The venerable Bob Cole is making his farewell tour of Canadian National Hockey League cities this fall. The longtime play-by-play voice of Hockey Night In Canada is leaving the broadcast booth after a half century of “Oh baby!” And “They’re going home, they’re going home!”
When he’s finished his tour at the end of December, the Newfoundlander will retire from active duty on the HNIC roster. Probably nothing short of Don Cherry’s departure will so sharply mark the passing of an era in Canadian broadcasting.
Cole links the modern game with the Original Six era (he came in just after the NHL expanded for the first time), and he can safely be described as the institutional memory of HNIC. When he began, announcers often worked alone and the concept of a three-person booth was as likely as the unicorn. He rode out numerous formats – some grudgingly – but it was only last year, when Rogers dumped him from the NHL playoffs, that his luck ran out.
While some (me included) have been so churlish as to note that his eyesight hasn’t been the best the last decade or so, it was never about the eyes. For Cole, it was aways The Voice.
That stentorian urgency could make even the most tedious Toronto Maple Leafs clunker (and he bagged his limit several times over in bad Leafs hockey) into something worth watching. While he was not the man who created the template of The Resounding Voice (that was Danny Gallivan), he institutionalized it for Canadian fans. Listen to Joltin’ Joe Bowen, the Leafs indefatigable play-by-play guy, and it’s homage á Cole.
When he began at Hockey Night In Canada, he was in the shadows of the Dans. Danny Gallivan and Dan Kelly got the big games as Cole was integrated into the roster of game callers. When Kelly’s work took him to the U.S., Cole filled the spots created by six new teams.
Like Gallivan and Kelly, Cole was a product of radio, where the announcer could weave a far more exciting spectacle than what the TV audience could clearly see was ordinary stuff.
Home-team announcers typically command the affection of fans through a loyalty to the crest on the chest. Cole’s trick was to command that same loyalty without having a single team on which to focus. While many accused him of being a Toronto homer, that was more a product of getting the No. 1 game assignment with the Leafs. If you wanted a Toronto homer, that was Cherry.
Hence the urgency, the homespun phrasing, the seamless verbiage that elevated all passes into perfect tape-to-tape marvels or every save into grand larceny. Cole was a throwback to a tradition that linked hockey to the remote corners of Canada and, by God, he was going to give them a show.
For many, one game elevated Cole permanently into the national consciousness. That would be the famous Philadelphia Flyers-Soviet Red Army game in 1976. Annoyed by the thuggish Flyers’ attempts to intimidate the brilliant skaters of CKSA, the Soviets pulled anchor and refused to continue the game.
“In 1972, we stayed and we took it all,” Cole declared, invoking the heated memories of the Canada/U.S.S.R. series and its baffling refereeing. (The Soviets did return and the Flyers still won.) In that chauvinistic moment, he brought HNIC viewers and listeners on board with him. They never left.
From then on, “Oh, baby” became his catchphrase to describe the wondrous hockey he was seeing. While he celebrated the skill of the greats, he had no problems with the brutal hockey he was often calling from the 1970s to the 21st century, when fighting was gradually weeded out of the game.
He was still pitching it years later when Canada finally got off the schneid, winning Olympic gold in men’s hockey.
Cole worked with others, but it was usually clear he wasn’t there to be a conversational foil for the analysts shoehorned next to him in the booth.
Cole’s profile meant he was also endlessly imitated – the surest sign of his stature. Here’s my pal Mike Richards “interviewing” Cole after a “big game” on his own show Raw Mike Richards.
From the time Gallivan perfected the style with his “Savardian spinneramas” or “cannonading blasts,” Cole carried the radio tradition forward. In a weird tribute to Cole, today’s HNIC, Sportsnet and TSN play-by-play guys still employ the outdated radio-hybrid style of announcing, calling things that are obvious on TV (“The puck goes into the corner” or “he goes cross ice with the pass”) while filling every crevice of dead air in a game.
That worked on radio but give us credit for what we can see ourselves on TV. Maybe the next Bob Cole is actually a TV announcer first.
The question now is who will or can assume the mantle of beloved voice of the sport?
For the tribal fealty of hockey fans, preaching the true religion seems to be mandatory. But the best play-by-play guys working nationally in Canada – Jim Hughson and Gord Miller – command respect but no particular affection. When was the last time you heard someone imitate Hughson?
So treasure or dread the next two months as Cole moves on.
Only a fool would try to replace him. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.