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Bowen cherishes 'great ride' en route to Hall of Fame honor

Maple Leafs broadcaster winner of 2018 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- For one of the few times in Joe Bowen's illustrious career, he was at a loss for words.

He was standing in front of the display at the Hockey Hall of Fame that pays tribute to the winners of Foster Hewitt Memorial Award. From Danny Gallivan to Dan Kelly to Mike "Doc" Emrick, the list of names left him quietly in awe.

But it was one that caught his attention. He crouched down and pointed at it, a look of adulation on his face.

"Look at that -- Foster Hewitt," Bowen said, finally breaking his silence. "To think I'll be joining him here, well, I'm almost speechless. It really makes what's about to happen to me sink in."


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Bowen is the recipient of the 2018 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, which is presented by the Hockey Hall of Fame to members of the radio and television industry who make outstanding contributions to their profession and the game of hockey during their broadcasting career. The award winners are selected by the NHL Broadcasters' Association.

"I think what makes it extra special for me, or at least unique for me compared to some of these other guys, is that I'm the play-by-play voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs just like Foster was. He's a legend. I mean, every day I go to work, I'm sitting in his chair. HIS chair. And now I'm winning the award named after him.

"Given all that, I'm not sure there's a bigger tribute I could ever get in my career than this one."

Hewitt became a pioneer in hockey broadcasting when he called his first game on the radio in 1923. He would become the voice of the sport for the next half century, primarily on Maple Leafs games.

Growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, Bowen would sit with his dad, Dr. Joe Bowen Sr., listening to Hewitt describe the play every Saturday night on "Hockey Night in Canada." Instead of cursing in front of his son, his father would grumble "Holy Mackinaw" in frustration when things weren't going well.

Decades later, "Holy Mackinaw!" became Bowen's on-air catch phrase, much like "He Shoots, He Scores" had been for Hewitt. Bowen uses it in a more positive vein than his dad did, however, bellowing it out whenever there is a big save or an incredible play down on the ice.

"Ya, I stole it from my dad," Bowen admitted with a chuckle. "It's kind of become associated with me."

Bowen's crafty words have made him a Maple Leafs icon. That same sharp tongue nearly cost him the opportunity to call Toronto games in the first place.

After spending three seasons as the voice for Halifax in the American Hockey League, Bowen got a call in 1982 from someone claiming there was interest in having him become the new play-by-play man for the Maple Leafs. Bowen suspected it was co-worker Allen Davis pulling a practical joke on him.

"I started this obscenity-laced tirade on the phone because I thought it was Allen," Bowen said. "There was a pause on the other end of the line. I said: 'Uh oh, you're not Allen, are you?"

It wasn't. It was Lem Bramson of Telemedia Sports. He had an opening in the booth after Ron Hewatt, who had called Maple Leafs games from 1968-77 and 1980-82, took a business job with Telemedia. 

"Cursing out your potential new boss doesn't usually get you a job, but I still got it," Bowen said. "It's amazing. I've called over 3,000 Maple Leafs games, but those 30 seconds of swearing at (Branson) could have cost me my career before it had even started."

Bowen's way with words in front of a microphone rather than over the phone were far more impressive to Branson, who gave Bowen the job. He called his 3,000th Maple Leafs game on March 7, 2017, a 3-2 victory against the Detroit Red Wings.

Bob Cole, the longtime voice of "Hockey Night in Canada" who won the award in 1996, said Bowen is one of the most respected figures in the profession. 

"He's one of the great hockey broadcasters and the Toronto Maple Leafs have been lucky to have him," Cole said. "He's been with the Leafs for so long now. He's a true fan. And why not? He's a great guy. I liked him right off the bat."

"The secret to Joe's success? The better the Leafs are, the better he is," Cole said with a laugh.

Bowen has several favorite moments during his 36-plus seasons of calling Maple Leafs games. Two that top the list: Nikolai Borschevsky's overtime winner in Game 7 that eliminated the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings in the division semifinals in 1993 and Mats Sundin's 500th NHL goal against the Calgary Flames on Oct. 14, 2006.

"It's a fitting honor that Joe is going into the Hall," Sundin said. "He's such a good person. He made our games more fun to watch than they really were. You could feel the enthusiasm when he called a game."

Bowen recently visited Maple Leaf Gardens, which today is a multipurpose facility including a Loblaws supermarket on the lower floors and an arena for Toronto's Ryerson University, known as Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens, occupying another level.

"The arena's much smaller now, but that majestic ceiling is still intact," he said, pointing upwards. "And you can still tell where the broadcast booth was.

"This place is so special. It's where Foster called games for so many years. And it's where my journey started."

A journey that will be honored during Hall of Fame weekend Nov. 9-12.

"It's been a great ride," he said. "And it's a long way from being over."

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