Bob Cole's recent retirement from hockey play-by-play broadcasting took me back to another Hockey Night in Canada icon, perhaps the most famous one of all. In fact, he was the man who really got the whole thing going: Foster Hewitt. Famed for his celebrated phrase "He shoots! He scores!", Foster Hewitt was also known for his sign-on at the beginning of each broadcast: "Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland" (Newfoundland having been a separate Dominion within the British Empire before joining Canada in 1949).
Now, Foster had come by his renown honestly: his father, after all, was Sports Editor at the Toronto Daily Star newspaper. And while Foster Hewitt's reputation was built solidly from hockey, it was actually on May 24, 1925, that he and his father Bill made what was said to be the world's first broadcast of a horse race. But hockey called, and Foster went on to call the games for more than 40 years.
So, why am I writing about this hockey hero? Well, he was the uncle of John May, of course. And who the hell was John May? Why, none other than my good buddy at school. (Wonder where John is today?). John was a selfless kind of lad and had never mentioned his relationship with the great Hewitt family.
So it's the early 1960s and John says to me one day, "Hey Pete, wanna go the Leaf game on Saturday night?" It was known that John's family had outstanding seats, first row, center ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. So, I wasn't about to decline this rare opportunity.
Saturday arrives. John and I are ensconced watching the Leafs duel it out with the Chicago Black Hawks. I'm having the time of my life. But John had a plan that evening to up the ante.
"Why don't we go up and visit my uncle?" he said from out of nowhere.
"Your uncle!" I replied, somewhat startled that we'd want to leave these prime seats to say hello to some relation.
"C'mon," says John, not leaving it to me to agree or not. I shook my head in disbelief but followed my host.
Up, and up, and up into the "gods" we went. Clearly, this uncle must be pretty poor if he can only afford seats up here in the greys, I thought.
"OK, now the fun begins," says John. And he steps out onto a thin metal "alleyway" that for all the world seemed to be leading over to the specially-designed broadcast gondola from which the preeminent Foster Hewitt broadcast the Leaf games.
"What are you doing, Johnny!?" I asked.
"Shhhhh..." he said, "just be quiet and follow me."
John had obviously made this trek before since he seemed to walk the gangplank handily, a mere 54 feet above the ice. Me? Nurturing a lifelong fear of heights, this negotiation was scary at best. But something told me there was a bonus at the other end so I plucked up my courage and followed along, not daring to look down.
Eventually we arrived at the cramped gondola but John looked back at me, put his forefinger to his mouth in a shush sign, and we waited quietly, listening to Foster Hewitt inside calling the game for the folks at home, me wondering what the hell we were doing there. Soon enough, a commercial break came and John opened the door to announce his arrival. "Hi Uncle Foster. Let me introduce my pal Peter Jennings." Uncle Foster!? This was the relative we left our seats to say hello to!
The immortal Mr. Hewitt shook my hand and cautioned me not to speak while he was working. Quickly enough, the man received a cue from somewhere and without so much as a further warning to us, he was back on the air, commenting on the skirmish that had emerged before the break.
John and I stayed in the cramped gondola, me absolutely agog watching the master at work, until the end of that period. Saying our goodbyes and nice-to-meet-yous, we walked the plank again, made it back to terra firma and strode back down to ground level and our choice seats.
I can't begin to tell you the score of the game that night. Can't recall who got goals, or even who the Three Stars were. But sure as shootin' I remember meeting Foster Hewitt and spending time with the broadcast legend in the gondola.
It's a memory I'll cherish.