He was endowed with “golden tonsils” and a “silky baritone,” among other bouquets conferred by respectful colleagues. Over a broadcasting career that spanned more than 50 years – 40 of those spent at Toronto radio station CFRB as sports director – William (Bill) Stephenson was the smooth, gentlemanly voice of virtually every kind of athletic event played and watched in the country.
He covered the fabled 1972 Canada-USSR hockey series, voiced the radio play-by-play for Toronto Argonauts games for 12 years, and worked as a field-level reporter for CTV’s Canadian Football League broadcasts for 15 years, learning early at games against the Calgary Stampeders to dodge the “Touchdown Horse” that charged wildly down the sidelines whenever the Stamps scored.
He covered Stanley Cup and Grey Cup finals and nearly a dozen Olympic Games. He was the voice of the short-lived Toronto Toros and the also short-lived World Hockey Association. He sat ringside at the 1966 fight between George Chuvalo and Muhammad Ali.
He was probably a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, though his sons say he was such a consummate professional that you would never know it judging from his call-’em-as-I-see-’em reports. Leafs owner Harold Ballard once tossed him from the press box and banned him from Maple Leaf Gardens for being insufficiently worshipful of the team.
Even so, Mr. Stephenson remained great personal friends with Leafs executive King Clancy and head coach Punch Imlach. Former Leafs great Red Kelly was among Mr. Stephenson’s eulogists.
Making friends with sports figures and colleagues was a pattern. Mr. Stephenson befriended fellow CTV football announcers Pat Marsden, Mike Wadsworth, Leif Pettersen and Johnny Esaw. It was Mr. Marsden who began calling him “Grampy” because Mr. Stephenson looked too young to be the grandfather he became, repeatedly. The moniker stuck.
Mr. Stephenson was 85 when he died of cancer July 22 in Mississauga, Ont.
He broadened sports coverage at CFRB (now Newstalk 1010), then the city’s, maybe even the country’s, most listened-to station, by establishing the industry’s first three-man sports department. He hired Brian Williams and Dave Hodge, now both with TSN and both of whom went on to national exposure.
Mr. Williams remembered him as a friend and old-school mentor who shaped him professionally. “On the air, I once began a sentence with ‘I think.’ Bill called me and said, ‘My boy, you don’t think. You know.’” On another occasion, the young Mr. Williams, referring to the Leafs, employed the word “we.” There was another call. “Don’t say ‘we,’” Mr. Stephenson calmly advised. “You have to be detached. Be a journalist, not a cheerleader.”
Mr. Williams called his former boss a “pioneer in our industry. He was the No. 1 radio sports broadcaster in the country. He was it. But he was much more than a voice. He was humble and decent and like a father to us. He never had a cross word.
“He shaped my life. A piece of my life is now gone.”
Mr. Hodge, who went on to the plum job of hosting Hockey Night in Canada for 16 years, was all of 23 when Mr. Stephenson hired him. The first thing the nervous young man did was to ask for a day off to attend a wedding. Mr. Stephenson agreed. But when Mr. Stephenson was later asked to attend a function the same day, he declined, saying “the fellow I work with” already had the day off.
“I was dumbstruck hearing him refer to me as ‘the fellow I work with,’” Mr. Hodge recalled. “I hadn't worked with him or for him for any more than a matter of hours. I never forgot it. That is exactly the way it was. I never felt as though I worked for him. That told me more than anything else at the time, or even since, the kind of guy he was.”
William Douglas Stephenson was born on Jan. 8, 1929 in Elrose, Sask., where his father, Hebert, was a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse. His two boys, Bill and Gerry, played soccer, baseball and, of course, hockey. At a scrappy five-foot-eight, Bill was a decent junior forward, but crashing into the net posts and wrenching his back scotched his hopes of going any further.
He was just 19 when he was hired at radio station CJAV in Port Alberni, B.C., where he conducted “man-in-the-street” interviews. There was a brief stint at CJOR in Vancouver, then on to CKDA in Victoria, where he began his sports career by covering the Victoria Cougars, the local junior hockey team; and the triple A baseball squad, the Mounties. For both, he broadcast away games by reading the ticker tape, which collected basic data and was clicked out to stations, then reconstructing the play to make it sound live.
A break came in 1954 when he was hired as sports director at CKWX in Vancouver and covered the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in that city. It was there the “Miracle Mile” took place between Briton Roger Bannister, who two months earlier, had run the first sub-four-minute mile, and John Landy of Australia, who became the second man to smash the barrier. It was the first time these runners appeared together, and the first time both of them broke four minutes in the same race. It was a broadcaster’s dream come true.
He was also was the voice of the B.C. Lions.
He came to Toronto in 1960 to take up an irresistible offer: sports director and play-by-play announcer for Argos games. CFRB had a huge audience and would remain the No. 1 station in the Toronto market for decades. Bill Stephenson became a household name among the city’s legions of sports fans.
“When he first came to CFRB, I didn’t like him because he was taking part of my show. I was jealous,” Wally Crouter, the station’s legendary morning man and close friend, recalled in a recent Toronto Sun tribute by another friend, Ted Woloshyn.
“He was always setting me up for arguments, which I inevitably lost, and then the next day we started again,” Mr. Crouter recalled. “I feel like I lost a brother.”
In 1961, Mr. Stephenson was sent to Switzerland to cover the World Ice Hockey Championships with the Trail Smoke Eaters representing Canada. They won, and it would be more than three decades before Canada won it again.
Meantime, he spurned offers from the U.S. network ABC to work on its renowned Saturday afternoon TV show, Wide World of Sports. His sons Ron and Terry think it was because Ron was of draft age.
The 1972 hockey summit series was, of course, a high point. “There’s no doubt that it was a great moment in our lives,” Mr. Stephenson told bcradiohistory.com. “Our national pride was at stake after the first four games and the team had to preserve our pride in the last four games in Moscow.”
He would regale fans with tales of pranks in Moscow. “We all looked for bugs in our hotel rooms,” Mr. Stephenson told the radio website, “because we were told that the Soviets had listening devices in all the rooms.” As Mr. Stephenson told the story, Canadian forward Frank Mahovlich, egged on by his prankster brother Pete, thought he had found a bug under the carpet and unscrewed it, only to have the chandelier in the room below go crashing to the floor. Others attributed the chandelier episode to Phil Esposito and Wayne Cashman.
But seriously, the Soviets’ talent impressed Mr. Stephenson, though again, he didn’t say so. “He was surprised the Russians handled the Canadians so well,” said his son Ron. “The Russians were a better team than he expected.”
In 1988, he was inducted into the Football Reporters of Canada wing at the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.
The “only reason he retired,” in 2001, was because of a stroke that paralyzed his left side, said his son Terry.
Mr. Stephenson leaves his brother, Gerry; his wife of 66 years, Louise (née Okraintez); children Ron, Terry, Doug, Pam and Julie; 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
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