Nfld. & Labrador

Bob Cole talks hockey, career success and his new book

The voice of Hockey Night in Canada shares anecdotes from his new memoir, and how he still loves his job, even at the age of 83.

'It's a pleasure to work, if you like what you're doing - love what you're doing.'

Bob Cole in a familiar spot - behind a microphone - but this time, with his new memoir in hand. (CBC)

He's been the voice of some of the most memorable hockey moments in history, and now legendary broadcaster Bob Cole is sharing some memories of his own.

And what memories they are: from calling the 1972 Summit Series or Team Canada's Olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, to sneaking through casino side doors on his honeymoon to snag a moment with boxing great Joe Louis ("I was floating on air") or impromptu babysitting for Wayne Gretzky during an L.A. Kings practice ("it was worrisome") — Cole probably had a harder time editing out anecdotes from his new book than figuring out what to write about in the first place.

Bob Cole on Joe Sakic goal

Now 83, and fresh off being invested to the Order of Canada, Cole may be making the media rounds for Now I'm Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air, co-authored by sports journalist Stephen Brunt, but his interviews tend to stray from book promotion into a life-affirming gratitude for his nearly six-decade-long career.

"It's a pleasure to work, if you like what you're doing — love what you're doing. It's not difficult. It's pretty good," he told the CBC, his trademark modesty shining through.

Governor General David Johnston, right, invests Cole as a Member of the Order of Canada on Sept. 23. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Hockey Night in Canada magic

While his voice has been the soundtrack to some of Canada's most iconic sporting moments, the St. John's born-and-raised Cole only became a Canadian citizen at the age of 15, when Newfoundland joined Confederation.

Despite that upbringing in another country, Cole's youth had a typically Canadian feel: he caught hockey fever early on, playing on pond ice as soon as it froze over, and collecting Quaker Oats boxtops to send away for pictures of his favourite Maple Leafs or Canadiens players.

The man behind what Bob Cole called radio "magic": legendary hockey commentator Foster Hewitt.

But it was a knee accident on his school soccer pitch when he was in Grade 5 or 6 that led him to his true calling.

"The doctor was called and ordered me into bed, and not to get out of bed, and that's where I was for a long time," Cole recalled. 

During that six months' of bedrest, the radio became Cole's companion, and broadcaster Foster Hewitt, the voice of his Saturday night entertainment, calling the games on Hockey Night in Canada.

"Saturday nights were a magical time... Nobody could come near my room and that was it. Your imagination can really work magic," said Cole, as that imagination fuelled a sort of long-distance mentorship.

"On Wednesday afternoon they'd rebroadcast those Saturday night games, and I found myself remembering the words and the flow of the game Foster was using. So it was a great past time for me, and I guess the voice developed in that way. I'd copy as much as I could of Foster Hewitt."

Making magic of his own

After becoming a player himself, Cole couldn't shake his commentating dream. He estimates it was sometime around 1956 when, on a lark, he decided to get behind a private radio station's microphone while at Memorial Stadium in St. John's.

"I thought I'd tape a game, just try it. I did about 10 minutes one night, and it seemed to be OK, and people at the station thought I should have a go at this. And next thing you know, I'm doing the second period of a game."

I thought I'd tape a game, just try it. I did about 10 minutes one night, and it seemed to be OK.- Bob Cole, on his first-ever commentary

One period turned into all three, and a broadcasting career in his hometown blossomed, calling games and listening back to the tapes afterwards for self-critiques.

While on a trip to Toronto, Cole summoned up the nerve to drop his demo tape off, unannounced, to the radio station where Hewitt worked.

Hewitt took the time to listen for a few minutes and shape the young Newfoundlander's life forever.

"Right away he said, 'you know Bob, I like the sound of your voice. Now, let's get into hockey broadcasting.' And we talked for well over an hour, I don't know how long. It was a great morning."

Bob Cole, centre, with Detroit Red Wings stars Sid Abel (left) and Gordie Howe. (CBC archives)

Cole's career luck continued, and he landed a shot with the CBC in Toronto to call a game for its now-televised version of Hockey Night in Canada on April 24, 1969. That night led to Cole becoming part of the country's Saturday night, broadcasting into living rooms and bars coast to coast, his voice working its magic on a whole new generation of hockey fanatics.

Make that generations: Cole has yelled his trademark 'Oh baby!' exclamation into countless microphones since, calling Stanley Cups, Olympic golds, and what is perhaps the most famous goal etched into the the nation's consciousness: Paul Henderson's goal in the dying seconds of Game 8 to clinch a Canadian victory over the Soviets in the Summit Series.

Bob Cole on 1972 Paul Henderson goal

"The moment: I don't think we'll ever have another one in hockey like that. I can't figure how you could script something like that," he said, with a trace of wistfulness: he's back in the booth again watching the goal unfold, tears running down the cheeks of the man sitting beside him as Canada triumphs.

Two of the commentating greats, together: Cole and Foster Hewitt. Cole called Game 8 of the Summit Series for radio, while Hewitt handled TV. (CBC)

The secrets to career success

The octogenarian may not be calling every HNIC game these days, but he was kept on when the show made the transition from CBC to Rogers, and still pops up every once and a while.

"They got a lot of play-by-play announcers now and they're running the ship. And I'm kind of getting aboard when they call me," Cole said, with a nautical metaphor calling back to his North Atlantic roots.

Cole in 2014, preparing for Game 7 of the NH: Western Conference finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings. (Jason Murdoch/CBC)

To achieve such a career span, consistency is key. A game-day mantra for Cole's coworkers may as well be: between 2 and 4 p.m., do not call Bob Cole.

He doesn't want to talk to you, or anybody. He's holed up in whatever hotel or office of his choice, planning out his commentary for the night ahead, memorizing any unfamiliar player numbers. He's already spoken to the team's coaches — a ritual he undertakes before every game to get shift rosters and other key information that gives him a roadmap for the night ahead.

"You might do it another way, and that works for you, but I dare not change it. It's too tough. You got millions ready to listen to a game, and we're live. There's no 'excuse me, can we try that again?' It doesn't work that way. You better be ready to go when they say you're on."

Cole said he rejected any title idea for his new book that had to do with his trademark 'oh baby' phrase. (Penguin Canada)

And when Cole's on, he's on, still getting as fired up over a regular season game as he did decades ago, still listening back later to his commentary to take notes for small improvements. That sort of work ethic and dedication keeping him going, and giving him the title for his book.

"I'm still learning, is what I like to say. And it's what we all should be thinking, I believe, no matter how good we think we are or how other people might think you are. So, now I'm catching on."

Now I'm Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air was released Tuesday. Cole will be signing copies at the Chapters on Kenmount Road beginning at 5 p.m.  Thursday.

With files from On the Go and CrossTalk