A cultural icon, Newfoundland hero and Hockey Hall of Famer, Bob Cole opens up on the release of his debut biography, Now I’m Catching On.
If you dare to call yourself a flag waving, passionate hockey fan, you are aware of the exact magnitude to which Bob Cole is embedded in hockey culture and lore. He, simply put, is the voice of hockey in Canada. There is no two ways around it. Iconic, legendary. Replicated but never duplicated.
Born in St. John’s in 1933, Cole is responsible for some of the most memorable ‘calls’ the game has ever seen, tackling commentator duties for all-time classics including the unforgettable Salt Lake City Gold Medal Olympic game, the 1972 Summit Series and a piece of every Stanley Cup playoffs for 40 years.
Yes, his career is the stuff boyhood dreams are made of, but to speak to the now 83 year old architect of the ‘how to call’ hockey guide, you wouldn’t know this man is a Hockey Hall of Famer and great of the highest order.
In a sit-down with a man who’s career defies description, Cole opened up on his new biography Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air. From humble beginnings growing up in St. John’s, where a near disastrous knee injury would usher in his love affair with professional hockey, to his rise through the ranks of broadcasting to the pinnacle of calling 40 years of Hockey Night in Canada, Cole held nothing back in this candid tell-all.
Cole recounted the first meeting with the man he considered god-like, when he sat down with his idol, the incomparable Foster Hewitt, who counseled Cole on his unmistakable style and ability to transport listeners directly to center-ice.
“I had some great meeting with him,” Cole recounted. “I spoke with him in his office for I don’t know how long. He was so kind. I told him I had this tape with him I would like to leave, a game I did here at our stadium in St. John’s. I’d like to have that tape now. He wanted to listen to it right then. He went into the equipment room and threw it on and listened to it for three or four minutes. We went back into his office and it was absolutely amazing. I was blown away listening to this man who was a god to me talking about his approach on describing a game. You can bring the viewer to the game. What you have to do is make that viewer feel the flow of the game. He mentioned flow a lot and the excitement. I was blown away by that meeting.”
Cole, naturally, is often asked on his favourite game, or favourite game to call, throughout his lengthy career. It’s likely the question he is asked most often and he truly can’t peg down a solid answer.
“It’s a funny thing you know. That’s been asked of me so many times, favourite game, and I really can’t put my finger on a favourite game,” Cole said. “There are many favourite games and that doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but there’s so many. Because to me doing a game is doing a game. I’m as pumped up for any game as I am for a Stanley Cup game … you really have to follow your own routine, convictions and I can’t stop that. That’s automatic. I get butterflies before a game and that’s something that happens when I don’t have any control over. I’m rather intense when I get ready to go to work in the booth I think I’m a different person. Maybe not easy to work with, I don’t know. But I’m in the game, just like a goalie is in the game.”
Cole did however reflect on perhaps the most important, and memorable moment of his career: the Salt Lake City Olympics and Canada’s first gold medal in 50 years.
“Nothing beats that Salt Lake City Game,” Cole said thoughtfully. “It’s been 50 years. It was in the States. We were playing the U.S. and America’s Vice President was in the stands. The place was sold out and could have been sold out 20 times over. The excitement in the air was unbelievable. Jets flying overhead, making sure everything was secure. Helicopters all over the place. Security was so tight. Everything was perfect. That one was special, and then the guys performed, like Sakic and Lemeiux.”
Cole has a reputation for his unshakable commitment to the game, and the particular ‘zone’ he finds himself in whilst commentating. He has his routines, his regiments, which have carried him to a Hall of Fame caliber broadcasting career.
“It’s your habits, your idiosyncrasies, whatever they are. You have to follow your ritual,” Cole said. “If you don’t enjoy the way I do a game, or if you’re in a position where you’re running the company where I work you can get somebody else to do it. Get rid of me. I don’t know how else to do it and I don’t know how to change and I’m not going to change. I’ll politely ask a colour (commentator) to let the game happen, don’t try to make your points so long that you’re forgetting what is happening in front of your eyes. They’re the stars, not us. We’re just making sure people enjoy the game. Millions are tuning in to enjoy the game, so let that thing happen.”
Cole believes commentators today can tend fixate on hammering home a particular point or train of thought, rather then zoning in on calling the action, something he cautions as a mistake.
“If you climb in the booth and get yourself set up to do a hockey game, and you have many many notes in front of you and you’re determined to get your things on the air, somehow, you might automatically by human nature take yourself away from exactly what is going on,” Cole said. “It’s a personal opinion, but I think you take the fan away from the flow and feel of the game. You’re ignoring what my eyes are telling me and talking about something other then what my eyes are looking at … there might be a place for that but I’m not sure its hockey broadcasting. That’s just me speaking, and I might be dead wrong.”
When asked how he’d like to be remembered to hockey fans, Cole gave a simple, yet poignant response that summarizes his thoughts on the game, and the antithesis of what has endeared him to countless fans.
“You just want people to remember you doing hockey games and you really enjoyed the game,” Cole said. “That’s not anything too exciting to think about, that’s what it’s all about. You like the game of hockey, so you’re going to tune in to watch the game and you want to enjoy the game. Hopefully it’s a good game. They’re not all terrific from start to finish. There are spots everywhere where there’s nothing happening, but you’ve got to capture that too. They’re here and they’re with me until the bell rings and I must feel and sound like I’m in it too. I could go up there and do a game and just mention all of the guys and get the penalties straight and whatever and it would be a boring right for ya. You could do that, and conversely you can do that the other way. You can send people away. You’re not going to do that. You’re going to make it so that if they go to the fridge for a second they’re missing something. You do that with your voice. You can get it rising in the right spots and the crowd is coming too don’t forget. You get the crowd doing the right thing at the right time. It adds so much. It’s Canada’s game. It’s not like baseball. Hockey is the best.”
Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air is available now wherever local books are sold.