Many years ago a young Bob Cole was invited into Foster Hewitt’s office in Maple Leaf Gardens where, from behind a big oak desk, the hockey broadcast legend offered several observations on the craft both men loved. One piece of advice proved especially valuable. A key to great play-by-play, said Hewitt, is to capture a game’s feel and flow.
Those qualities–feel and flow–would be hallmarks of Cole’s career.
And a hockey nation that has known him as the leading voice of Hockey Night in Canada for almost 30 years is grateful for it.
Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off The Air has plenty of feel and flow. It is not a great autobiography. It simply lacks the analytical rigour to reach that high bar. Nevertheless, it is certainly an enjoyable, breezy read.
Catching On is an anecdote-driven journey, starting from Cole’s Newfoundland childhood (almost drowning in a barrel of tar) to a restless adolescence (a job as a bell boy on a cruise ship) to early adulthood (his love for flying, being a curler who twice represented Newfoundland at the Brier).
The early life absorbs the first third of Catching On–a tad excessive for readers awaiting the “good stuff” about high-profile players and classic games. But the reader is eventually rewarded with Cole’s perspective on a tide of hockey history.
The expected events are all there: the 1972 Canada-Soviet series during which he did the radio play-by-play; the 1976 Soviet-NHL “super series”; several Olympic moments; and Stanley Cup games with Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux and other hockey legends.
However, it is the intimate passages featuring the sport’s famous that comprise the book’s strength. One example sees Cole and the wonderful Montreal broadcaster Danny Gallivan sitting on the floor of a packed Canadiens hospitality suite after a play-off game, sharing a drink and thoughts on their respective futures. Another example is Cole’s evolving friendship with Vsevolod Bobrov, the forgotten and complex Soviet coach during the classic ‘72 series, the lasting image being their impromptu toast across a crowded restaurant. Other superb anecdotes revolve around the compassion of cantankerous Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, the arrogance of American sports journalist Howard Cosell, and the seemingly limitless generosity of Wayne Gretzky.
Catching On is overwhelmingly upbeat and offers almost no negative comments about anything or anyone (Cole is even complimentary to disgraced player agent Alan Eagleson). Nevertheless, there are a few poignant, deeply personal moments. One comes as he discusses the myriad of health issues he has quietly faced–and conquered. Another is his veiled disappointment upon learning that the coveted Stanley Cup finals assignment for the first time in decades will be given to someone else.
Naturally, in the book we learn about the famous calls carved into the databank of Canadian hockey fans. “They’re going home!” (in 1974, as the bruised Soviet Red Army team suddenly leaves the ice at the Philadelphia Spectrum). Gee-ooooh Sakic! That makes it 5-2 Canada! Surely, that has got to be it!” (at the 2002 Olympics, winning gold, beating the United States). “Oh my heavens, what a goal, what a move! Lemieux! Oh baby!” (in 1991, Mario Lemieux’s incredible deek during the Stanley Cup finals).
Cole’s thoughts on his broadcasting technique are squeezed into the narrative in scattered pieces. Interesting snippets mention his meticulousness concerning the correct pronunciation of player surnames and his preferred contours of a broadcast booth. Yet Cole has been called a broadcasting genius. So it is a shortcoming of Catching On that more discussion on his craft is not offered. What does he think of the current play-by-play trends? Or of today’s top play-by-play professionals? He has certainly earned the right to offer his opinion.
In recent years, social media and sports talk radio have not been kind to Cole, the claim being that he has lost his edge, that he can no longer keep up with the play, that players are being misidentified.
These criticisms are not broached in the book. This is unfortunate. It would have been fascinating to learn Cole’s thoughts on such sneering commentary, much of it unfair. For on a good night Cole is still among the best, a skilled purveyor of emotion, unmatched in feel and flow.