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Sportscaster Johnny Esaw brought an athlete’s drive to the booth

Johnny Esaw’s Summit Series interview with Phil Esposito was the platform for Espo’s seminal speech.


"The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat …" intoned Jim McKay in the opening credits as Slovenian ski jumper Vinko Bogataj crash-landed and slammed into the snow fence every week – much to the morbid delight of transfixed viewers.

If you spent your 1970s Saturday afternoons watching ABC's Wide World of Sports on CTV, you can thank Johnny Esaw for your exclusive window into slickly produced U.S. sports content.

Mr. Esaw convinced Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports, to award CTV broadcast rights to the popular show. In typical Esaw style, he went one step further and aired the series an hour earlier than its U.S. originating network.

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It is now common knowledge in Canadian media circles that Johnny Esaw built the CTV Sports franchise. Many Canadians over the age of 40 recognize the North Battleford, Sask.-born journalist for his lively on-air persona, yet may be unaware that he also played a prominent role behind the scenes, as a visionary television executive.

The broadcaster, who died April 6 at the age of 87, leaves behind his wife, June, and their two children, Patrick and Wendy.

Donald Edward "Johnny" Esaw was born June 11, 1925, to Sam and Miriam, one of four children. His parents had immigrated to an established Assyrian settlement in North Battleford.

According to Emile Francis, Mr. Esaw's life-long friend, retired NHL goaltender and executive, and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Sam Esaw sold popcorn on the street near the post office to support his family.

Mr. Francis recalls the time he and Mr. Esaw chipped in for a Ford Model-T, together with two other chums.

Mr. Francis convinced his friend, who was broke, to sell his trumpet, but not the case, for $10 – his share. When the teacher called to say Johnny was no longer showing up for music practice, Sam Esaw discovered the case was empty and tanned his son's hide.

The boyhood friends played junior hockey together before Mr. Francis joined the Chicago Black Hawks in 1947.

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In the summer, Mr. Francis earned his living as player/manager of the North Battleford Beavers semi-professional team in the Western Canada Baseball League. In 1947, he negotiated broadcast rights with CJNB, a local radio station. He was asked to hire an announcer and Mr. Esaw took the gig – for $5. "He was a good, hard-working guy, that Johnny," Mr. Francis says from his Florida home.

Mr. Esaw soon moved on to larger Prairie markets in Regina (1949) and Winnipeg (1956) before his big career leap to Toronto in 1960, when Foster Hewitt recruited him as sports director at CFTO-TV. He was promoted to vice-president of CTV Sports in 1974, a position he held until 1990.

Mr. Esaw received recognition for his achievements from seven Canadian Hall of Fame organizations: the Football Reporters of Canada Hall of Fame (1984), the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame (1991), Canada's Sports Hall of Fame (1991), the Canadian Amateur Sports Hall of Fame (1991), the North Battleford Sports Hall of Fame (1992), the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame (1997) and the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame (1997). In 2004, he was awarded an Order of Canada.

Bill Stewart, one of Mr. Esaw's former colleagues, says he knew the young broadcaster was destined for a stellar career. Yet, he said, Mr. Esaw did present some challenges in 1959 at CKRC radio in Winnipeg. "He had a lot to say and he was very connected in the sports world," the former control-room operator recalls.

"Johnny Esaw had a 10-minute bit every Saturday. It was a live broadcast and he always went over time. It really annoyed Esaw when we cut him off mid-sentence, but we had to broadcast the 5:30 p.m. news and then another show, Vox Pop, kicked in," Mr. Stewart says. (Vox Pop, broadcast live from Winnipeg's Marlborough Hotel, interviewed hotel guests.)

CKRC technicians prevented Mr. Esaw from undermining their tight schedule by sneakily leaving the red light on so he'd think he was still broadcasting. They didn't want to face his ire and they never let on that he was off-air while he continued to "broadcast."

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But the sports reporter was also a very good listener. Mr. Esaw earned a cult following owing to his savvy interview with a dispirited Phil Esposito during Canada's tense 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union.

Retired Montreal sportswriter Red Fisher covered that series. The fans at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum booed Team Canada's poor performance during game four and it adversely affected player morale. Mr. Fisher recalls the interview, where Mr. Esaw gave "Espo" a forum and let him vent his frustrations – without interjecting.

"It still stands out as the greatest I've ever heard. There was Johnny, asking only one question after Team Canada's embarrassing loss in Vancouver to the Russians and then never interrupting an emotional Espo with another. Bottom line, it developed into what, in my opinion at least, was the best interview among the many thousands I've heard over the years," Mr. Fisher says.

"Paul Henderson is revered to this day – and rightly so – for scoring 'The Goal' in the final minute of game eight, which is still remembered by all of us as the greatest in hockey history," says Mr. Fisher. "I've always felt that remarkable interview did as much to setting up 'The Goal' as Henderson did scoring it," he adds.

On the production side of the business, Mr. Esaw was renowned for his thrift, says former CTV colleague Ken Newans. In 1984, CTV didn't win broadcast rights to the Los Angeles Olympics but that didn't get in Mr. Esaw's way: "We created a mini Olympic Village in a Toronto parking lot and we broadcast from there. I covered boxing and basketball," Mr. Newans says from his Calgary home. "We'd go out to a Toronto bar after work and tell people we'd been covering the games."

Mr. Newans credits Mr. Esaw with building his career. "I was based in Moose Jaw, working part-time, and he had me transferred to Calgary to work full-time for the network. If it hadn't been for Johnny, I don't think I would have advanced."

Ralph Mellanby, an Emmy Award-winning director, worked closely with Mr. Esaw and says that promoting others was typical of the network executive. "Johnny was a genius," says Mr. Mellanby, who adds that no one did more for Canadian sport.

"Johnny Esaw brought women viewers to the network by broadcasting figure skating. He negotiated the rights to the Olympics. He built the profile of the CFL and secured the rights to the '72 Summit Series," Mr. Mellanby says.

Mr. Esaw propelled himself into the world of international sports broadcasting with a former athlete's intensity and focus. He was a team player. The television producer was extremely loyal to his friends and colleagues, says former CTV anchor Lloyd Robertson, who remembers Mr. Esaw as aggressive, bold and tough.

Mr. Esaw and Mr. Robertson teamed up on three Winter Olympics broadcasts in the 1980s: Lake Placid, Sarajevo and Calgary. Mr. Robertson recalls that the 1984 Sarajevo Games posed many logistical and bureaucratic challenges for CTV. It was the first Winter Olympics to be hosted by a communist state. According to Mr. Robertson, "Johnny said, 'Okay, boys, let's barrel through this. We've got to get it done. No excuses.'"

Mr. Esaw's strength, Mr. Robertson says, is that he understood the business. "He had a great eye for what worked on television. He enjoyed broadcasting and he loved to make deals. He was 'The Dealmaker.'"

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