When Bob Cole gets the cue to go live on Saturday night as the Ottawa Senators visit the Montreal Canadiens, it will mark the start of his 48th season broadcasting hockey.
Cole’s voice is synonymous with Hockey Night in Canada, and at age 83 he has no plans on retiring from the job he loves and in large part defines him. Meanwhile, he’s had something of a career renaissance in recent years. There’s a Bob Cole mobile app. He trends on Twitter during games, and people still clamour to get their picture taken with him much in the same way they did with his mentor Foster Hewitt.
It was just under a decade ago that he was shuffled out of the No. 1 role at HNIC and while his successors have answered the bell, many Canadians feel there’s still no one able to capture the feel and flow of hockey like Bob Cole.
A private man, Cole wasn’t interested in writing a book but with a little help from acclaimed author and Sportsnet colleague Stephen Brunt and perhaps some encouragement by his family, he tells his story in Now I’m Catching On, released on Oct. 4.
Yahoo Canada Sports had a chance to speak with Bob Cole and Stephen Brunt separately. The interviews have been combined and edited for this Q & A.
Yahoo Canada Sports: Mr. Cole, are you surprised that people are interested in your story?
Bob Cole: I’m very surprised. I reluctantly decided that I would go ahead and try this. I said, “Who would want to read a book about me? Why?” I’ve been doing this job for 48 years now, but it all came together I guess. Now I find myself saying, “I wonder why I didn’t think of that (story) and throwing that in (the book).
YCS: Stephen, from what I understand the process relied heavily on two guys fly-fishing, was there a tape recorder in the boat? How did it unfold?
Stephen Brunt: We did fish a little bit out on the river. Bob loves to fish and I love to fish, we did do that. Bob likes to drive though too, drive and talk. So there was a lot of him driving around St. John’s showing me places and also just driving and me with the tape recorder going beside him. It was kind of a long conversation.
Part of the reason I wanted to do the book is because I’ve got a real attachment to Newfoundland, I spend a lot of time out here.
The context is really important when your writing about people from Newfoundland, in terms of Bob’s career the context is really important. The notion that you didn’t have access to the NHL, it was thousands of miles away, you were living in a different country literally when Bob was growing up, that’s a long trek from the stadium in St. John’s to Maple Leaf Gardens. It’s different than if you grew up in Peterborough or even in Winnipeg, literally and figuratively it is way further away in the mind.
YCS: Did you find the fact that Bob still critiques his own work surprising?
Brunt: Absolutely, he still soundchecks games. You get to a point if you have done anything for a long period of time like a sports column, it’s not like you go back over every one and re-read it 20 times and say, “My God, what could I have done better?”
You talk about his professionalism, for him it is about the performance, the way he sounds and being true to the flow of the game. Feel and flow is his mantra. I like the fact he could articulate that rather than saying, “I do it the way I do it.” He can actually articulate how you call a hockey game or the way he calls a hockey game. One of my favourite conversations with him was when I asked, “How do you call a hockey game?” over lunch and it was like a master class.
YCS: Mr. Cole, what I took away from the book is that you look at your commentary as a performance. Would you agree with that assessment?
Cole: I like to pay attention to my work and kind of make sure that I am up to par to what I want to do and what I want to present to the viewers. I keep tabs on myself in other words a fair bit, not as much as I used to but I still do, yep. I sit back once in a while and say, “Well, that sounds pretty good. I’ll hang around for a while.”
YCS: There is a line in the book where you say, “Hockey is exciting. Don’t get in the way of it.” Can you expand on that?
Cole: I need to be careful, I don’t want to criticize how somebody else would feel about broadcasting a hockey game because everybody has their own way of doing things and I’m not saying mine is the right way. What I try to do is what has been impressed upon me ever since I began thinking about maybe doing this someday when I was very young. Not getting in the way, to my mind, is bothering the viewer with words that do not follow the flow of the game. I think Foster (Hewitt) taught me that at the beginning, don’t overdo your description, when TV comes in you going to have to allow it to get to the viewer, but you can aid and abet their enjoyment of the game. I think that’s what I would suggest to somebody coming into the business. You aid and abet the viewer’s enjoyment of the hockey game – don’t get in the way though, don’t do too much. Try and figure out the best way to say what you want to say. There are times when a little pause is nice, a little breathing room is delightful and then pick it up when the game picks up. I try to tell myself that – don’t get in the way.
YCS: You recently received the Order of Canada, how would you describe receiving that honour?
Cole: It took place Sept. 23. It was a wonderful experience, my family was there and everybody enjoyed it immensely. You go through something like that and see the organization of it all and you feel good about Canada, it’s hard to explain. I walked away on cloud nine, it was a great day.
YCS: Initially you were doing colour commentary on CBC Radio Sunday Night Hockey in 1968 and for your first game paired with Foster Hewitt. Knowing that he mentored you many years earlier, do you recall how it felt to be calling a game with him?
Cole: That was a very nervous time, I can tell you. It was a great thrill for me to work alongside Foster Hewitt, we did a game in Boston on a Sunday night, the Leafs and Bruins.
You talk about sitting back and not getting in the way of the listener, that was what I did. I sat in the booth with Foster Hewitt and introduced him, he did the game and I did very, very little. I loved every second of it, sitting alongside Foster and listening to his voice. It’s goosebumps, his voice was hockey. The moment he said, “Hello Canada” - it was shivering, it was mind-boggling for me, I was very, very fortunate. I knew that and I paid attention to everything he said and did. I was just getting ready to someday get a shot myself and it happened the next year I guess.
YCS: What has your role on Hockey Night in Canada mean to you, what has it meant to you that people associate your voice so closely with this iconic Canadian broadcast?
Cole: I don’t know if they even say that. Like we talked about, there are lots of announcers are doing hockey now. I don’t think (people) think of me (specifically). I don’t know, I have no idea. I am just delighted to hear when they tell me in the third period of a game that somebody in the truck just called to say you are trending. I had no idea what they were talking about, well, I do now but I didn’t at first but it happens, so that’s great. Keep it up guys and gals, I like it!
YCS: Stephen, in the book you write about revisiting Mr. Cole’s Game 7 call of the 1993 Campbell Conference Final between the LA Kings and Maple Leafs, is that what stands out for you in terms of Bob’s best work?
Brunt: I love that one because I was at that game and I actually didn’t hear him call the game until I was doing (research) for Gretzky’s Tears. I remember what it felt like in the building that night, the kind of beautiful agony as all of those hopes slipped away and it was Gretzky. I still think emotionally his call captured everything that was going on in that room which is almost impossible. You couldn’t script it better than he pulled it out of his head. I’m partial to that one because I spent a lot of time transcribing it and thinking about it and lining it up with my own experience of that game and I think it’s perfect. It’s a perfect call.
YCS: Mr. Cole, anything you would like to add?
Cole: I am just rolling along and minding my own business and hope I can do the job they want me to do and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. I haven’t changed and I haven’t changed a thing. I have been very fortunate with my voice holding up and I am still interested and still love what I do but I’m not calling the shots, somebody else is.
Now I’m Catching On: My Life On and Off the Air is published by Penguin Random House.
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