TORONTO — Bob Cole is looking forward to sitting back and watching both the Masters and the world men’s curling championship this weekend.
And, as always, some hockey.
But on Sunday, the retired hockey announcer will be front and centre when he receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards show. The award is presented “for an exceptional lifetime of work that has had a profound impact on the media industry at home or abroad.”
In typical Cole fashion, the honour was unexpected.
“I was absolutely floored. I couldn’t believe it, really,” he said in an interview from his home in St. John’s, N.L.
His first thought was why?
“There’s lots of people that can be recognized for this. But I guess they have a committee and they chose me,” he added with a chuckle. “I’m very grateful and humbled, of course. My family’s pretty proud, I think.”
For many Canadians, Cole’s voice was the ideal soundtrack for hockey,
His broadcasting career started in St. John’s as an announcer for radio station VOCM. Cole joined the CBC in 1969 as radio play-by-play announcer for Hockey Night in Canada before transitioning to TV in 1973.
He called his last game on April 6, 2019, fittingly a classic Original Six matchup with the Maple Leafs at the Canadiens.
“That was the guy you grew up listening to,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of Cole at the time. “He made the game even more special than what it was. He brought you into the game, to be a part of it.”
“His voice is iconic. It’s all I associated with watching hockey growing up … He has a close spot in a lot of Canadians’ hearts over the years,” added Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.
Cole earned Hockey Hall of Fame recognition in 1996 as winner of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, which recognizes “members of the radio and television industry who made outstanding contributions to their profession and the game during their career in hockey broadcasting.”
He is a nine-time Gemini Award nominee and won for best sports play-by-play announcer in 2007.
The 88-year-old Cole is far more than hockey.
He called Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump at the 1968 Olympics, curled in the Brier, served as quiz master on “Reach for the Top” and worked for the Newfoundland government.
In his 2016 autobiography “Now I’m Catching On. My Life On and Off the Air,” co-written with Stephen Brunt, Cole explains the origins of his trademark “Oh baby” call.
He recalls first remembers using it to describe some memorable Mario Lemieux stickhandling in a 1991 playoff game against Minnesota.
“What a goal! What a move! Lemieux! Oh baby!” Cole said excitedly after Lemieux skated through the defence and deked the goalie.
While Cole still watches hockey, he is not as immersed in it as he once was and laments the ever-changing rosters in the NHL.
“You kind of, I won’t say lose interest but it doesn’t feel the same way for me,” he said.
And like others, he also finds the current NHL playoff structure confusing.
But he still enjoys NHL talent and gets a kick out of watching stars like Leafs sniper Auston Matthews at work.
“He’s a lovely man too. A great young man,” he said. “I love to see personalities like Auston Matthews doing so well. He’s having a great year again.”
Cole’s road was not always easy
At the age of 11, he was bedridden for almost five months due to a soccer injury. The neighbourhood helped him collect Quaker Oats box tops for a promotion that involved photos of NHL players. With the photos spread out on his bed in line formations, he’d listen to the radio broadcasts of games.
Years later, he had his own system for writing down the lines for use in the broadcast booth.
In 1956, on the way back from New York, the aspiring broadcaster took time to drop off an audition tape at Foster Hewitt’s Toronto radio station.
To Cole’s surprise, Hewitt listened to the tape right there and then.
Hewitt’s advice, to save the big call for the big play, to use different voice levels and to feel the flow of the game, has served Cole well throughout his career.
Beginning on radio, Cole looked to paint a picture with his calls.
“I get a great charge out of making exciting sound, if you want to call it that. It’s the feel of the game that got me started and I managed to hang onto that, I think, or tried to for so long.”
Cole is equally pumped about Canadian curler Brad Gushue, a fellow Newfoundlander currently carrying Canadian colours at the men’s world curling championship in Las Vegas after winning bronze at the Beijing Olympics.
“He’s a marvellous boy and a great curler. And his team is great,” said Cole.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2022.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press