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Cole humbled by attention to final 'Hockey Night in Canada' broadcast

Discusses 50-year play-by-play career with NHL.com

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- Bob Cole, the legendary "Hockey Night in Canada" broadcaster, will call the final play-by-play of his half-century career when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NHLN, CBC, SN, SN1, TVAS, NHL.TV).

Rogers Sportsnet announced last September that this would be Cole's final season in the broadcast booth. What was to be a 10-game limited schedule was padded by six, bringing him to the finale this Saturday. He'll leave, but he's not using the word "retirement."

Cole called his first NHL game on CBC radio on April 24, 1969, the Canadiens' double-overtime Game 6 Stanley Cup Playoff semifinal elimination of the Boston Bruins on captain Jean Beliveau's only career overtime goal.

On radio, he called the historic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. He moved to television the following year and has since done play-by-play of thousands of games, in NHL and Olympic arenas. He has been the soundtrack to hockey for more than a generation of Canadians, the voice of the NHL game for five decades.

 

Bob Cole's cherished photograph with late Montreal Canadiens icon Jean Beliveau, the inscription translated: "To Bob, In memory of a friendship that began in 1969." At right, Cole at the 2018 NHL Alumni Gala, at which he was honored.

 

Cole will try to treat Saturday, the regular-season finale for the Maple Leafs and Candiens, like any other game day, attending a morning skate, in this case Toronto's at Bell Centre. He will return to his hotel and be back at the arena late afternoon for a light pregame meal in the media lounge -- "I love the milk in Montreal, I don't know what they're feeding the cows up there, but it's great," he says.

Then he'll walk up the 20 stairs to the eighth floor, back down 22 to the Passarelle Lecavalier-Gallivan -- the media gallery named for late, legendary Canadiens broadcasters Rene Lecavalier and Danny Gallivan -- and the roughly 125 steps a little more than a quarter of the way around the ice surface to descend 15 more stairs to the broadcast booth directly over center ice.

Cole's four children will be in Bell Centre Saturday, Megan and Robbie coming from Vancouver, Christian and Hilary from Newfoundland. It's fitting that they're flying in from coast to coast, because that's been Cole's hockey landscape for 50 years.

"They've done it on their own," Cole said of their travel, enormously proud that they'll be in the building. "They wouldn't even touch me with it because they knew I wouldn't hear of it."

Whether cheering for the Canadiens or Maple Leafs, it's safe to assume that more than one fan will record the game for posterity, not for the action on the ice but for the voice calling it. The 85-year-old spoke to NHL.com from his home in St. John's, Newfoundland, about 60 minutes of hockey ahead, and 50 years that have preceded it.

 

The Montreal Canadiens home to the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Saturday night, telecast nationally on "Hockey Night in Canada." Is there a better place for you to be?

"No, there isn't. And I just hope it's a meaningful game."

 

Do you have a favorite memory in Montreal, having called 50 years of NHL games in this city?

"The Canadiens' most recent Stanley Cup victory in 1993, the most recent by a team from Canada, is a good one. But that's a tough question. I've done so many games. To me, they're all pretty well great games. Some are better than others, but I love the crowd in Montreal. They help you get excited no matter what you're thinking. In any building, you're aware of the atmosphere when it's dull, when it's a listless crowd. It's harder to work. But when the crowd is alive, you just feel good about what you're doing. It's why the game is so great, the excitement of it all. You can't find that in baseball or football or anything. You can have a series of shots, the goalie is standing on his head, as they say, for maybe only 15 seconds, but 20,000 people are roaring. You don't get that everywhere."

 

Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets with Bob Cole at open practice during 2011 Kraft Hockeyville in St.John's, Newfoundland.

 

Can you distill a half-century of calling hockey games into a few thoughts? Have you begun to reflect on this?

"I haven't. Every now and then I say, 'Fifty years, I can't believe it.' I don't know what 50 years feels like. I've just known where I'm going the next Saturday. That's been my winters. And then I can't wait for the playoffs, city to city. I remember one year Harry (Neale, his long-time former color commentator) and I did four rounds, I think we did 29 games that year. Everything went seven games and we went to do another game somewhere. That was great. Then when the Stanley Cup is presented, you're suddenly tired. You're going on adrenaline and you can't wait to get to the next city. Who's injured, who's not? When the games are close, that is heaven to me. I can't think of anything better."

 

Do you still get butterflies before a game?

"Yes I do. The questions you're asking me now, I get goosebumps, the playoffs around the corner. It will happen this weekend, I guarantee it. I remember walking into the Montreal Forum. We'd go upstairs through the lounge area and then get out on the catwalk a couple hours before the game. There'd be no one in the building, maybe a half dozen or so. You walk out there in silence and you see the fresh, clean ice, the color of the seats … the atmosphere just gets you, even though it's deathly quiet. And yet you explode. It's an amazing feeling. It's something I grew up with as a very young boy. We all wanted to someday play in the NHL. All of us. That's part of lacing them up on a Saturday morning and getting out in the cold, playing six-, seven-, eight-hour games. It never stopped. And when it did, you couldn't wait to do it again."

 

Broadcasters Gene Principe (left) and John Shannon (right) interview Mark Messier, Bob Cole and Wayne Gretzky during closing ceremonies of Edmonton's Rexall Place on April 6, 2016.

 

You've used the word "humbled" many times to describe the outpouring of affection shown to you by fans when NHL teams in Canadian cities have celebrated you on the scoreboard. How has it touched you to see an entire crowd rise to salute you, players from both teams tapping the boards with their sticks in tribute?

"Of course, I very deeply appreciate it. 'Unbelievable' is a corny word but it's the only one I can think of. Why are they doing this? It's tough to continue working after something like that. … I can't believe the treatment I'm getting. In the airport coming home from Winnipeg last Sunday, so many people were walking over to shake my hand, to tell me, 'I really appreciate what you've done over the years, I'm really going to miss you.' I'm thinking, 'Who's telling them all to say this?' Young people, elderly people, men, women, I'm blown away but it all. It's crazy. They're very kind and they might be hurt to know that I'm very shaken when they remind me that I'm just about done. It's a terrible feeling. I'm not going to enjoy it, I can tell you that."

 

Video: OTT@TOR: Bob Cole honored during last Leafs game

 

Will you prepare differently for Saturday's game, given its personal significance?

"I wouldn't know how to. I can't even say I plan to raise the tempo or my voice doing play-by-play. I never plan that. It's feeling the game, feeling where I am. You get talking to the players, you get to know them, they're all great."

 

You'll be calling your final game in the broadcast booth that you helped design when then-Canadiens president Ronald Corey asked for your thoughts in 1994 as the Molson (now Bell) Centre was being designed for construction.

"How about that? Ron and I had a great chat about it that morning. Serge (Savard, then Canadiens general manager) was in his Forum office, listening to it all. We had a great conversation about the positioning of the broadcast booth, especially for those from out of town. It's so difficult, you're so far away in some of the newer buildings now. It becomes tougher to feel the game. It's hard work anyway, but there's no way you can ever relax for a second because, well, everyone is wearing a helmet now. You hope you can see the numbers on the uniforms in a game that, my goodness, is so fast."

 

With a quote of his own on the wall, Bob Cole stands near the broadcast booth at Rogers Arena in Vancouver before calling the game between the Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 27, 2018.

 

How different was it calling a game on radio, where you began, to a game on TV today, with fans having the advantage of replays and slow motion?

"Painting the picture is more important on radio, I think. On TV, you don't want to get in the way. There's the danger of getting in the way by talking too much. There's no point in my lecturing a viewer when he's watching the game I'm calling, when my eyes are focused on someone coming down the left side. You have to capture and feel that. A person watching on TV can flow with you. If we're all talking too much, we're ignoring what we're looking at. Maybe someday I'll be in a position where I can offer a critique."

 

Video: CGY@EDM: Oilers celebrate Cole's 50th year

 

You wrote very candidly in your 2016 autobiography "Now I'm Catching On" about your health "challenges," as you called them -- a ruptured appendix, a heart attack, a stroke, an abdominal aneurysm and colon cancer. Any one of these could have prompted a man to say, "I'm going to take a step back and relax." Did you ever think, when you were going through these things, that you might want to retire?

"I'm not even thinking about it now, even though it's coming up fast. It's not who I am. I'm not thinking about a final game, nor do I want to. I never thought about quitting. It's never occurred to me to stop trying. I go to the booth saying, 'Get ready for tonight and be prepared for whatever comes.' Don't ever tell me this is going to be a good game. I don't want to hear that. I don't know."

 

Have you given any thought to what you might take Saturday night from the Bell Centre as a final-game remembrance?

"No, it's not in me to think like that. I'm not letting anybody talk me into 'This is the end.' I'm going to miss it. … I'm going to do the game Saturday. And I don't want to think about turning off my microphone at the final siren."

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