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Legendary hockey broadcaster Bob Cole dies at 90: CBC

Bob Cole, a welcome voice for Canadian hockey fans for a half-century, has died at the age of 90.

Cole died Wednesday night in St. John’s, N.L., surrounded by his family, his daughter, Megan Cole, told the CBC.

Born June 24, 1933, the St. John’s native provided a distinctive soundtrack to Canada’s game. He was known for his signature “Oh baby” call, an expression that was not restricted to hockey arenas.

“He’s been saying that around the house as long as I can remember,” Megan said in Cole’s 2016 autobiography “Now I’m Catching On. My Life On and Off the Air.”

Cole first remembers using it to describe some memorable Mario Lemieux stickhandling in Game 2 of the 1991 Stanley Cup final against Minnesota.

“Look at Lemieux. Oh my heavens. What a goal. What a move. Lemieux. Oh baby,” Cole said excitedly after Lemieux went the length of the ice, skated through the defence pair of Shawn Chambers and Neil Wilkinson and deked goalie Jon Casey.

“I don’t know when it’s going to come out. No idea … I don’t plan it. It’s spontaneous,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t script the thing. It’s ad-libbed … and that’s what broadcasting’s all about.”

Ron MacLean the host of CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” said Cole’s distinctive play-by-play style “comes on you like smoke from a campfire.”

Fellow broadcaster Greg Millen, a former NHL goaltender, said Cole’s voice was “almost like a symphony.”

“Bob had an unbelievable ability of bringing the game up and down depending on what was happening on the ice.”

In typical Cole fashion, he initially wondered ahead of doing the autobiography who would be interested in reading his story, “just because I do hockey games.”

But what games. He did the 1972 Summit Series on radio. On TV, there was the 1976 game in Philadelphia when the Soviet Red Army players left the ice in protest at the Flyers take-no-prisoners tactics. “They’re going home,” said an incredulous Cole.

He was there for the 2002 Olympic final in Salt Lake City when Canada ended its 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought with a win over the United States in the final.

“Joe Sakic scores and that makes it 5-2 Canada. Surely that’s got to be it?” said Cole.

Not to mention a string of Stanley Cup finals.

But Cole was more than hockey.

He called Bob Beamon’s world-record long jump at the 1968 Olympics, curled in the Brier, served as quiz master on “Reach for the Top” and worked for the Newfoundland government.

Cole’s Hockey Night in Canada swansong came April 6, 2019, the regular-season finale in Montreal between the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Players, coaches and fans stood in appreciation to honour Cole in the second period as his four children, Christian, Hilary, Megan and Robbie, watched in the gondola at the Bell Centre.

“Thank you so much Montreal and Canada,” he said to viewers, looking down from his perch. “It’s been a pleasure. I’m going to miss this.”

Don Cherry praised Cole during his Coach’s Corner segment that night.

“Foster (Hewitt) was good, Danny (Gallivan) was good,” Cherry said of Cole’s HNIC predecessors. “But the best of all, I think, and I’ve seen them all, is Bob Cole.”

NHL greats from Wayne Gretzky to Mark Messier and current stars Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid as well as MacLean and Harry Neale, his former colour man, all feted Cole.

“Mr. Cole, congratulations on 50 great years of hockey. You were an inspiration to all of us in Canada,” said Gretzky, adding “Oh baby.”

In his later years, Cole’s broadcasting schedule was reduced by Rogers, which took over national TV rights via Sportsnet ahead of the 2014-15 season. He did 16 games his final season, up from the 10 originally planned.

“I wish it were more, but they’ve got a lot of guys in place,” he said. “They’ve got my phone number.

“I answer every time that it rings,” he added dryly.

Cole counted family, flying, dogs, Broadway shows and fly-fishing among his loves.

His love for hockey started at a young age. At 11, he was bedridden for almost six months due to a knee injury suffered playing soccer.

The neighbourhood helped him collect Quaker Oats box tops for a promotion that involved photos of NHL players. With the photos spread out on his bed in line formations, he’d listen to the VONF radio broadcasts of games.

He listened to Hewitt bring the game alive. “It was heaven for me,” he told the CBC in a 2019 interview.

Years later, he still had his own system for writing down the lines for use in the broadcast booth.

His first job in radio came in 1954 at VOCM in St. John’s as a part-time news reader and DJ.

His life took a turn in 1956 when, on the way back from a trip to New York, the aspiring broadcaster decided to drop off a five-minute audition tape at Hewitt’s Toronto radio station.

To Cole’s surprise, Hewitt made time for him and listened to the tape right there and then. They spent some two hours together.

Hewitt’s advice? Save the big call for the big play, use different voice levels and feel the flow of the game. It served Cole well.

Beginning on radio, Cole looked to paint a picture with his calls.

“You’ve got to take over somebody’s mind, try to get them into the building,” he said.

Starting in April 1969 doing an NHL playoff semifinal game in Boston on radio — Jean Beliveau scored in double overtime to eliminate the Bruins — Cole moved to TV in 1973.

His work routine never changed. For Saturday games, he flew in Friday and returned Sunday. He met the coaches the morning of the game to go over their lineups, had a nap in the afternoon, then returned to the rink to go to work.

Fifty years on, he said he still got goosebumps walking into the arena.

Cole was old-school. He talked while the action was on, leaving his colour analyst to chime in when play halted.

Neale was one of his favourite broadcast partners. “He loves the game and that showed up through every broadcast he ever made,” said Neale

“We had a pretty good chemistry in the booth,” Cole said.

Cole’s signature calls, such as “Desjardins! And the Canadiens win in overtime,” in the 1993 Stanley Cup final, remain in demand.

“I’ve had guys in NHL dressing rooms come up with something like that. “Give us that (Eric) Desjardins goal! C’mon Bob!” Cole recalled.

Cole was honoured by the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 when he won the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award for outstanding contributions as a hockey broadcaster. In 2016, he was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 25, 2024. 

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