Perhaps my love affair with broadcasting booths, and one in particular–Foster Hewitt’s famous gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens–began when I was six or seven years old. My father, Leslie McFarlane, was a guest in the gondola one night in the mid-thirties. I believe it was the night the Chicago Blackhawks came to town with half a dozen American-born players in their lineup and gave the Leafs quite a battle before losing 3-2. Chicago’s eccentric owner, Major Fred McLaughlin, had long dreamed of icing a full team of American-born players, a concept Boston manager Art Ross called “the most farcical thing ever attempted.” McLaughlin was ahead of his time. Nobody today would describe a team of American players as “farcical.”
I’m not certain why my dad was invited to be in the gondola that night, participating on the radio version of Hockey Night in Canada. Perhaps it was because he had a reputation as a skilled writer of hockey fiction. He was also engaged at the time in writing many of the Hardy Boys books under the name Franklin W. Dixon for $100 per book and no royalties. But few people knew about that. I told a couple of my friends my dad was F.W. Dixon and they looked at me strangely. One of them said, “Oh, sure. And my dad’s Turk Broda.”
Perhaps, subconsciously, listening to him on the radio that night, I considered the possibility of someday following him along the catwalk that led to that mysterious and magical place where Foster Hewitt made Saturday night the most exciting night of the week. Growing up, along with millions of Canadians, I thrilled to Foster’s descriptions of the exploits of Syl Apps, Gordie Drillon and Red Horner. The Leafs were my heroes and I had the Bee Hive Corn Syrup photos to prove it.
One year I wore an old blue hockey jersey to my games of shinny on the local pond. I asked my mother to cut out a number–two numbers actually, a one and a zero–from a piece of white felt and I had her to stitch them side-by side on the back. Number 10 was for Apps—my favorite player.
One night, my dad said, “Come with me, You’re going to meet one of the great stars of hockey.” He took me by the hand to a smoke-filled hall in downtown Whitby. In this hall filled with large men puffing on cigars, my eyes stinging from the vile smoke, I met Syl Apps, captain of the Leafs. Over the hubbub I asked him for his autograph. He looked down and smiled, then signed my scrap of paper. When I looked at it I was thrilled. “Dad, dad, look! He signed, ‘Best wishes,. Syl Apps. He gave me two extra words.” Many years later, I found myself sitting next to Apps in the Gardens’ press box and he chuckled when I reminded him of that night in Whitby and how meaningful those extra words were that he penned to a young fan.
In the thirties and forties, the hockey broadcasts on radio were mesmerizing. At house parties, the men gathered in the living room around the radio while the women chatted in the kitchen. The party began when the game was over and Foster had selected his three stars. I enjoyed the intermissions, featuring hockey-wise regulars around the Hot Stove, men like Wes McKnight (later to become my boss at CFRB) Elmer Ferguson, Bobby Hewitson and Baldy Cotton. I envied these men with the authoritative voices. They got in to see all the Leaf games–for free. I was even more impressed when my dad told me the Hot Stove Leaguers actually were paid to sit around a microphone and talk hockey. What a fascinating way to make a living. Even a part time living.
Perhaps the broadcasting seed was planted then. If I failed to become another Apps, perhaps I could become another Wes McKnight or Baldy Cotton. In the meantime, wearing my ragged blue sweater, I skated circles on the pond.
In time I would get to play three years of junior hockey where I would learn that checking Jean Beliveau or scoring a goal against Glen Hall, were daunting tasks. There would follow four years of U.S. college hockey and one brief tryout (I had to ask for it) with the Chicago Blackhawks. By then I realized I would never make it to the NHL so I turned my focus to broadcasting.
After two years with a TV station in Schenectady, New York (not much hockey there, folks) I put all my belongings in a U-Haul. And moved with my family to Toronto. Surely I was ready for a role, any kind of a role, with Hockey Night in Canada.
No such luck. In 1959,there was an audition for the host’s job and I was asked to try out. My interview with King Clancy went quite well, I thought, (who wouldn’t look good talking to Clancy?) but Ward Cornell got the job. “You’re too young, ” I was told. That same week, there was a stunning offer from CBS in New York. I was asked to conduct interviews (on skates) and handle color commentary for CBS on the NHL Game of the Week. “We’re looking for a young announcer, a fresh face,” they said. God bless America! I commuted to the games from Toronto and was able to keep my job with CFRB, a CBS affiliate.
Four years later, there was another opening on Hockey Night in Canada. In those days, Bill Hewitt worked with a different color commentator each week, usually a sportswriter. Somehow a decision was made to add a permanent color man to the crew and I got the job.
For the next 17 years I had the best seat in the house–a chair in the gondola–sitting next to broadcast legends Bill and Foster Hewitt. There I provided color commentary to Bill Hewitt’s play-by-play .
I chuckle when I recall some of the oddball things that were said and done in those early days. Prior to my very first game, my boss stuck his head in the gondola, called my name, held up three fingers and said, “Brian, I think you should speak three times a period. That’ll be a nice balance between you and Bill.” I was stunned. I couldn’t believe he’d set a quota on the number of comments I was allowed to make. Sorry, boss, but I broke that edict in the first five minutes of my first game.
Bill Hewitt tried to make me feel comfortable in those first few games, by patting me on the back whenever I spoke. Sometimes he patted too hard and the words came out like this–“Keon-uh-uh, made a great uh.uh, move to go around uh-uh, huh-Harry Howell uh-uh.” Finally I told him, “:Bill, I’m okay, I’m relaxed. No need to pound me on the back anymore.”
At the end of each game, I left the gondola and hustled to a place on the catwalk high over the crowd. There I would interview Foster Hewitt and ask him for his three star selections. One night while we were in commercial, waiting for the director’s cue to begin our interview, a young production assistant received instructions over his headset from the director in the TV truck. “Yeah, they’re both here,” I heard him say into his microphone. “Yeah, I’ll tell him.” He looked up and shouted at us, “Hey, which one of you guys is Foster Hewitt?” He is,” I blurted out, pointing at Foster, both of us amazed at the question. “Well, straighten your tie,” was the young man’s command. To this day, I can’t believe that someone working on the telecasts didn’t know Foster Hewitt.
Perched on the catwalk, we were high above the fans in the green seats, and they often craned their necks and hooted and hollered at us. Occasionally, I’d hear someone shout, “Jump, McFarlane, jump!” Years later, when Gary Dornhoefer joined our crew, and made his debut on the catwalk, he was appalled to hear the fans urge me to jump. “I can’t believe they taunt you like that,” he said.
I said, “Gary, broadcasters, like referees, have to be thick-skinned.”
Dornhoefer was even more appalled during his second trip to the catwalk. When the fans saw him move into position, they ignored me and began shouting, “Jump, Dornhoefer, Jump!”
I told him later, “Gary, that’s nothing, Years ago, I was making my way through the crowd one night when a guy yelled at me, “McFarlane, you’re the reason I come to the games. I can’t stand listening to you at home.” I gave the loudmouth fan a big wave, indicating he’d come up with a good line, a line I used at banquet appearances at least a hundred times.
I was always amazed at the power of words. And how an honest appraisal of a bungled play, or a critique of a player’s foolish penalty, could arouse the viewers, not to mention the player involved, his wife and family, his coach and the team owner. Some events I described honestly and matter-of-factly had startling repercussions.
One night during the 1968 playoffs, Boston hammered the Leafs 10-0. It was the night Pat Quinn levelled Bobby Orr with a devastating check (a clean one, I thought), and the same night that Leaf enforcer Forbes Kennedy took on half the Bruins and even lashed out at linesman George Ashley, bowling him over with a solid punch. The following day, my friend King Clancy took me aside. He told me that Punch Imlach was furious with me. “Punch says your prediction that Kennedy would be fined or suspended was the reason Clarence Campbell fined Kennedy $1,000 and suspended him for four games,” said King. “What’s more,” he added, “Punch says that Kennedy never hit the guy,” Clancy warned me that Imlach wanted my scalp. But before Imlach could take steps to have me fired, HE got the axe. Right after the Leafs lost their next game, and were eliminated, Stafford Smythe rushed down to the dressing room, pulled Imlach aside, and fired him. I heard the news on the car radio while driving home. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “Well, that’s a break. If Punch had lasted another day he would have had me fired.” Incidentally, I ran into Forbes Kennedy at a golf tournament in the Maritimes a few years ago. “Did you or did you not punch George Ashley that night?” I asked him. He smiled and said, “Oh, I corked him all right. Hit a him a good one.”
I found myself in hot water with Leaf management again when I supported Darryl Sittler in his long-running battle with Imlach and the Leafs. On air one night, well aware that what I said would be inflammatory, I suggested the Leafs had treated Sittler “rather shamefully.” That was it. “You’re outta here,” Harold Ballard told me. Colleagues Dave Hodge and Dick Beddoes came to my defense and finally Ballard softened a bit. “I’ll let the guy do the post-game show and stuff like that but he’s never to go back to the gondola again.” As a result, I hosted games in Winnipeg and Montreal for the next eight years and played only a minor role in the Toronto telecasts.
Despite Ballard’s edict, I did return to the gondola on two occasions. Someone got sick one night and I worked one final game from that location. By then the original gondola had been trashed and discarded by Ballard, which outraged many, and replaced with a luxury box. Who paid for the new quarters? You can bet it wasn’t Ballard. The other occasion was on Hall of Fame night in ’95, five years after I’d been told by Hockey Night in Canada that my services were no longer needed. After taking part in the ceremonial faceoff with fellow inductees Bill Torrey, Larry Robinson and Jack Gatecliff, I was interviewed by Bob Cole and Harry Neale during the second intermission.
I’m sure we talked of the amazing sights I’d witnessed from the old gondola. And how we thrilled to the introduction of color television, preceded by the installation of huge banks of lights to illuminate the ice and to make the colorcasts a spectacle. Then there was instant replay. How we gaped at our monitors the first time a goal was scored and seconds later it was magically replayed on our screens. Later, we were able to bring our viewers highlights from games at the Montreal Forum–all within a span of seconds. People everywhere watched in awe and said, “How in the world do they do that? It’s amazing.”
Sometimes, amazing things happened on the ice below. Hunched forward on my chair, with no more need for comforting pats on the back from Bill, I helped him describe some of the greatest events in Toronto’s hockey history. One night I’ll never forget was February 7, 1976 when Darryl Sittler set a record of 10 points in a game.
Ten years earlier, there was a dramatic Stanley Cup triumph of the Leafs. Imlach’s team of oldtimers stunned the Montreal Canadiens in the ’67 finals. It was the end of an era because the NHL was about to double in size and many of the Leafs would not be back the following season.
In 1968. in one of his first games as a Leaf, we saw defenseman Jim Dorey take a record nine penalties in a game against Pittsburgh. Boston’s Chris Nilan, with ten penalties, broke his mark in 1991.
The most difficult game I ever broadcast? That would be game three of a bitterly-fought Philadelphia-Toronto playoff series in 1976. Three Flyers–Mel Bridgman, Don Saleski and Joe Watson were charged with criminal offenses as a result of incidents that occurred during the game. Bridgman battered Leaf star defenseman Borje Salming and was charged with assault causing bodily harm. Saleski and Watson were charged with assault with a deadly weapon (a hockey stick) after a wild penalty-box battle. The Flyers chalked up a record 28 penalties.
Speaking of penalty-takers, I smile when I think of Tiger Williams and how he delivered a wonderful line into my microphone one night. During a playoff series, Tiger boldly predicted, “Them Penguins are done like dinner.”
There was the time Dave Hodge asked Tiger to be his guest on an intermission during a mid-week game. Tiger said, “Not tonight, Davey. It’s not a national show.” Tiger wanted to be seen when his friends out west could see him.
There was no better vantage point than the gondola to appreciate the magic of Orr, Hull, Howe and Beliveau, the antics of Eddie Shack, the artistry of Keon, Kelly and Mahovlich, the awesome strength of Tim Horton, the magnificent goaltending of Bower and Sawchuk.
All too soon they were gone. All too soon, so was I.