It was back in 1956 that Don Cameron made his first life-changing decision. He was just out of high school in his native Summerside, PEI, and he had to make the choice to either go to university or take a job in radio.
“It was my life-long ambition to get into broadcasting and do play-by-play for hockey,” said the 79-year-old. “I used to do it as a kid playing road hockey, I say, ‘I’m not going to play anymore, I’m going to broadcast the game.’ Then I’d sit up on a fence and broadcast the game.”
It’s no surprise: He took the radio job.
He parlayed that gig calling games for the Summerside Aces – in the local senior league – into a job in St. Catharines, Ont., doing play-by-play for the Jr. A Teepees. That, too, was a big decision considering Cameron had spent his whole life on the Island.
“Boy, were my eyes ever opened when that plane landed in Toronto,” said Cameron. “I took my first drive on a four-lane highway.”
From there he moved to Kitchener, broadcasting games for the Dutchmen before becoming the play-by-play voice of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers when the city first landed the team in 1963.
On Wednesday, after a wondrous 53-year run, Cameron made his biggest decision yet. He announced he was finally hanging up his headset and retiring as the voice of the Rangers. On Thursday, the OHL found itself much poorer with the loss of one of junior hockey’s most kind, humble, and knowledgeable fixtures.
The reason for his leaving, he says, is to spend more time with his family – specifically his wife of more than four decades, Carole, who has been in ill health.
Make no mistake, despite his age, Cameron is still as sharp as the day he started. He will regale you with stories of the 1982 Memorial Cup-champion Kitchener Rangers as if it happened yesterday. Paul Coffey, Al MacInnis, Larry Robinson, Bill Barber and Scott Stevens were the future Hockey Hall Of Famers he saw skate in Kitchener – not to mention calling games featuring Wayne Gretzky (Soo) and Bobby Orr (Oshawa).
He remembers Gretzky’s first visit to the Kitchener Auditorium in which a mass of reporters were lined up and jockeying for position to interview the future Great One.
“He was standing off in a corner and you could sense there was something special about him,” said Cameron of Gretzky. “He was observing the room and watching this – the best word to describe it is confusion – by us in the media to decide who was going to talk to him first.”
Among the NHL’s newer stars, Cameron counts Montreal’s P.K. Subban, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and John Tavares among his favourite opposing players to interview when they played major junior hockey.
Last season, Cameron still rode the bus with the Rangers to every away game. Over his career he’s logged thousands of hours on the road and in hotels alongside his trusty sidekick, colour commentator Mike Farwell.
The one thing he’ll miss the most? His interactions with the players.
“That will be a big part to miss,” said Cameron. “It’s that old bit about what happens on the bus stays on the bus, but there were many humorous occasions on the bus and sometimes some delicate situations with some bad weather that kept everybody quiet. Those are things you’ll miss off the ice – the players.”
He figures over the years he’s been invited to dozens of special events – weddings, christenings, birthdays, golf outings and the like – for former players who have played in Kitchener.
One night in the Kitchener Auditorium media room during dinner with reporters, the talk turned to budding Buffalo Sabres prospect Sam Reinhart, whose father, former NHLer, Paul, had once played for the Rangers.
“Geez, I remember going to Paul’s wedding,” quipped Cameron.
He says he’ll also miss the excitement of game day, getting to the rink before the doors open to relish the silence before the fans fill the building with energy. Cameron still plans on attending games in Kitchener and says if the radio station ever needs a fill-in, he will be more than happy to step in.
“To me it became the most important day of the week,” said Cameron. “It was just fantastic. Game day is what it’s all about.”
Many residents in the Kitchener-Waterloo area have grown up hearing his calls. His voice has become synonymous with the Rangers. And while there are no official stats on the subject a 53-year career calling one single team has to be a Canadian record.
Despite his revered status in OHL circles, Cameron still operates without airs or ego. He’ll be the first person to offer help to young broadcasters because, he says, he remembers the kindness of people like Bob Schurman – his boss in Summerside – and broadcasting great Rex Stimers in St. Catherines who helped him early in his own career.
“When young broadcasters have come to me for assistance, whether it be advice on how to pursue their career, I was only happy to settle down and make sure I could help them the best way possible,” said Cameron.
There will never be anyone to fill Cameron’s shoes in Kitchener, but nonetheless the search for his replacement has begun. When asked if he had any advice for the person chosen to wear his headset when the OHL season starts in September, Cameron was – as usual – full of sage advice.
“Don’t burn bridges and don’t get too full of yourself,” he said. “Be respectful of the opposition as well as your own team. … Where are you going to get a job where you can go to work each day and just enjoy what you’re doing? So enjoy it.
“I would say enjoy the moment. I know it seems silly to say, ‘Where did those 53 years go?’ But they flew by pretty fast.”