Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Oral History of Hockey Night in Canada's Bob Cole

John Shannon
, Producer: Bob Cole is one of my favorites. Bob Cole is a consummate entertainer. Bob Cole knows what the hockey fan wants and, to this day, no one has the ability to rise to the occasion and to tell the person at home, “This is the time to be excited. Hey, watch out, something big is about to happen,” and deliver the punch. That’s what Bob Cole does. I do a lot of teaching now – production seminars with different clients. The way I describe it is – hockey is exciting on a routine basis, but you have to learn how to sell the ‘wow factor.’ Bob Cole can deliver that ‘wow factor’ better than anybody. Really, in order to do a solid television production, you need three ‘wow factors’ in a night. Well, Bob did more than three – Bob had as many as was needed and often times he was ahead of where the officials were, the players were – he had a greater sense of anticipation than anybody else. He played the game at a high level in Newfoundland, but he also had the ability to use the English language in its simplest form, so there was no bull - just the facts with that great voice.
Howie Meeker, Analyst: He did all the hockey in Newfoundland and I knew him from day one. In fact, he was out there at the airport the first time I went there. 1956-1957 – somewhere in there. I know Coley very, very well. He was on a radio station. He was a reporter when I got there. Real good guy. He was a pretty good hockey player as well and a hell of a curler. He represented Newfoundland in the Briar one year as “Skip” Cole.
Frank Selke Jr, Exec: When he first started, he used to come up to the broadcast booth at the Forum … he’d come in and he’d hang around the booth like a starry eyed kid. When he got the Sunday night broadcasts, the CBC broadcast radio, you’d have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. He was so thrilled. He put his heart and soul into it and I think developed into a very capable broadcaster. He had his own style.
Jim Hughson, Play-by-Play: What is there to say about Bob Cole other than he’s legendary in the industry? To do 28 straight Stanley Cup Finals? I think that speaks volumes.
Gary Dornhoefer, Color Man: He was very intense.
Doug Beeforth, Producer: Coley was very intense as a broadcaster. He took his job very seriously and he did not want distractions. He wanted to be able to focus on what he was doing. He would be one of the most intense broadcasters I’ve ever worked with. His intensity is what makes him as good as he is.
Dick Irvin, Color Man: That’s the thing about Bob. Once the game starts, he’s all business. He gets so intense.
Mark Askin, Producer: Bob’s a tough judge. Bob is ultra-serious about his job. Bob takes life that way too. That’s what Bob was like. He was dead serious about life.
Steve Lansky, Producer: Very, very serious about his job and his business.
Dick Irvin: You want me to tell bad stories about him?
Mark Askin: Is Bob funny? Like you can’t believe. People will go, “He has a sense of humor?” He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Dry sense of humor. He can tell a story that lasts twenty-five minutes – you’re peeing yourself by the middle of it.
Steve Lansky: Oh my God, Coley is hilarious. Bob, I can’t think of any other word, is an artist. [His] voice can rise and lower and you know when to look up from your book or whatever you’re doing. Bob tells you when something is about to happen. Other play-by-play guys get excited when it happens. Bob’s voice tells you that it’s about to happen. Bob would come into the booth and he’d sit down and he’d undo the top button of his pants and he’d pull out his cigarette holder … and he’d be ready to go. He was ready to do his game.
Harry Neale: He was a smoker with a cigarette holder.
John Garrett, Color Man: Oh, yeah. Yes. When he was smoking … that was always delightful.
Doug Beeforth
: Coley would settle in for a game. He’d get up in the booth and he’d undo his tie and he was getting ready to do his work. Sometimes to get really comfortable, he’d undo his belt. So, there was a game against Quebec at Le Colisée … Coley’s up there calling the game and Mickey Redmond is his color guy. The game is intense. Coley would bounce up and down on his seat a lot. That was a part of his intensity … he’d really get into the game. He’d be body-checking. A goal was scored and he shoots up out of his seat with excitement and in the small broadcast space that they’ve got him in, there’s these, sort of, plumbing pipes across the top. Coley fires up out of his seat in excitement and bangs his head on one of these pipes. Coley of course doesn’t have any padding in the way of hair that’s going to help. So he bangs his head and he’s sort of holding his head not saying anything and now his pants start to fall down because he undid his belt! He’s holding his head and his pants… Mickey is looking at him and he can’t keep from laughing! He doesn’t want to laugh on the air, so Mickey can’t say anything. And the [production] truck is starting to yell at him. “What’s going on!? Here’s the replay! Say something about the replay! SAY SOMETHING!” Mickey can’t say anything and Coley is holding his head and trying to pull his pants up and the dust is raining down…
Steve Armitage, Host: I can be in another room and I’ll hear Bob getting wound up and I can tell by the inflection in his voice when it’s time to go to the television to watch; one of a kind in terms of the voice. I don’t think we’ll ever hear his like again. Identified with hockey in a fraction of a second. Just a great storyteller of the game in a way that play-by-play doesn’t do anymore. Chris Cuthbert and Jimmy Hughson will give you a ton of information in their commentary. Bob, pretty much stuck to basic play-by-play ala Foster Hewitt, but Bob did it with a far superior voice.
John Garrett: The one thing about Coley that he still has, is anticipation of something happening in the play. I think, a lot of play-by-play guys, that’s the one thing that they don’t have. They can’t anticipate when there’s danger. You could be looking the other way and all of a sudden you hear Coley’s voice and you know something is going to happen so you turn around and watch the TV … He might have the names wrong and he might not have the right team, but you know something is going to happen.
Dick Irvin: I think Bob’s the best straight ahead play-by-play man we’ve ever had. He just calls the game and it’s the game and that’s it. There’s no small talk with Bob. There’s no trivia. There’s no, you know, Bob just does the game. I guess you’d call him from the old school.
Jim Robson, Play-by-Play: Hughson knows everybody. All the line match-ups and all of that, but Bob never does any of that stuff. He talks about the score and the time… but people don’t mind. It’s only the media guys that notice that. He has a great voice – the best voice in the business. He’s been doing it a long time and he’s had dramatic goals and a lot of Stanley Cup Finals. He has the best job in the world. He’d fly into Toronto Thursday night, be there Friday, do the game Saturday and go home. Now Jim Hughson has the best job in the world, but Hughson works a lot harder at it I think.
Jim Hughson: [Bob Cole is] a guy who I’ve never actually worked with because we do the same job. We meet maybe once a year when they have a Hockey Night in Canada symposium … we’re always in different places. Never really got a chance to know him. When I was with TSN, we would run into each other in airports and things like that. Our conversations would always be something to the effect of, “How are you pronouncing that guy’s name?” I’d say, “Oh, I think this is the way it is.” He’d say, “Okay! That’s the way we’ll do it. You do it that way, I’ll do it that way and then everyone will follow.”
Mark Askin: Did Bob always laugh at everything we laughed at? No. But Bob – If Bob liked you – you must be doing something right. Bob doesn’t suffer fools easy.
Brian McFarlane, Host: He’s quick to anger. I think he gets riled a little too easy.
John Garrett: (laughs) Well, a lot of guys will just say, “Tap me on the shoulder when you want to get  [a word] in.” Bob Cole, one of the first things he said to me, “Hello, John. Nice to meet ya. There’s one thing. Never touch me.”
Doug Sellars: I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. You’re not allowed to touch him. I can remember … if a new P.A. came in, you had to give him all the instructions. “Here’s how Bob likes to work. He’ll stand up, he’ll unbuckle his belt, he likes to be comfortable, but do not touch him.”
Steve Lansky: My first memory of Bob … I had done so many Oilers games that numbers had, kind of, become an after thought. When I saw a play develop and Jari Kurri would score and it was pretty clear that it came from Coffey and Gretzky, I would simply write 17 and then in brackets 7 and 99, quickly write the time [of the goal] on a piece of paper and put it in front of Bob. [That way] he could do the scoring play before the cheering had stopped. But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t do it. I’d touch the paper and I’d point to it and the play would be going on. I’d be pointing at the paper, “Give the scoring play, Bob.” Nothing. So, finally the whistle goes and [Gary Dornhoefer] starts to talk and I touch Bob’s arm and point to the paper. We are right on the air. He takes off his headset and he says to me, “Kid! Don’t be touchin’ me! Don’t ever touch me! Don’t touch me!” Puts his headset back on. I remember John [Shannon] saying, “What was that?” I said, “I’m not going to touch Bob again,” and John said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Don’t touch Bob.”
Frank Selke Jr: If there was a problem with Bob, I think it was his reluctance or inability to really make use of his color man. Bob wasn’t much for conversation in the course of a game.
Gary Dornhoefer: He didn’t always like the interruption during play with an analyst coming in.
Dick Irvin: The color man says very little with Bob as long as Bob is talking.
Harry Neale, Color Man: I had always had a good relationship with Don Wallace who was the head of sports at the CBC … when I was coaching Vancouver, I filled in and did a game or two in Calgary. We didn’t make the playoffs and Calgary was in … I always used to kid Wallace and say, “When I get fired for the last time, I’ll be calling you.” So one day after I got fired in Detroit, he called on a Wednesday or Thursday and said, “What are you doing Saturday?” I said, “Nothing.” He said, “Come on down to Montreal.” So I went down there. I went on between periods. I didn’t do the color. He said, “Well, I don’t know how many games I could give you, but would you be willing to do some from here on in?” So, I did …  some Hockey Night games – not every Saturday. That summer, John Davidson went to Madison Square Garden in New York. He was the number one Hockey Night color commentator so I took his games. That’s when it all started – and I went for about twenty years, I think … When I did the color for the first time … all I remember is that I certainly had no idea in reference to preparation, what I was doing. I often wondered why Wallace ever asked me back to do the second game after the first game. There’s no training for it … you just start. So, when they said you’ve got eight seconds or ten seconds, that meant absolutely nothing to me. Once I started talking I had no idea. There were all kinds of little things to learn from a broadcasters viewpoint … I’m talking about 1985 or 86 … I liked doing it … and I became more comfortable as it went on … I’m from the old school, you know, when the play started I got out. Because the play-by-play guy, that was his job. So, you had to learn to be a little more concise in your thoughts and not just watch the game the way you might watch it as a fan or even as a coach. You’re watching it so you can call down for a highlight or know what happened on that goal. Wallace and John Shannon both told me, “We all know who scored and we all know what team scored, but we want to know why.” That was kind of drilled into my head early in my career … Bob Cole was there and I can’t remember [who else]. I didn’t do very many Hockey Night games that first year.
Mark Askin: Bob is not a guy who interacts well with the color guy. Bob is a very straightforward play-by-play guy, but you know you’re getting the best of all time with Bob. When Harry worked with him, and I did eleven years with the two of them together as their producer, you’d have Harry find a way to make Bob laugh. No one else makes Bob laugh. To find a way to co-exist with Bob on the air – they became the best twosome for well over a decade. Well over a decade – almost two decades.
Doug Sellars: They just had that chemistry … it was just perfect. Sometimes you just hit with guys that work well together. And they liked each other. I think.
Steve Lansky: That’s what made each of them great. Coley was kind of the straight man because he didn’t really want to break character much and he was very, very serious about his job and his business. Harry was kind of the opposite, because Harry had figured out that it was all about entertainment … I thought they were almost like Lucy and Ricky, where Ricky was the serious one and Lucy was always doing something crazy, but together they were perfect.
Harry Neale: I always had the feeling that we weren’t describing nuclear physics. It was a hockey game, and there were always amusing things that happened in a hockey game, and I took a little pride in the fact that I could get Coley to take his eyes off the rink and take a look at me and smile. Because he’s so intense. Sometimes it worked and sometimes he gave me that look, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Steve Armitage: Bob has worked with countless color guys down through the years. When Bob wants to speak he gives you “The Heisman.” You know what the Heisman Trophy looks like? With the hand pushed forward? When Bob does that to his color guy that means, “Bob is speaking!”
Harry Neale: If you ever talked through the play … that really upset him. We used to kid and say we got “The Heisman.” Did you get a “Heisman” from Bob Cole?
Gary Dornhoefer: He would prefer that you stop [talking] at the whistle. When the play is between the blue line - nothing is really happening. That’s always a good time for the color man or analyst to come in and make a comment. Y’know, if it’s pertinent, why not? With Bob it seemed to disrupt his flow. After a while we just didn’t do it. We waited for a stoppage in play. With all the other guys it wasn’t a problem.
Steve Armitage: When Bob was speaking – Bob was speaking. You weren’t allowed to talk. That’s how Bob controlled his color commentators.
Mark Askin: Everything has to go in one ear for Bob Cole because he puts his hand up to the other ear. [We] had to build a special headset just for Bob. If you’re great like Bob and great like Danny, you do whatever you can to get the best out of those guys. It’s a small price to pay to get their legendary words and vivid images.
John Shannon: True theatre of the mind.
Steve Armitage: He’s very much to himself. Bob was not a party guy in the sense that he would go out and have a drink with you after the game.
John Shannon: He’s a guarded person.
Brian McFarlane: He’s a private person.
John Shannon: He guards his privacy.
Steve Armitage
: That was one of the great Hockey Night in Canada traditions. You’d go to a bar and have a few pops after the game with the crew, the directors, the producers and fellow commentators. Bob very seldom did that. He did a few times, but not very often.
Mark Askin
: Bob Cole loves Frank Sinatra. Loves him. Of all the things you talk to Bob about, “Oh, Frank! Unbelievable.” Frank this – Frank that. I went to Italy for my Honeymoon. The first day we’re there, we walk over to St. Peters … they were doing mass for newlyweds … so we go ... and we get pushed through this door …  
now we’re in St. Peter’s Basilica … out from this curtain, within thirty seconds, trumpets start. The Pope walks right out! He looks at me and he says something and he puts his hand on my head and walks away, which I thought was unbelievable. I come back [to Toronto] and I tell the guys this story. Everyone is like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” I tell the story and Bob is there. Bob says, “I got one [to top that]. I was at the Sinatra concert at the Civic Arena a month ago. Two ladies are beside me – and after the concert – Frank Sinatra touched that lady’s arm.”
Harry Neale
: Bob Cole and I went to see Frank Sinatra in the Pittsburgh Arena when it was first built … He’s a great Frank Sinatra fan and he’s a great music fan. He’s got favorite singers and favorite orchestras and Sinatra could do no wrong as far as Coley was concerned. He got mad one night when a veteran player made a bad mistake and it ended up in the goal. I said, “You know, even Frank Sinatra had to clear his throat during a song once in a while.” He looked at me like I was cutting down his friend.

Steve Armitage
: Yes, he loved Frank Sinatra. I worked a lot of games with Bob Cole. Bob would go back to his room … he’d probably deny it … He loved Captain Morgan. He would have a bottle of Captain Morgan, run a bath and he would drink in the bathtub and listen to Frank Sinatra (laughs).
Doug Sellars: Captain Morgan and it had to be real Coke. None of that new Coke

 Jim Robson: Bob Cole continues to work even though he only seems to know twenty-five percent of the players’ names.
Brian McFarlane: I don’t understand the criticism he gets. Sure, he’s getting on in age, but he’s my age, and I cheer anybody my age who can still get up there and do a game and can handle all the travel and the problems that come along.
Steve Lansky: The Brett Hull [Stanley Cup winning goal] in 1999. That one bothered me. You won’t find it because they’ve gone back and re-striped it. First he called – at one point he called Dennis Hull. Ultimately he called Brett. What they did was they went back into the studio and re-striped it. So, if you ever see that goal again it’ll sound like he called it perfectly. I have the original VHS – and it was a struggle. That one was a struggle for Bob. I felt for him.

Jim Robson: It sounds like sour grapes when I talk about Bob, but it drives me crazy when he doesn’t mention the players’ names. He’ll say, “The Flyers dump the puck in. The Flyers get it down the ice.”
Steve Lansky: Bob would say, “I hate Madison Square Garden.” I’d say, “Why?” He’d say, “You’re so far away you can’t see.”
Jim Robson: When the Canucks played in 1994 in the Stanley Cup Final - the big goal in game one [at Madison Square Garden] was an overtime goal by Greg Adams. Pavel Bure started it from the Vancouver blue line with a pass to Cliff Ronning. Ronning carried the puck a few strides and fed it up to Greg Adams who broke into the clear and scored on a breakaway late in the long overtime. Bob Cole did the game on TV. He never mentioned Pavel Bure. He never mentioned Cliff Ronning. He never mentioned Greg Adams. It was just “They score,” and probably someone in the truck said “Greg Adams” or something. He gets away with it because he has got a great voice. It’s dramatic, but those names never got mentioned.
 Steve Lansky: I remember the game that the Rangers fired fifteen overtime shots at Patrick Roy and the Canadiens came back and scored. If you watch that call, the Canadiens get a breakaway. Cole says something like, “Roy makes a great save. Now here come the Canadiens back! Breakaway - right in - scores!” The guy who scored skates around and back to center ice.  I remember looking at Doug Beeforth and saying, “I don’t think he said Claude Lemieux yet.” Finally he said, “Lemieux scored.” I remember asking him later, “Why the delay?” He said, “I had no idea [who scored]. We were too far away.”  Bob always told me that vision was a struggle.
Frank Selke Jr: Some of the buildings were certainly not easy to work in. Madison Square Gardens particularly, you were a hell of a long way from the ice surface. I was never around to have the guy’s eyes checked or anything like that. So I don’t know whether Bob had eyesight issues, but I do know that Madison Square Gardens was not an easy place to work. Again, the issue of his inability to work closely with his color guy would be a detriment in that sense. 
Harry Neale: Every broadcaster in every sport and every color man in every sport, misidentifies from time to time. The play-by-play guy doesn’t have time to look down at the number because he’s watching the game … Bob Cole gave me one good piece of advice. He said, “We’re all going to [identify] the wrong guy [occasionally]. Don’t correct yourself. Because only a small percentage of the people that were watching the game on television would know that you’ve got the wrong guy. If you correct yourself everyone knows.” Not bad advice. Now, on replays that’s different. On the replays, sometimes you get a chance to see them before they show them and find out what the guy’s name is. I don’t believe that eyesight story. At some of the rinks the broadcast facilities are not as good as the others. And Madison Square Gardens is one of the worst.
Frank Selke Jr: I think through the past few years, Bob was losing some of his accuracy. He was missing on players’ names and so on. But the last year was probably as good a year as he had as long time … Why that is I’m not sure, because I’m not party to what’s going on in his life. But from what I’ve heard, his lifestyle might be a little bit better than what it was. I think he may have also realized that his days were being talked about, being numbered, and maybe he buckled down a little bit and worked a little harder at the job.