somehow.
“It’s a challenge that I’ve enjoy every time it’s been in front of me.
“All my life,” he said, “I’ve been on the clock. I have to be there for the news at five to 11. That’s not 11, or five after. That’s five to, and I have to be ready. How I get ready is up to me.
“I dunno,” he says, a smile creasing his lips, “maybe you have to be half-crazy to do it.”
Maybe most people don’t get it. Megan Cole does. She’s seen her father leave home Friday and come back Sunday for as long as she can remember.
Megan, her sisters Hillary and Christian, and brother Rob are grateful for the sendoff given to their father from fans across the country.
“It’s overwhelming, really,” she says.
And it’s no accident the finale came in Montreal, a city in which Bob Cole called so many games and Stanley Cups.
“Jean Beliveau started his whole career so how can you not feel akin to that?” she asks.
The Beliveau comparison goes back to ’69 and Cole’s first game. It was the great Canadiens centreman who won it for Montreal, scoring the only overtime goal of his career.
The two – Beliveau and Cole – would often talk about it in the years afterwards.
“He genuinely loves being in Montreal,” Megan said of her father. “To hear that tonight gave us goosebumps.”
Megan knows her father will miss the hockey, but he has family to keep him busy. Two of the girls – Christian and Hillary – live in the St. John’s area with grandkids Gabby, 5, and Samuel, 3 (Megan and Rob are both in Vancouver).
“Still,” she says, “I don’t actually believe this is over because I can’t get my head around the fact that he’s still amazing at what he does, he still has an amazing voice and I think that there’s still a place for him in this hockey world to still do what he does so well.
“I dunno, maybe I’m in denial.”
Bob will continue to watch games on television, of course, but not with the same fervor he’s done in the past.
Things, in other words, won’t be the same.
“No, it’ll never be the same if I’m not doing hockey,” he said. “You know, I’ve gone to a few games, had great seats, but I’m totally out of it. Not into it at all.
“NHL games, too. Good teams. Me? Nah. I’m bored.
“But when I’m working, don’t touch me, don’t get in my way. I’m into it. It’s crazy. I’ll miss that.”
After Kasperi Kapanen was stopped by Charlie Lindgren in the final shot of the shootout Saturday night, Cole declared, “that’s all she wrote!”
At exactly 10:09 p.m. EDT, he said, “Thank you so much Montreal and Canada. It's been a pleasure.
“I'm going to miss this.”
We’re all going to miss him.