If you listened to the 1972 Canada-Soviet Union Summit Series over the radio — as some of us did with a wire running up one arm and into an ear speaker while pretending to pay attention in a classroom — it wasn’t the voice of Hockey Hall of Famer Foster Hewitt calling the play-by-play. It was Bob Cole.

The Hockey Night in Canada stalwart, who ended a 50-year career in the booth by calling his final game in 2019, passed away Wednesday in his home province of Newfoundland. He was 90.

When I called him at home in St. John’s in 2015, it was not to talk hockey. It was to talk about an animated CBC children’s special he can be heard in, “The Curse of Clara: A Holiday Tale.” The story follows a young girl’s struggles to get picked for a National Ballet School performance of The Nutcracker against the background of the epic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series.

Team Canada hero Phil Esposito can also be heard in that special. Cole, of course, does play-by-play, and, yes, they wrote his pet phrase — “Oh baby!” — right into the script.

It was not Cole’s first trip to the animation booth. In 2012, he took part in another holiday effort, “The Magic Hockey Skates.” Don Cherry and Claude Giroux can also be heard in that one. His other TV credits include voice work over several seasons of Republic of Doyle and occasional appearances on Air Farce and 22 Minutes.

Cole came to be the radio voice of the Summit Series almost by default. That summer of ’72, CBC had passed on the eight game international series, expecting it to be a ratings dud. Who would watch an exhibition hockey series against players nobody had ever heard of, scheduled for September?


An entire nation, that’s who. Watched and listened.

“It was my big shot at anything in the heavyweight area of broadcasting,” said Cole. “I was lucky they selected me. They’ll never put together another series with that amount of excitement to it, it was like a movie.”

Cole had dreamed of such a break. As a young man in the mid-’50s, a knee injury put him in the hospital for months. That’s when he became hooked on Foster Hewitt’s radio hockey broadcasts. Maybe there’s a career in this, he thought.

Cole later worked up the nerve to pay a surprise call on Hewitt at the play-by-play legend’s office at CKFH radio in Toronto. In 1956, he presented an audition tape at the front desk and the secretary let Hewitt know Cole was there. Hewitt listened to the tape, then, instead of throwing him out, spent two hours carefully assessing its strengths and weaknesses. It was a Master Class Cole built a career on.

By 1960 Cole was covering hockey with local radio broadcasts in his home province. In 1969 he was moved up to the TV booth. By 1973 he was part of the play-by-play national TV rotation on Hockey Night in Canada, where he was hired by executive producer Ralph Mellanby. Besides Cole, Mellanby also hired a former hockey coach with no broadcast experience to tell it like it is between periods. His name: Don Cherry.

Mellanby, of course, was responsible for much more than simply Cherry picking. Dick Irvin Jr., Howie Meeker, Dan Kelly and Brian McFarlane all became household hockey names under his watch.

By 1980, Cole was HNiC‘s main man in the booth. For many years, he was well paired with colour commentator Harry Neale. Together, they covered 20 Stanley Cup finals as well as several Olympic and World Cup hockey tilts.

Cole’s passion for the game was infectious and brought listeners and viewers right into the game. Some of the greats in the game, including Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, were his biggest fans. His knowledge of curling was also put to good use as a top CBC curling announcer.

By 2008, his schedule became a little lighter, but he continued covering hockey games well into the Rogers’ Sportnet era. His final assigment, a Montreal Canadiens-Toronto Maple Leafs game in April of 2019, marked 50 years of pro hockey coverage.

So, yes, he did way more than provide voice work for a couple of anmated children’s offerings. Still, at the end of our interview in 2015, I asked Cole if there was a famous cartoon character he related to the most.

“Geez. My goodness gracious,” he said. “In school — I don’t know if I should tell this — some of us were in elocution classes and there was a bit of theatre going on. When I was quite young, maybe grade four or five, I was in our school play, Winnie the Pooh, I was Piglet. It was the longest script! I remember the gear up and the mask; it was a pretty good hit. Winnie the Pooh, yeah.”

And that’s how Bob Cole went from “Oh bother!” to “Oh baby!”

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