Esaw with Phil Esposito: reality TV at its finest

If you grew up watching sports on TV in Canada in the ’60s and ’70s you could not miss Johnny Esaw. The Saskatchewan native died Saturday at age 87.
“Johnny Seesaw,” as some sports wags called him, was the face of the CFL for two decades on CTV. He was also our Jim McKay as host of CTV’s version of the popular ABC Saturday sports magazine Wide World of Sports.
Hard to imagine now with 24 hour sports channels and highlights in constant rotation, but 40 or so years ago, you really had to wait until Saturday to get your fill of sports on TV. For years, if it was figure skating or the Olympics or motor racing or anything with an international sports hook, if you lived in Canada, you expected to see Esaw setting it all up for you.
He had a very Canadian, straight-ahead style, setting the table then getting out of the way. His modest approach was the opposite of sports showboats of the ’70s like Howard Cosell or Dick Beddoes.
He was so associated with CFL broadcasts that, when ever I heard his voice, no matter what time of year, it felt like there was a chill in the air.
His most famous moment, without question, was at a hockey broadcast. The Canada-Soviet Union 1972 “Summit Series,” galvanized the nation throughout September of ’72 and was hosted by Esaw. CTV had the rights to the series, which turned out to be the coup of the century in Canadian sports broadcasting.
It was Esaw who took the full brunt of Canadian captain Phil Esposito’s post-Game Four rant. Espo was coming off the ice after a disappointing loss which put Team Canada behind the 8 ball in the series heading to Moscow. Basically the Bruin sniper chastised viewers at home and at the rink–where the team had been booed–for hopping off the bandwagon. Esaw allowed Espo to just let it rip. The speech set up  one of the most dramatic comebacks in all of sports.
I always felt badly about letting Esaw down. Twenty-odd years ago, I was asked to draw a caricature for a retiring CTV executive who was Esaw’s pal. I used to draw caricatures for folks out the door at TV Guide and Telemedia at the time and Andy Ryan–then at CTV between stints at the Guide–told Esaw he knew somebody who could get the drawing done cheap.

A caricature of TV Guide Canada legend Dick
Northrop, typical of the drawings I did at the
time. The sketch of Esaw’s pal got torched

A fairly unflattering–as it turned out–photo of the subject arrived. I did what you do with a caricature, exaggerated the man’s features. I saw bags under his eyes and drew suitcases.
Shortly after passing the drawing along to CTV, I got a call from Esaw blasting me for my lousy artwork. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked. It was a good lesson; if you’re selling a portrait, make if funny but flattering.(Also get more than one photograph–D’uh.)
The edgy exchange also gave me some insight into Esaw. He was a perfectionist and wanted things done right, a quality which carried him to the top of the Canadian TV sports scene. Condolences to his friends and family.

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