In the summer of 1978 I didn't know the word surreal. By the time September of that amazing year rolled around I had lived its meaning.
The sudden journey from voice of the Campbellton Tigers to voice of the Toronto Maple Leafs in a span of days began the Saturday of the Labour Day weekend in '78.
I was busy working a softball tournament at Campbellton's Riverside Park when the late Robbie Robinson, a colleague of mine in Tiger management, arrived with a copy of the provincial daily newspaper, The Telegraph-Journal. "There's something here I think you should see", said the former Tiger player, coach and manager.
At the bottom of a sports page was a short story about how Foster Hewitt's Toronto radio station had lost the broadcast rights to Maple Leaf games after holding them for decades. The upstart CKO Radio Network, with an all-news format, had outbid Foster. The story said the Leafs would have a new radio play-by-play broadcaster for the 1978-79 season.
Tuesday after the long weekend I placed a call to then Hockey Night in Canada Executive Director Ralph Mellanby, who I had had a brief acquaintance with.
Ralph confirmed the story adding that CKO had not decided whether to hire an established PBP man or a new voice. He encouraged me to apply, giving me the name of David Ruskin, President and GM. of the Network.
It was at roughly the same time that Merv Russell, GM of a radio station in Moncton, N.B. contacted me about become the broadcast voice that season for the New Brunswick Hawks, a new American Hockey League team. The Hawks were a joint farm team of the Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks.
I was to audition during a pre-season game
On Thursday Merv and I agreed to terms. The next day Ruskin called, telling me I'd been selected, with two others, to audition for the Toronto PBP position. The audition was to take place the following Wednesday during a pre-season game involving the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Next I called Merv, asking if we could put the deal we had on hold. He agreed, wishing me the best.
On the appointed Wednesday I flew to Toronto and met with Ruskin in the afternoon. My audition was during the second period. The other two guys worked the other periods.
As the second period ended I felt good about my performance, it was the best I could be at that stage of my career. If I didn't get the job I knew whoever did had to be better. As I was leaving the broadcast booth the technician who was working the game said to Ruskin, "You've got your man right here."
That was flattering, but the third period candidate still had to audition.
The next morning I flew back home. I wasn't back three hours when Ruskin called, telling me I was selected for the job with a two-year contract.
I was on top of the world
I said ok and then Ruskin replied. "Here's the plan. You fly to Toronto tomorrow for a dry run of the Leaf-Chicago game. Then go back. Then be here Tuesday to start. We're doing the first live broadcast on Wednesday."
I was, obviously, on top of the world. Here I was a Leaf fan and now would be broadcasting their games. There was little time to think.
The next day I went to Toronto, worked the game, came back home on Sunday and started packing. The city and Tigers held a going away party on Monday. They gave me a plaque stating "From the Gardens (Memorial) to the Gardens (Maple Leaf Gardens). Good Luck.
The next day I was off to Toronto and I wouldn't return until the end of the hockey season. It was good that it happened so quickly.
Going from Campbellton to massive Toronto was one thing, working in a high-profile position in Canada's media capital another.
My focus was getting ready for the challenge. I was somewhat oblivious to the controversy swilling around in the background about Hewitt, who was an institution, losing the broadcast rights and his feud with Leaf owner Harold Ballard.
Ironically, in 2006 I'd be honored at the Hockey Hall of Fame with the Foster Hewitt Award.
I met Foster once during my Toronto tenure. He was gracious saying "You do good work."
Despite that endorsement there wasn't a position for me at Foster's CKFH in the summer of 1980 when the rights returned to the station. CKO didn't re-bid and eventually folded.
The new Calgary Flames needed a broadcaster
I wondered what I'd be doing next in the summer of 1980, when I got a call from a radio station in Calgary, CHQR, asking if I was interested in working Flame games. That spring the team had moved from Atlanta to Calgary. My Leaf broadcasts had been heard in Calgary the previous two years on the CKO Network giving me some recognition. Flames GM Cliff Fletcher had heard my work while traveling on scouting trips in Ontario.
I said yes, and now 29 years later I'm still calling hockey in Calgary with a great bonus of having broadcast three Stanley Cup final series with the Flames, including the 1989 title.
The prelude to the surreal came in mid-June of 1978 in the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Campbellton. My boyhood broadcast idol Danny Gallivan was addressing the closing banquet for minor hockey players.
I had sent Danny some tapes of my work earlier that year to get his thoughts. During his speech he proclaimed, "There is a guy here tonight, who you all know. Soon he'll be leaving you. Peter Maher is too good a broadcaster to stay in Campbellton."
I got to know Danny better as my career unfolded in the NHL, but I never did ask him what he knew that June evening. He certainly turned out to be a prophet.
That goes with Danny being the greatest hockey broadcaster - then, now and forever.