TORONTO -- It was Alexander Graham Bell who not only invented the telephone, but famously said, “When one door closes, another door opens.” Harry Neale was an NHL head coach who once quipped, “I’d rather be coach for the year, not coach of the year.” When Neale suddenly found himself out of work in December of 1985, he took a phone call that would change his life.
Neale had been a head coach with the WHA’s New England Whalers and Minnesota Fighting Saints, before making the jump to the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks from 1978-82. He was then hired by the Detroit Red Wings prior to the 1985-86 season. The Wings got off to an 8-23-4 start that season, and Neale was sent packing just after Christmas. Two days after being let go, Neale received a call from Don Wallace of CBC Sports asking if he’d be interested in doing some broadcast work for the network. Neale was about to unknowingly open a door that would lead him to the Hockey Hall of Fame almost 28 years later.
Neale would go on to spend 20 years as a color commentator with Hockey Night in Canada, and then another seven with the Buffalo Sabres broadcast team alongside Rick Jeanneret from 2007-13. Neale worked 20 Stanley Cup Finals for CBC, along with three Olympic Games (1998, 2002, 2006) and two World Cups (1996 and 2004).
Even when we thought we knew everything about the game we played, we didn’t know enough. After listening to Harry, you started to figure some things out about this game. - Pat Quinn
On Monday, the 76-year-old Neale was honored by the Hockey Hall of Fame as the recipient of the 2013 Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, recognizing his outstanding contribution to the game during his colorful career in hockey broadcasting. Neale becomes the third Sabres broadcaster to receive this honor, joining Jeanneret (2012) and Ted Darling (1994). Also honored by the Hall of Fame on Monday was longtime newspaper writer and columnist Jay Greenberg, who received the Elmer Ferguson Award for excellence in hockey journalism.
Neale said he’s still pinching himself at becoming part of such illustrious company, but also wanted to remember the people that helped him get this far in his career.
“First of all, it was a gigantic surprise to get the call. I’m very proud to follow many of the people that I have admired who won this award before me,” Neale said following the ceremony. “The part that I want to emphasize is that it’s a team award, and somehow I was elected to accept it on behalf of ‘the team’ – the producers, the people in the truck, the play-by-play commentators, stats men, and everbody else who helps us do the job on a telecast.”
Looking back on his start with CBC, Neale said he had to put his trust in those around him, because he truly had no idea what he was doing.
“I was just hoping I could get by the first broadcast. There are some things that you can’t imagine are going on that you have to learn to do. One of them was speaking while the producer was speaking to me at the same time; I didn’t know whether to listen to myself or listen to him. I soon learned to listen to the producer because they’re the guy in charge,” said Neale. “Then they’d tell me I had 25 seconds to talk about something. Once I got started I didn’t know whether it was 25 or 55. There were some things that you definitely had to learn. But the one common denominator was, I was in the business that I loved so much. I go to play for a while, coach for a while, and broadcast for a while.”
While it was Neale’s quick wit that made him a fan favorite, it was his thoughtful analysis of the game that was refreshing to both players and management. Former NHL head coach and GM Pat Quinn said Neale was a special talent in the broadcast booth.
“It was his ability behind the microphone. He not only knew the game real well, he had an ability to tell us what was going on out there. Even when we thought we knew everything about the game we played, we didn’t know enough,” Quinn said. “After listening to Harry, you started to figure some things out about this game. And he did it with not only good analysis, but great humor. It didn’t matter who they put him with, they were always a great team.”
The man who served as Neale’s partner for the better part of 20 years at CBC was Bob Cole. The pair served as the main voices of Hockey Night in Canada for two decades, becoming synonymous with some of the game’s most memorable moments. While the two men seemed to have an incredible on-air chemistry, Cole couldn’t pin it to any particular reason other than they both love the game of hockey.
“I really don’t know if there’s anything specific that made it work. I just did the game, and Harry was of the same feeling I believe. He was a hockey fan,” explains Cole. “I think hockey broadcasting is changing. I don’t know, I suppose it’s for the better if you ask certain people. I liked it when we just did the game, and whatever happened in the game, Harry just climbed right aboard. And he was so astute, way ahead of the game. If you wanted color, you sure had it in spades with Harry. His mind is so quick.”
Cole has many great memories of working with Neale, particularly one from 1988 in New Jersey.
CBC was carrying the Devils/Bruins Eastern Conference Finals series that became famous thanks to New Jersey head coach Jim Schoenfeld’s memorable “have another doughnut” jab at referee Don Koharski following Game Three. Schoenfeld was suspended by the league for Game Four, but a legal battle ensued that resulted in the start of the game being delayed. As is the nature of live television, Cole and Neale found themselves having to fill air time while the mess was being cleared up. As time ticked away, the pair found themselves killing time on their precarious perch in the arena.
Cole explains the details.
“We were filling for over an hour. For that game, they had Harry and I up in the rafters of the building. And when I say the rafters, I literally mean, the rafters. When we left our booth position, we had to balance ourselves on these 2” x 16” boards. We talked and talked, and he was getting so caught up with everything, he was throwing his arms up while he was speaking. Keep in mind that we’re on TV now, and everytime he threw his arms up, he was hitting the cable from my headset – which was also my microphone. Everytime I saw his arm go up, I had to brace my head so that he wouldn’t jerk me off camera. But he kept doing it.
“Finally, when we were running out of things to say, I said, ‘Harry I tell ya! if you hit my arm one more time, I’m gonna wrap this cable around you!’ It was a funny moment and one that we still talk about today.”
Neale, who is now working as select number of games for LeafsTV in Toronto, spent the past seven years on the Sabres crew. Having lived in Buffalo for so many years prior, Neale jumped at the chance to be able to work alongside his good friend, Rick Jeanneret.
“It was terrific. I knew Rick long before I got to work with him, and I thought it would be great to do a couple of games with Rick just to be part of it. When I got a chance to do that it was just great, even not knowing how long it was going to last.”
Jeanneret was in attendance for Monday’s ceremony in downtown Toronto, along with Cole and Joe Bowen – Neale’s three main partners throughout his broadcast career. Neale knows these three men were the most important part of his various “teams” over the last 28 years.
“As I said during my speech, the three play-by-play guys that I did maybe 85 or 90 percent of my games with, are the three major reasons why I won this award. And with Rick being the award winner last year, that made it even more special.”