Fifty years after his first NHL play-by-play broadcast, legendary Newfoundland and Labrador-born announcer calls it a career
MONTREAL — “Meeker picks up the puck near the Leafs’ blueline, feeds a pass to Kennedy. Teeder Kennedy weaves his way into the Canadiens zone, dishes to Lynn. Vic Lynn back to Meeker … Meeker in, shoots! Scores!! Howie Meeker wins it for the Toronto Maple Leafs!”
The little boy with the ravaged knee is alone in his room, the 8x10 black and white Maple Leafs and Canadiens photos arranged in order on his bed with his favourite player, Syl Apps, front and centre.
The boy is 12 years old and bedridden because of the knee, injured while playing soccer. Quietly, there’s a fear that if infection spreads, he could lose part or all of his leg.
While the other kids are outside playing, doing what Grade 6 boys do, Robert Cole’s friend is the radio.
Young Cole is calling his own hockey game, because it will be another few nights before “Hockey Night in Canada” is heard on VONF, the government radio station.
And then, he and his idol, Foster Hewitt, will call the game together.
But for now, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are part of a lively imagination, and the game falls under Bob Cole’s rules.
“The radio,” he says today, “was my saviour.”
That boy is 85 now, and tonight Bob Cole winds up a Hall of Fame broadcasting career with the call of yet another Canadiens-Leafs game, and this one, like all the others, is for real.
It’s his last game, the end of a storied career that began exactly 50 years ago this month in Boston, a playoff game between the Canadiens and Bruins at old Boston Garden, a game Montreal won on the only overtime goal Jean Beliveau would score in a splendid career.
Cole is among the holy trinity of hockey broadcasters, with Hewitt and Danny Gallivan, and his roots, make no mistake, are in Newfoundland and St. John’s, where it all started as an eager young broadcaster, roosted in the rafters of old Memorial Stadium, calling St. John’s senior hockey games.
“The faceoff will be inside the St. Pat’s blueline, to the left of the goal. St. Pat’s got the draw. They shoot it down the ice. Kenny’s going in ... (Hughie) Fardy’s trying to catch him. Kenny’s in all alone ... he falls ... he scores! Joe Kenny scoring for St. Pat’s, and he scored that one as he was lying on the ice! He raced in ahead of Fardy and Fardy knocked him down, but Kenny, as he was sliding towards the net, took a sweep at it and it caught the lower left-hand corner with Merv Green coming out of the goal. It’s an unassisted goal by Kenny at 7:30. It’s St. Pat’s 1-0.”
The Irish would win the game 4-2, shocking the St. Bon’s crowd to win the Boyle Trophy on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, 1960.
The Stadium, legend has it, was blocked — as they say in Newfoundland — that night. Hundreds (thousands?) of others were listening to Cole that chilly night in March.
By 1960, Cole had a few years under his belt at VOCM, reading news, spinning a few records (lots of Frank Sinatra, no doubt), and calling hockey, working his way into Harry Brown’s gig.
“I wanted to broadcast hockey, and I said, ‘I’m going to try it.’ I took a tape recorder down to the Stadium, got up on the catwalk and called a Guards-St. Bon’s game. I’d love to have that tape now. It was pretty good, apparently,” Cole says.
Joe Butler, who owned VOCM, thought so, too, and soon Cole was given the OK to call one period of play, the second, for keeps while Brown did the first and third.
Next thing you know, it’s Cole on the call for the full 60 minutes.
“I did over 80 games one year,” he recalls. “Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“Then there was the all-Newfoundland stuff. I got 10 bucks a game.”
For as much as he’s seen, and as much as he’s done, Cole looks back on the calls in Newfoundland with the same amount of affection as all the Stanley Cup finals and Olympics he’s broadcasted over the years.
“It was my life,” he says today. “I did games down there (at the Stadium) when Holy Cross got beaten by 10 or 12 goals.”
“Pass in front … Henderson was upended as he tried to shoot it. Here’s another shot … Henderson right in … he scores! Henderson! … Paul Henderson has gotta be the hero of an entire nation right now. Thirty-four seconds left. They’ve got a 6-5 lead. Can they hang on?”
Everybody remembers Foster Hewitt’s call in Moscow 47 years ago, in Game 8 of the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series.
“Henderson … has scored for the Canada!”
But Cole’s call on CBC Radio is just as iconic and, with no apologies for the obvious bias, just as good.
By 1972, Cole had two full years calling NHL games for the CBC, either on the radio or on television with “Hockey Night in Canada.”
At that time, Fred Sgambati was CBC’s lead play-by-play guy on radio and the plan was to have Sgambati call the Summit Series and Cole do colour commentary.
But then Alan Gilroy, at the time head of CBC Sports, had a gut feeling. He wanted Cole to call the games, and have Sgambati do colour.
You can imagine how that went over with Sgambati, who let everyone and anyone know he wasn’t at all pleased with the pending arrangement.
“Gilroy called me and said, ‘Bob, how about you do the four games here in Canada and Freddy do the four games in the Soviet Union?’ And I said, ‘No. That doesn’t make sense. This is a big series, so if anything, let Fred do ’em all.’ ”
Cole had been through this same circumstance before, in 1969, when Bob McDevitt, much to his outrage, was shoved aside to let Cole move up from his colour role to call the Bruins-Canadiens Stanley Cup playoff game.
“I nearly backed off and blew everything,” Cole said of the Summit Series arrangement Gilroy devised to keep Sgambati happy. “But then Gilroy said, ‘You know what? To hell with it. You’re going to do those games and let me worry about Fred.’ And I did the games.”
“They’re gonna go. They’re goin’ home. They’re goin’ home. Yeah! They’re goin’ home. In ‘72, in Moscow, we stayed and we took it all. And in ‘74. And now, the Philadelphia Flyers goon it around a little bit and they’re goin’ home!”
It’s 1976 in the old Philadelphia Spectrum and the Soviet Red Army team is playing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Flyers as part of an exhibition series. The Flyers were no shrinking violets — hence their Broad Street Bullies nickname — and the Soviets are incensed with Philly’s overly aggressive play.
Things reached a tipping point when Ed Van Impe flattened Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov, and the Red Army left the ice and threatened not to return. By the way, the Russians did indeed finish the game when Alan Eagleson promised not to pay them unless they reconsidered.
The intensity in Cole’s voice that afternoon, with the now-famous call, is unmistakable.
“The best two minutes of broadcasting I’ve ever been involved with,” former HNIC producer Ralph Mellanby would later claim.
If there’s a word to describe Cole, it’s intense.
A fine athlete in his own right, Cole played centre for the Feildians hockey team, just before the famous Duffett-Breen-Squires trio broke into the senior ranks, and he scampered around the base paths at St. Pat’s Ball Park for years with the Feildians senior baseball team.
Cole didn’t just dislike his opponents, he hated them. Nothing personal. It’s just they didn’t wear the same double blue colours as his beloved Feildians.
So, everyone else was the enemy.
On the ice or at the ballpark, Cole would die first before he’d concede chasing down a loose puck or fly ball.
It’s the same the mindset that caused the knee injury when he was a boy back at Bishop Feild grammar school.
“I was racing for the ball. So was the other guy. He’s not stopping. And nor am I. No way. Then, bang!
“I would have done anything to win,” he says. “They were all rivals. Everybody was a rival, the one standing between you and winning. That’s how it was.
“I don’t know how it came about that I was like that. Looking back, I suppose, I always seemed to be the youngest on the team, and I wasn’t as big as half the guys. So, you had to work harder. That might be something to it.”
Cole is probably intense when he’s brushing his teeth. It’s a trait, he says, that helped him forge a career that makes him Newfoundland and Labrador’s most famous resident.
Sitting in the “Hockey Night in Canada” booth, Cole is known for cupping one hand over an ear, just as the old-time broadcasters were wont to do.
He’ll loosen his belt to get comfortable, and those in the booth know not to dare go near him or touch him.
For 50 years, he’s been in the zone, and it’s that intensity, he acknowledges, that’s made him, well, so good.
“I used to kid Coley,” said his longtime broadcast partner, Harry Neale, “that he should have been a player and not a broadcaster given the way he gets himself mentally up for the games.
“Even if it was a bad game, he made it sound pretty good, and that’s not easy to do. I won’t say he was an easy guy to work with, but we got along quite nicely and I’m sure that doesn’t happen with every pair.”
Cole and Neale worked 21 years together in the booth, the most dynamic and cohesive duo “Hockey Night” has seen.
Cole was the strait-laced guy, and Neale the jester who threw in a splash of humour once in a while.
Neale’s still got it, to this day.
“Coley’s my idol,” he says. “He kept his job longer than anyone else I know.”
“I remember walking into the Montreal Forum,” Cole told me once years ago, when Danny Cleary was playing for the Stanley Cup, “and you’re walking over a catwalk to get to the booth and the building is quiet. Already you’re getting worked up. The ice is brand new and gorgeous looking, and the next thing the Canadiens are coming out and Detroit is coming out. The fans are in their seats. You hear the siren to start the game.
“And here you go, ‘Five, four, three, two, one ... you’re on the air.’ C’mon. You kidding me? You can’t help but get worked up and into it.
“Even to this day, yes sir. If the time ever comes I can stroll up there chewing a stick of gum and whistling, I might as well quit.”
“Bob’s like anyone else,” says Scott Oake, another longtime — though not quite as enduring as Cole — staple of the “Hockey Night” production. “He’s quick to laugh and tell a joke, but not when it comes to doing a game. The game to him is sacred, and it’s why he’s never been one of these guys who has a gimmick, or whatever, to distinguish himself. He doesn’t need that.
“There’s one thing that matters to Bob, and one thing only, and that’s the game. He’s very loyal to it, and that’s how he calls it.
“There are a select few signature voices in this business that when you hear them, you know exactly who it is, and Bob heads that list.”
He didn’t know it at the time — probably still doesn’t — but Cole had an impact on a young Scott Oake back in the 1970s.
Born in Sydney, Oake moved with his family to St. John’s when his father took over managing Newfoundland Steel Ltd.
Oake attended high school at Prince of Wales Collegiate and then enrolled at Memorial University, where he planned to attend medical school.
Hanging out at the university’s radio station, Oake learned there was a summer relief job at CBC. He applied and was hired by the late Ted Withers.
Oake would work two summers at the CBC before being hired on full time. He never did return to university, much to his father’s chagrin.
“I’d do the suppertime sports,” Oake said. “Bob was the news anchor on ‘Here and Now,’ and on weekends, he’d travel to do (NHL) games for radio or ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’
“I used to think to myself, ‘What a life. If I could only have a life like that …’
“Now I do, in part because of his influence. I saw how hard he worked, how professional he was, how he paid attention to all the little details that made a difference and made him what he is.”
“Here’s Lemieux to centre. Penalty’s coming up. Look at Lemieux! Oh my heavens! What a goal! What a move! Oh baby!”
Of all Cole’s exceptional broadcasts, the Mario Lemieux goal against the Minnesota North Stars in the 1991 Stanley Cup final might be his signature call (the goal is certainly up there as one of the greatest in finals’ history).
It was at that point that Cole and the “Oh baby!” thing became linked forever, although he firmly maintains it wasn’t planned. In fact, it was a phrase he used quite often around the house.
You know, “Oh baby, that’s a nice cup of coffee.”
Unlike a lot of sports broadcasters, as Oake mentioned, Cole has not had to rely on gimmicks or corny phrases.
He calls the game straight, square and simple, and he won’t bowl you over with stats and numbers. Nor does Cole feel the need to describe every single play on the ice.
Unlike a lot of young sportscasters today, Cole knows the production isn’t about him.
It’s about the game … it’s a piece of work, and Cole’s the da Vinci of his craft.
“To my left are the Canadiens in their home reds, the Leafs to my right in their gleaming white jerseys …”
"Flow, that’s the word," Cole wrote in his 2016 book, “Now I’m Catching On: My Life on and Off the Air,” co-written with Stephen Brunt. "Foster said, ‘Feel and flow.’ I use that now when I talk to guys about broadcasting.
"You’ve got to smell it. You’ve got to feel the game."
“He,” Oake said, “can raise the level of the game to wherever he wants it to go, which is one of the great tools that he has, to be able to read the moment and know when to raise the level of the game.
“He’s brilliant at that.”
Cole rocketed to the top of his field not by accident but through a little perseverance and a lot of hard work.
He almost always listens to his broadcast later, forever in a quest to deliver a perfect product.
Throughout his 50 years, Cole has called the names of most of the greatest to ever play the game — Howe, Beliveau, Hull, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Ovechkin and Crosby.
He watched Alex Faulkner play his first NHL game (though Cole wasn’t working on “Hockey Night” at the time) — in Montreal back in 1961 when Faulkner, subbing for an injured Dave Keon, wore No. 8 for Toronto — and he was on the call when Daniel Cleary became the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup in 2008.
Tonight, from the Bell Centre broadcast booth, Cole will call his final game, in the city that was once home to his favourite rink, the Montreal Forum.
He will, no doubt, deliver a virtuoso performance … his best work comes when there’s something on the line. And strangely enough, he’ll still have butterflies before the game.
“Fifty years is a long time, huh?” Cole says. “Amazing when you think about it, really. I never thought about it until this year.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do. But back then, I never, ever thought it was going to happen. So this has been like a dream in so many ways.
“Sometimes, you don’t want to wake up.”