TORONTO—Chicago’s favorite voice of winter cracked a bit here on Monday, but this happens when an industry giant accepts the award of a lifetime and there is no cough switch nearby.
Pat Foley, the Blackhawks’ beloved TV play-by-play man, graciously accepted the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award with the same passion that he brought to the booth as a 26-year-old kid in 1980. Instead of congratulating himself, though, Foley passed out thanks for making this dream career possible, and that’s where those famous pipes briefly lost a little heft.
His dad, Bob, didn’t make the trip, but rest assured he’ll look great wearing his eldest son’s Hall of Fame jacket to Mass when Pat returns home. Mother Mary got first dibs on the keepsake garment, seated with Pat’s family members and many friends, professional and golf.
Pat tees it up more often than Arnold Palmer, but he’s always prepared, and he was primed for Monday’s induction. Foley found himself at table No. 3, and he took that placard to the podium in memory of an absent pal who wore that number, Keith Magnuson.
Scores and highlights matter in this business, but so do people, and as Foley reminded us all, hockey’s community is in a league of its own. How lucky can a guy be to grow up in Glenview, Ill., listening to Lloyd Pettit, then make good on an opportunity to talk about the Blackhawks for a living, and still love everything about the job, including those parades?
Foley’s attachment to the Blackhawks, never in doubt, was confirmed early. He spoke of superstars Steve Larmer and Doug Wilson, and why they belong in the Hall of Fame. Foley saluted the Wirtzes—Bill, Michael, Rocky. John McDonough, the team’s President and CEO, brought Foley back after he was let go. A masterstroke, to public acclaim. But beside McDonough at lunch, there was Jay Blunk, Executive Vice President. He phones my mom every so often just to see how she’s doing, Foley said, because that’s what these Blackhawks do. Off camera, a random act of caring.
Foley is, first and foremost, a professional who can broadcast other sports, and has. But his voice, crisp as the action he describes, is perfect for hockey. He can be heard above and beyond the roar of the crowd. Even during quiet moments or an uneventful game, there is a certain soundtrack indigenous to hockey, and Foley just has “it” – whatever your interpretation of “it” is.
Despite hockey’s rapid movements, with few lulls compared with baseball or football (where the ball is “live” for maybe 11 of 60 minutes), Foley conveys his personality and sense of humor, secondary perhaps to accuracy and pace, but still vital components of a complete presentation. Do it all right, night after night, and you connect with audiences.
The ultimate challenge for a broadcaster is to entertain even when the product is at best mediocre. Foley has met that enemy and conquered it. The Blackhawks are must-see TV now, but when they skated in circles for all those frigid winters, he was still worth your time. He was the face of the franchise, even on radio.
McDonough is properly credited for championing those bronze monuments to excellence of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita outside the United Center. But during the lean years, the Blackhawks had a few statues. Regrettably, they were in uniform, on the ice.
Yet in the worst of times, Foley never insulted audiences by saying things were going swell when they weren’t, and although he always wishes that audiences enjoy the outcome as much as the telecast, he refuses to apply perfume when the picture doesn’t deserve it. Management might not have appreciated Foley’s candor, but his people – the fans – want it no other way. See: Harry Caray.
Now the Blackhawks are better than ever, and Foley is the leading man in robust television ratings. As Pat recalled Monday, when he was a “handful” at age 10 or so and Dad asked about career plans, the response came quickly. The kid wanted to be a sportscaster. Bob was in the automobile business, and Pat was sure this news broke Dad’s heart.
“But Michael Wirtz, Bill’s brother, bought Buicks from my father,” Pat noted. “And every once in a while, Dad would slip a tape into Michael’s car. Me doing the Grand Rapids Owls. That opened the door. The Blackhawks took a chance.”
And now, Pat Foley is taking his Hall of Fame jacket home to Dad.