He Shoots He Scores!
You've heard Foster Hewitt's nerve-tingling hockey broadcasts — Here's the man himself, telling you how he does it
FOSTER HEWITT H. H. ROXBOROUGH
THERE WAS a time when Saturday evening seemed destined to be forever known as bath night. But ever since scientists started grabbing sounds out of the ether, a world of tap-turners has slowly evolved into a universe peopled with dial-twisters.
In a humble way I have contributed to this habit busting, for it has been my weekly chore during many years to participate in a sports program that has been estimated to reach three in every four radio-equipped Canadian homes.
This hockey broadcast, which lias cut so deep into the clean sport of tubbing, goes on the air each Saturday night during the season at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard time. But my personal ritual has an earlier beginning.
Around 8.15 it is my custom to leave the ice level and begin my ascent to the radio gondola; and it is quite a climb. When I clamber up to the control room, I have attained the same altitude as the most remote spectator, and yet from even this elevation I must still climb up a
narrow ladder to the catwalk situated thirty feet higher.
This lofty bridge is only two feet wide, and while it is protected by railing on each side, the initial venture is about as comforting as walking along the roof-edge of an eight-story building.
Even when I have traversed the length of this walk I am still “up in the air,” for I am compelled to descend an almost perpendicular stairway into a long narrow gondola, suspended from the rafters, which leaves me sixty feet above the ice.
When I reach the broadcasting cubicle, the time is dose to 8.30. Far below, the crowds are milling in. the players are testing skates and sticks and rifling pucks at the apparently indifferent goal tenders, and the white-sweatered referees are busily examining nets or conferring with other officials.
At a signal, half the players scurry to the benches, the others line up in play formation, the crowd stands respect-
fully during the rendition of the National Anthem. Then a mighty roar soars to the roof, the black rubber disc is dropped between the scuffling sticks of the opposing centremen, and another game is under way.
Identifying the Players
T LIKE to get up to the radio gondola while the teams are practicing because it gives me an opportunity to recognize the newcomers. You see, players can’t be identified by position, for they roam all over the ice; neither can you spot entirely by appearance, for a team like Boston, wearing helmets, all look alike from up yonder. Neither are numbers and faces readily discernible. So I separate the players by another method.
My system is a combination of observation and memory. You may think I am “stretching it” a bit when I say that after seeing a player once in action I could forevermore name him, no matter what uniform he wore or where he played. It may be the way he stickhandles, the manner in which he extends his arms, how he skates, or perhaps the shape of his head. Somehow, every player has a peculiarity registered in my mental index file that, to me, is as sure as fingerprints are to a police specialist.
Pronunciation of players’ names is often more difficult than recognition. There are 120 players in the league and many names are elusive. The similarit y of Seibert and Siebert is typical of this problem, but where a solution is required, I go direct to the player and accept the pronunciation he gives.
Occasionally I am asked, “How do you follow the play?” Some folks think I drag behind the action so that I will always be right. But such a thought is erroneous. In these days when the spectators’ cheers and groans are also “aired,” the play-by-play broadcast must be synchronized with the local color. Timing is just as essential in radio as it is in the game itself.
Instead of holding back my description, I actually lean slightly the other way and tend to anticipate the next move. To do this, I don’t permit myself to be sidetracked by relating isolated incidents. But I do follow that little black puck with the relentless enthusiasm of a hunting dog sticking to a hot trail.
For the half-hour after I reach the gondola I am a silent observer, and not infrequently during this interval my imagination rides high and wide to the haunts of waiting hockey fans. It is reasonable for me to assume, from letters I have received, that in a lighthouse on the Bay of Fundy, a trawler on the North Atlantic fishing banks, a dormitory in a Maritime ladies’ college, a Hudson’s Bay trading post far north of Churchill, a theatre in a French-Canadian community in Northern Alberta, a construction camp many miles from rail in Ontario, a barber shop in a small Saskatchewan village, or in a British Columbia home where mail comes only once a month, there are sports lovers anxiously awaiting zero hour.
But this zero hour is subject to apparently wide variations, for at the moment when Pacific Coast listeners are hurrying through an early dinner, Newfoundlanders have cheated the sandman.
However, sharp at 6 p.m. in British Columbia, 9 p.m. in Toronto and 11 p.m. in the Empire’s oldest colony, an associate tightens his grip on my shoulder, and the salutation, “Hello, Canada, and hockey fans in Newfoundland and the United States,’’reaches out. perhaps to New Zealand, England or South America, certainly to sun-kissed California and blizzard-blown Polar posts.
The process by which the description of the game is transmitted to such remote distances is a story in itself. But some conception of the miracle may be gleaned from the unadorned statement that a single broadcast requires the employment of more than 200 radio technicians, an expenditure exceeding $4,000, and sufficient copper wire to encircle the globe.
Broadcasting in 1922
ALL THIS planning and equipment is much more in4*volved than the apparatus with which I “toyed” on what I believe was the world’s first broadcast of a sport event.
Fifteen years ago, in Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena, on a cold wintry night, I hunched for more than two hours on a stool with sawed-off legs, in a glass box, four feet high and three feet square, without even the slightest inflow of fresh air. This ventilation problem was aggravated by a vapor that soon clouded the glass and created the optical illusion that the players were skating in a dense fog. Then, just to make my radio baptism a really tough ordeal, Kitchener and Parkdale teams were tied at the end of the regular sixty minutes and prolonged my distress through an additional half-hour of overtime.
That initial broadcast was a painful introduction into the world of radio hockey, but there have been times in more recent years when the going has been tough.
You remember that historic game between Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs? It was the last in the play-off series, and the loser would be denied the chance to play Rangers for the Stanley Cup. The game began at 8.30 p.m. one early April night, and it ended when milkmen were delivering pints and quarts nearly five hours later.
During all the regular game and through 105 minutes of overtime I had to continue my comment, and toward the close there were times when I actually talked in my sleep. But I did have sufficient energy to hang on to the end and tell a tired world that Blair had barged through the Boston defense, passed the puck to the unguarded Doraty, and that the game little opportunist had bagged the only and deciding goal.
Overtime games, however, are not a broadcaster’s only irritation.
One night last March I was broadcasting a play-off game between Americans and the Leafs from Madison Square Garden.
New York’s sporting palace has many refinements, but the radio perch has never appealed to me. Instead of a permanent abode, the gondola is an iron basket hooked to the first balcony. The metal frame sways. While one can get accustomed to this, I can’t say I could ever become accustomed to another characteristic of that basket.
Fairly early in the game my ankles began to sting as though lashed with a whip. Later, I was given the explanation. Crowds give off heat. Sometimes 15,000 people can raise the temperature in an arena fifteen degrees. This happened in Madison Square on that play-off night, so the engineer kindly turned on the cooling system. It was this Arctic breeze, blasted from a near-by opening at an angle that cut me just about the shoe-tops, that gave the sensation that a butcher was performing an operation. Different Kinds of Booths
T> ROADCASTING on the National I Iockey League circuit offers a variety of perches for the broadcaster. In Chicago, the equipment is housed in the organ loft at one end of the rink. The location at Montreal is in the open, up in the crowd, surrounded by the fans, with English and French announcers working side by side. The Detroit booth is situated right on the boards, and has the advantage of a closeup view hut also the disadvantage that there are angles where play is invisible, and somehow to be right on top of the game interferes with perspective.
Above all others, I prefer the bird’s-eye view of Maple Leaf Gardens. Yet there are many others who think that the high bridge and steep ladders are intended only for aerial artists or flagpole sitters,
Graham MacNamee once cautiously climbed up and down, and admitted the ixissession of a very uncomfortable feeling. Ben Bernie took a ground view of the radio box and declined an invitation to come up and see me; George Raft started the ascent and turned back; a couple of real good aviators got along the catwalk but balked at the ladder.
When the Gardens was being erected and the framework was going up, I began walking around to accustom myself to the height. After the gondola had been spotted and the ladder put down, I used to admire and even envy a steelworker who would shinny down the huge rivet-spotted girders with greatest of ease. One day, while aloft,
I said to him, “Jim. have you had a look from the broadcasting gondola?”
‘‘Nothing doing,” he confided; “you’re not going to get me walking down that ladder.” And he wrapped his arms and legs around the steel and slid to safety.
Still, from this lofty gondola, be it as uncomfortable as the edge of a cliff or as inviting as a fireside chair, I am privileged to talk to millions. One survey in a Detroit-Toronto play-off game suggested that the number on that evening approached six millions.
NATURALLY, most of these listeners do not talk back, but you would be surprised at the thousands who have “taken their pen in hand.”
Some of these corresponding fans are quite critical. A mistake in pronunciation or the misuse of English will usually draw a devastating fire. Here are a couple of instances:
If one team has scored a goal and the other has not, it seems perfectly natural to say, “The score is one to nothing.” Now imagine my consternation when a listener informed me that my phrase was atrociously incorrect because nothing was simply nothing and there could not be “nothing goals.” In his opinion—and other authorities tell me my critic was correct—I should say, “The score is one goal to none, or one goal to no goals.” But I still say “one to nothing” because I am such an intellectual coward 1 hesitate to appear highbrow.
I am also embarrassed when a puck hits a goalpost and bounces back into scuffling sticks. Invariably, to describe the incident,
I use the word “rebound” with accent on the “re.” But those who knew told me my pronunciation was “goshawful” and that the accent should be on the second syllable. Moreover, my dictionary confirmed that the critics were correct. For a couple of games I adopted the language of the book, but a lot of letter writers who never heard of Webster accused me of “highhatting,” so I soon reverted to the tongue of the common people. Tonight, when the rubber disc bangs into that steel pole and hops back to the eager attackers, I will unhesitatingly shout “REbound.”
But not all correspondents are faultfinders. Many are superstitious, and ’most any important hockey series will be preceded by the arrival of emblems that are certain to produce victory for the Leafs.
On the wall now facing my desk are a pair of “good-luck” inscribed horseshoes
that must have been borrowed from a Shetland pony; and it does seem that nearly all the rabbits shot in Canada in a year have been decimated for the sole purpose of providing me with rabbits’ feet. In one consignment, three and a half rabbits were killed to ensure that fourteen Leafs would be immune from misfortune. Most of these feet are not carefully cleaned and tipped with silver suitable for dress adornments; instead, they have the appearance of being hurriedly chopped by a careless butcher.
Of course, I realize that in accepting these offerings I am but a middleman between the eager fans and the idolized players, and my supply is soon distributed to them.
Autograph collectors are even more numerous than those who use rabbits’ feet to express their interest. In a season, apart altogether from hundreds of letters requesting signatures of the players, I would suppose at least 500 autograph books find their way from the public through the radioman to the performers. So plentiful are these requests and so generous are the recipients that if hockey clubs ever start advertising for players, one of the requests of the club owners is sure to be, “Applicant must include specimen of handwriting.” Even as it is, one of the dressing-room chores is that of signing the books.
In the thousands of letters that come each season, the sympathetic and the appreciative are also astonishingly numerous.
Broadcasting is a Pleasure
FORTUNATELY, my throat has given me little trouble. I have had an uninterrupted run exceeding 1,400 hockey broadcasts. Yet when a night does come when I cough or a hoarseness is apparent, the days following that broadcast will be spent reading old-time recipes and modern remedies for coughs, sent to me by sympathetic listeners. Following one mild attack of hoarseness, one dear old lady wrote to the sponsors, “It is a crime to have that young boy tear his throat out,” and implored them to give me a vacation. Perhaps she was more interested in my retirement than my disability, but such an accusation could not be charged against the manufacturer who sent me a case containing a well-known cough cure.
Invariably, it is my custom to broadcast with my heqd bare. Why, I don’t know, but it is now a habit.
A few seasons ago Rangers were playing Leafs, and the New Yorkers were leading 4 to 0. Suddenly I realized I was wearing my derby. At once I told the listeners of my mistake, took off the hat, and, believe it or not. Leafs turned around and won the game by 6 to 4. The next day a very ornate hat hanger was delivered to me by the postman.
Another time, in a moment of enthusiasm I raised my voice to a man-sized shout and afterward rather sheepishly confessed, “I nearly blew a fuse that time.” Would you believe that such an innocent remark prompted no less than fourteen people to take the trouble to send me electrical fuses?
But there must be a lot of good in the world. No reader of my mail could lose faith in human nature. I have received hand-painted birthday cards, gold razors, walking canes, and many other tangible expressions of goodwill. But it is not these I have in mind when I recall the countless letters that have come from shut-ins in hospitals, sanitoria and nursing homes; from deaf and dumb institutes where those who can hear spell the names and sketch the plays to the deaf; from unemployed in relief hostels; from kids whose dominant desire is to be professional hockey players, and elderly ladies who never saw a game in their three-score-and-ten.
Apart altogether from monetary rewards, these appreciative listeners make broadcasting a real pleasure, and sustain me when some candid listener irreverently suggests that I’m so one-sided I can face both ways without turning around.