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Hockey After almost 50 years on the air, Hockey Night in Canada godfather Bob Cole hangs up his headset

Governor General David Johnston invests Bob Cole, from St.John's, N.L., as a Member of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall on Sept. 23, 2016 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The godfather of hockey broadcasting settles into a chair in the lobby lounge at the Westin in downtown Edmonton.

The hotel is a few blocks from Rogers Place, the home rink of the Oilers. A jersey autographed by members of their 1984 Stanley Cup-winning team hangs on the wall.

Bob Cole remembers the night well. He announced the game. As viewers across Canada watched spellbound, he anointed Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and the rest of the team’s brilliant young players “the new bunch on the block.”

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He is 85 and a national treasure, the trusted orator of a wintry country’s most beloved sport. He orders a glass of cold milk, and quietly eases into conversation. He sees himself as secondary in importance to hockey, and begrudgingly agrees to an interview.

He called his first game on Hockey Night in Canada on April 24, 1969. Saturday night will be his final telecast. Fittingly, it is a match between the NHL’s oldest rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

“I never did wake up one morning and say, ‘You know, I should think about giving this up,’ because I have never thought about that,” Cole says. His voice is familiar and comforting, like a cup of hot cocoa. “When you hit 50 years, it sounds like a lot, and it is.

“Fifty years? Even I am surprised. I can’t believe it.”

He did not retire by choice, and has not even officially said he is retiring. Rogers, which has produced Hockey Night in Canada on Sportsnet since 2014, declared in September that this season would be his last.

“It is awkward, really,” Cole says. “I told them I didn’t want to think about retiring. I don’t even want to use the word.

“I feel comfortable working and I still enjoy it. But I know you can’t go on forever.”

The telecast from Montreal will be his 16th of the 2018-19 season. Everywhere he has gone on his farewell tour, fans have given him a standing ovation. The great broadcaster stands at his perch high above the ice and acknowledges their love with a simple wave.

He has no idea how many NHL games he has announced over the years. It is certainly in the high hundreds, if not thousands.

“I never gave it much thought,” he says. “I only think about tonight’s game, and when it’s over, I reflect on it.

“I have come to realize I will never do a perfect game. I would love to be perfect, but you can’t. You just hope people tuning in enjoy it.”

Cole was 16 before he saw his first NHL game live, when the New York Rangers visited the Rock during a postseason barnstorming tour.

courtesy of the Cole family/Penguin Random House

He landed his first job in radio in 1954 at VOCM

A proud Newfoundlander, Bob Cole grew up near the wharves in St. John’s. As written in his book, Now I’m Catching On: My Life On And Off The Air, his father was a penitentiary warden. In his youth, Bob milked cows and looked after the piggery on the prison farm.

As a boy, he listened to NHL games on Saturday nights in his room on Quidi Vidi Road with hockey photos arranged on the bed. He was 16 before he saw his first NHL game live, when the New York Rangers visited the Rock during a postseason barnstorming tour.

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After taking a job as a bellboy one summer on a passenger ship and working in a margarine factory, he landed his first job in radio in 1954 at VOCM as a part-time news reader and DJ spinning records by Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher.

He soon began doing play-by-play during senior hockey games, imitating Foster Hewitt and, in 1956, dropped in on the original Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster in Toronto. Even though he had no appointment, Hewitt welcomed the young greenhorn into his office, and listened to an audition tape Cole recorded while laying on his belly on a catwalk above the ice at Memorial Stadium in St. John’s.

Hewitt offered advice on how to use his voice to paint a picture, and how inflections could be employed to engage and excite the audience. The last thing Canada’s most famous announcer told him was, “I have no doubt you will be up here one day.”

The following year, Cole did his first full hockey broadcast during a commercial-league game between two local bakeries. VOCM was so pleased that it added senior hockey to his responsibilities, paying him $5 for each game he announced. One year he did 81.

In 1964, he left the local station for a job as a radio news anchor at CBC. The network made its debut on television in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1965, and for a few years he did both radio and TV. At one point, he served as the quizmaster of a regional game show for high-school students called Reach for the Top. Alex Trebek moderated the national version.

Cole joined Hockey Night in Canada’s cast during the 1969 playoffs, announcing a game on radio in Boston. That night, Jean Béliveau scored in double overtime to clinch the semi-final series for the Canadiens.

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It wasn’t until years later that Cole learned it would be the only goal the Hockey Hall of Famer ever scored in overtime.

“That is crazy,” Cole says drawing from his glass of milk. “My first game had a big history to it. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. But here it is 50 years later, and it is still a big one.”

He started doing Hockey Night in Canada on television in 1973, and for nearly 30 years was its primary voice. For four decades, he announced at least one game in every Stanley Cup finals.

Generations have grown up listening to him. He doesn’t distract with statistics and stories, even though there are countless anecdotes he could tell. Instead, he allows a game to unfold and uses his voice to generate excitement, as a musical conductor waves a baton.

“We are in the business of putting people on the edge of their seats,” says John Shannon, who has produced Hockey Night in Canada or been on the air himself for 42 years. “When he is on his game, Bob is better than anyone in the business.

“There is a simplicity to his vocabulary. He uses words better than anybody. There is a magic to that.”

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Host George Stroumboulopoulos tapes an interview with Cole, centre, and retired commentator Dick Irvin, Jr, right, for the airing of the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, on Dec. 6, 2014.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

‘He is synonymous with the game’

Bob Cole was a good hockey player in his teens, but it was clear his skills would never carry him to the big time. His delivery, tone and ability to turn a phrase got him there, and made him as famous as the superstars he chronicles.

“He is synonymous with the game,” Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, says during a telephone interview from New York. “His voice is the background music around which our game is played.”

Bettman does not recall when they met, but assumes it was early in the commissioner’s tenure during a Saturday night game at Maple Leaf Gardens.

“The reason I can’t recall it precisely is that he has always been a constant," Bettman says. “When you think of the game and Hockey Night in Canada, you think of Bob. He is the modern-era Foster Hewitt. If you weren’t talking about Foster Hewitt, you would be talking about Bob.”

He worked for CBC radio in 1972 when he was assigned to do play-by-play during the Summit Series, the first true meeting between the world’s superpowers of hockey. Eight games were played between the Soviet national team and a squad made up of elite Canadian NHL players.

Canada managed only one win and a tie in four games on its home ice and then lost the first game in Moscow. The Canadians seemed headed for a humiliating defeat in the series before rallying to win Game 6 and Game 7.

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The Soviets held a 5-3 lead in the third period of the eighth and deciding game when Phil Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer evened the score. Then Paul Henderson, who had the winning goals in games 6 and 7, made the now-famous shot from heard ’round the world.

Here is how Cole described it:

“This is the tiebreaking game. You couldn’t get it any closer. Esposito upended as he tries to shoot. Here’s another shot. Henderson has scored for Canada! The team pours over the boards. Henderson has got to be the hero of an entire nation now. Thirty-four seconds left. They’ve got a 6-5 lead. Can they hang on? The series is over!”

The Cold War victory was so hugely celebrated that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau greeted the Canadian team when its plane landed in Montreal. A parade was held in downtown Toronto.

Four years later, Cole did play-by-play during telecasts of two games during an exhibition series between NHL teams and teams from the Soviet Championship League touring North America.

The final game in what was known as the Super Series was at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and pitted the defending Stanley Cup champion Flyers against the Red Army team.

There was no score in the first period when Ed van Impe, a rugged Flyers’ defenceman, delivered a crushing hit against Red Army star Valeri Kharlamov. No penalty was assessed and, as a protest, Red Army coach Konstantin Loktev ordered his team off the ice.

The referee then issued a two-minute delay-of-game penalty against the Soviets, who responded by heading to the dressing room.

That is when Cole made what is likely the defining call of his half-century-long career.

“The Soviets are leaving. They’re going home. They’re going home. Can you imagine?”

The Red Army returned to the ice only after organizers threatened to withhold their pay. The Flyers went on to an easy 4-1 win, but the victory was overshadowed by the Soviets’ retreat from the Broad Street Bullies’ rough play.

“When I said, ‘They are going home,’ I thought they were,” Cole says. “It wasn’t something you could script. How can you think of a thing like that? Nobody is ever going to walk off the ice and leave.

“It is a different kind of job where you are required to be totally involved for every second of every minute you are on the air. You have to kind of go the way the game is going, and hopefully you say the right things.”

In 2002, when Team Canada ended 50 years of futility in capturing an Olympic gold medal, it was Cole who captured the moment.

“They are singing here in Salt Lake City! Now, after 50 years, it’s time for Canada to stand up and cheer. Stand up and cheer, everybody.”

His eyes have seen it all, and his voice has described it all.

Cole poses for a photograph with Harry Neale, left.

courtesy of the Cole family/Penguin Random House

Béliveau and Henri Richard were still hoisting Stanley Cups in Montreal when Cole joined Hockey Night in Canada. He watched Bobby Orr in his prime, and saw Gretzky and Messier turn Edmonton into the greatest team of their generation. He validated the rise of Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and now, Connor McDavid.

The Oilers superstar asked to meet him the first time Edmonton played in Montreal during his rookie season. They visited outside the Oilers dressing room after the morning skate.

“What a beautiful meeting it was,” Cole says. “He was so well spoken and so well mannered and so genuine, and we all know now that all of these factors are front and centre.

“He is a great talent. I have never seen anybody skate so quickly. He coasts along and, all of a sudden, he is gone. I don’t think anybody could catch him.”

Cole is loved and respected by long-time players, coaches and broadcasters alike.

“It is not only amazing that he has done the job for so long, but he has done it as the standard of excellence,” Messier says.

Growing up in the suburbs of Edmonton, Messier watched Dick Irvin and Dave Hodge on Hockey Night in Canada.

“I’d see the guys in powder-blue jackets interview players with towels around their neck,” Messier says. “Then one day I was there, getting that attention.”

It was during the 1984 Stanley Cup final, the first of five that the Oilers won over seven years, that Messier met Cole.

“I recall him coming down to the dressing room one day after the morning skate and calling me by my first name,” Messier says. “I didn’t know until then that he knew me. That’s when I knew I had truly made it.”

Glen Sather, the former Edmonton coach, invited Cole to fly on team charters and once asked him, without warning, to address the Oilers in their dressing room. He recently sent Cole two photos of Sinatra seated ringside during a fight at Madison Square Garden as a retirement gift. Old Blue Eyes is his favourite singer.

“Bob phoned me twice to thank me,” says Sather, who said he was stepping down as president of the New York Rangers on Thursday. “He is quite a guy. I am going to miss him.”

Ron MacLean has worked with Cole for more than three decades.

“Bob is exacting,” MacLean says. “He is not one to embellish. His consistency and ability to read the ice from way upstairs is otherworldly. It boggles the mind.”

He says he will miss sharing drinks with him in his hotel room after a broadcast. The two talk hockey until dawn as Cole nurses glasses of Coke and Captain Morgan Black rum. He downs them in two long gulps a long time apart.

In 2006, Cassie Campbell-Pascall became the first woman to do colour commentary during an NHL game when she joined Cole in the booth during a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast at Air Canada Centre.

The former Team Canada women’s captain had only worked for two days as a rinkside reporter when she was asked to fill in as an emergency replacement for Harry Neale, who was snowed in.

“When they told me, my first reaction was, ‘What does Bob think?’" Campbell-Pascall says. “I didn’t know Bob well enough to know if he would be that accepting.”

When they met later in the day, Cole did his best to calm her nerves.

“We are going to make history together,” Cole told her.

As a thank you, she sent a picture to him of them working side by side in the booth that night.

“What he has taught me is that you want to make viewers feel at home,” she says. “You want people sitting on the couch to feel that they are really at the game.

“It is not about you.”

Cole works in the booth for his last Toronto game in February, 2019.

Megan Cole/other

‘I have loved every minute of it’

Bob Cole is an avid salmon fisherman, a former pilot and twice was the skip of a curling team that competed in the Brier. He has four children and two grandchildren and will undoubtedly have little trouble finding ways to fill his time once he is done with hockey broadcasting.

When he came to Edmonton and Toronto earlier this season, fans acknowledged him with standing ovations. Hockey Night in Canada plans to celebrate his career with a tribute during Saturday night’s telecast from Bell Centre.

“I know I am quite fortunate to have lasted so long and to do so many games,” he says. “Nobody wants that to be over.

“If you did, you couldn’t like what you have been doing all these years. And I have loved every minute of it.”

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