Winnipeg’s maverick of the sports mike
Jack Wells is an irreverent rule-buster who exudes a raffish charm as he mangles the English language and sometimes misinforms his listeners. “Hell’s bells,” says he, “it’s only a game”
ASIDE FROM Marquis wheat and a couple of railroads, nothing rolls as familiarly across the prairies as the voice of Jack Wells, an uninhibited sports announcer whose rare combination of garbled syntax, colossal irreverence, haphazard pronunciation and great personal warmth has made him an institution in the west and a unique figure in the whole country.
Because of the variety and scope of Wells' activities, it's entirely probable that more Canadians have heard him during the last twenty years than any other man this side of Foster Hewitt. Mostly, Wells works out of Winnipeg but his towering tones have challenged the woodwork in broadcasting booths in Victoria. Vancouver. Trail. Edmonton. Calgary. Regina. Saskatoon. Brandon. Fort William, Port Arthur. Sudbury, Toronto. Kingston. Montreal, Quebec City and Moncton, to name most of his assigned stops over the last two decades.
Nobody works harder, or at least oftener, than Wells. He's a night owl. but however late he gets to bed he climbs out of it six mornings a w'eek at 6.15 to deliver the first of three daily sportscasts over radio station CKY in Winnipeg at 7.20. He docs a television program five evenings a w'eek. conducts a weekly half-hour football forum on TV in season, broadcasts the play-by-play of Western Conference football games all fall. Northern League baseball games all summer, and Western professional and Manitoba junior hockey games all winter.
He docs a weekly interview program on television that’s filmed through the week for use every Thursday evening and to get the interviews Wells meets planes and trains at all hours, depending on who is passing through town w'hen. He broadcasts such periodic events as the Manitoba bonspiel and the Macdonald's Brier in curling, covers Manitoba’s leading golf tournaments. occasionally has done the Queen s Plate in horse racing, has been heard nationally on every Grey Cup football game since 1941 and. on top of all of this he writes a sports column twice a week in the Winnipeg Tribune and acts as master of ceremonies at approximately tw'cnty-five sportsmen’s dinners a year in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and even as far west as Edmonton.
Ubiquitous Wells, whose busy whirl brings an income approaching twenty thousand dollars a year, is a zestful laughing man of forty-eight who looks and lives a good ten years younger. He owns a headful of brusheut blond hair, has the glowing complexion of a McIntosh apple, dresses like a wealthy undergraduate, and exudes the joie de vivre of a meadow lark in springtime.
“You only pass this way once,” he occasionally quotes another party guy and night bird, ex-golfer Walter Hagen, “so you might as well smell the fiow'ers.”
Wells smells them night and day. He is never so happy as when he joins a roomful of raconteurs over a lriendly glass, swapping endless lies about this game and that. He was dismayed one time to learn that an eastern sports announcer had a rule that he’d fire any member ot his crew who took a drink after midnight on the night preceding a football telecast.
“On our show.” said Wells civilly, "they're fired if they don't.”
Well s whole approach differs from that of his contemporaries. In fact, aside from him, the men most frequently seen or heard describing the games that excite millions ot people along the national or regional networks are a pretty stoical and conservative bunch, like bankers at five minutes to three.
Foster Hewitt and his son Bill, who describe professional hockey from Toronto; Danny Gallivan. vyho clarions his hockey call from Montreal; Wes McKnight and Tom Foley, the between-periods hockeynight commentators; Steve Douglas and Doug Smith, the men behind the TV mikes in eastern football; and Bob Moir who works with continued over page
continued over page
Wells on western television — all of these are brisk, crisp, serious, efficient and, in general, predictable.
But not Wells. The producer of his television show, all set to cue him in one New Year’s Eve. looked at the monitor to check the camera on Wells and almost fell right out of the control booth. Wells had whipped off his clothes and was sitting on a stool wearing a diaper and a ribbon across his bare chest bearing the figures 19 5 8. It was too late for the producer to protest; Wells went on the air impersonating the new year.
“What the hell,” grins Wells in recollection. “It was New Year’s Eve. Anybody looking at the show couldn’t see, anyhow.”
Another time he went through three shows with a cigar stuck in the side of his mouth, but this was a matter of necessity rather than invention. A few dawns earlier he'd been sitting in the airport restaurant in Edmonton, waiting for the plane to take the Winnipeg Blue Bombers home after they’d lost the western football final to the Eskimos. One thing led to another, as it often does at five-thirty in the morning, with Wells taking umbrage at some remarks made by Indian Jack Jacobs, Winnipeg's quarterback. Wells suggested Jacobs desist.
“Who’s gonna make me?” inquired the quarterback.
Wells looked around the room and could see no one making a move in anger.
“Well,” he said, “I guess it’s gonna be me.”
He was game but overmatched in an encounter that made most of the country’s sports pages. No one, with the notable exception of the wounded Wells, was more pained by the incident than Jacobs, who sat with him all the way to Winnipeg applying ice bags to his ballooning lip. To cover it through the next few nights on his TV show, Wells wore the cigar.
“The Chief won the fight but lost the battle,” he says now with mock earnestness. “All I know is he never played football again. Actually, Jacobs retired as a player and is now an assistant coach to Jim Trimble at Hamilton.
Wells makes all of his trips by air, though rarely under an ice bag, and once even rode an air force jet to accommodate a tight schedule. He did the television commentary on an afternoon game in Regina for the western network last season and then, because it was Air Force Day in Winnipeg, was flown to the Manitoba capital by the RCAF in a T-33 jet trainer so that he could broadcast a night game there. He made the trip in thirtyone minutes, taping two broadcasts en route, and was at the stadium in Winnipeg before some Regina fans had driven from the park to their homes.
Wells has done broadcasts from even more unlikely places than the cockpit of a jet aircraft. Once, wearing a pencil microphone strapped to his chest, he swung to and fro eighty feet above the ground in a circus tent. He was gripped in animated and somewhat agitated suspension by an upside-down trapeze artist whom he was interviewing. Another time, he sat on a lion s back while interviewing its trainer inside the cage. The tamer assured him that the lion wouldn’t object. Wells recalls, “so l had a couple of smashes and marched right in."
When Wells was younger and poorer his dress bore a startling resemblance to a prairie sunset: yellow tartan ties challenging red tartan shirts under tweed sports jackets whose checks were clearly audible. Nowadays, his appearance might be described as fettered violence. He still doesn't own a hat or a suit or a pair of
ordinary black shoes, but now when he cruises about in his cream Buick convertible his sportscoats and topcoats are cashmere, his trousers custom-made and his shirts softly blending pastels. But no ties, not even when he’s MCing a dinner, and his good-natured irreverence of notables and his purple profanity are renowned. Just before the recent Manitoba election he introduced Gurney Evans, minister of mines and natural resources, at a Memorial Cup hockey dinner. The minister was representing Premier Duff Roblin, and Wells had never met him.
"This will probably be the last time you’re at a head table, Gurney, old boy,” he said, suggesting the minister would be defeated in the forthcoming election, “so take as long as you like. Anything up to a minute.”
A few nights later at a banquet in Brandon, Mayor James Creighton, in welcoming guests, made reference to a current civic controversy and then told a couple of anecdotes about head-table guests Rudy Pilous, coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, and Lefty Gomez, ex-pitcher for the New York Yankees. When he sat down, MC Wells stared impassively at him.
“Thanks, mayor,” he said at length. "Thanks for the political speech and introducing the head table.”
Mayors are Wells’ special targets. Each yegr at the Brier curling championships he leads the sports writers and broadcasters, whom he has named the Leslie Wells Singers, in a serenade of the hostcity’s mayor at a stag dinner launching the bonspiel. The lyrics, unprintable, are composed by Wells, and never fail to bring gleeful shouts of disbelief from the audience.
Wells vs. English
On the air, Wells often engages the mother tongue in a pitched battle. “So tune us in for a true, biased report if you can t be here,” he advised listeners during the recent Memorial Cup final between the Peterborough Petes and the Winnipeg Braves. Of a save by a goalkeeper, he cried, “He juggles the puck and catches it coming down like an outfielder.” During a football broadcast last fall he startled his spotter, Moe Simovitch, a former Blue Bomber lineman, by reporting. “And he brings him down in the open field like Tim Buck brings ’em back from Africa.”
“You mean Frank Buck,” interposed Simovitch.
“Who’s he?” asked Wells.
Simovitch, who identifies blockers and tacklers for Wells, who keeps his eyes on the ball, gave up pointing to the name of guard Tony Pajaczowski on the Calgary list of players. Wells refused to undertake the polysyllables and simply noted that Harry Langford or Porky Brown or some other lineman had made the tackle whenever his spotter identified Pajaczowski (it’s pronounced Pad-ja-kow-ski).
"It took Tony three seasons to make our broadcast, says Moe, “but when television came along we had to deal him in. People could see.”
"That’s right,” agrees Wells amiably. “Television loused up our act.”
He refused to grow excited over what he calls "unimportant inaccuracies.”
“Aside possibly from Mrs. Tony, who was likely at the game anyway—assuming there is a Mrs. Tony—who cared who made the tackle?” he asks. "I get the essentials. My approach to sport is that you’ve got to have fun. Hells bells, it’s only a game. I figure listeners want to get some entertainment.”
The late Ben Fitzpatrick, former gen-
eral advertising manager for the Imperial Tobacco Company, which sponsored Grey Cup broadcasts for many years, always insisted that Wells be one of the play-by-play announcers.
“He's an amazing man.” Fitzpatrick once said of Wells, "and, more important than that, he sells our product.”
Wells approaches television with what must be a unique calm. A frantic medium that produces a gnawing nagging, preshow apprehension in the most experienced of performers, it excites no tremor in Wells. Frank Boucher, former New York Rangers coach who now is general manager of the Saskatoon club, recalls the agitation he felt prior to being interviewed by Wells last winter.
"My stomach was jumping and my hands were shaking and I turned to Jack for reassurance,” he says. "We were due on the air in a matter of minutes but he’d disappeared. I asked one of the cameramen where he was.
“ 'Oh, he’s likely over there in his chair,' the cameraman said, pointing. I looked, and Jack was there all right. He was sound asleep.”
Wells can cat nap anywhere which possibly explains how he maintains his pace. He and his wife Flicka, and the former general manager of the Blue Bombers, Bill Boivin, and bis wife Shirley, went to New York after the 1957 Grey Cup game in Toronto. The worst snow storm of the winter broke the day they were flying home to Winnipeg.
“Shirley and I were scared to death in the blinding snow," Mrs. Wells recalls. “The plane went down the runway, and even got off the ground, when the pilot decided something was wrong.”
The pilot brought the plane to a stop on the long runway, and took it into a hangar. Mechanics worked on the deicing mechanism for four hours while the passengers waited on board. The plane was in and out of the hangar twice as the mechanics thought they had corrected the trouble. At length, the passengers were told that weather had grounded all planes, and they began to lile out.
At that moment Wells awakened, rubbed his eyes, and started down the aisle. "Well, that was a nice short trip," he said sleepily to his wife. “Where are we, Minneapolis?”
Wells really wasn’t wide awake when he got started in sports announcing in the depression year of 1937, either. He was a clerk in the Canadian Pacific telegraph office in Saskatoon then, living at the Y MCA. where he often listened to hockey broadcasts with other roomers on his floor. Usually he second-guessed the announcer, insisting he knew little about the game, and one evening a roomer came in with the report that radio station CFQC was looking for a new announcer. The rest of the boys dared the expert to apply for the job. He did, and somewhat to his own surprise, he was hired.
Before then, his interest in sports had been fanned by his father Alf, a Moose Jaw contractor who took his son to base-
ball tournaments in south Saskatchewan in the summer and hockey games in Moose Jaw all winter. Jack was in grade eight when the depression ruined his father’s business and he left school then to become an apprentice plumber. At night he rode a bicycle delivering telegrams and then left plumbing for an opening in the telegraph office. He transferred to Saskatoon, and then left there in 1939 for Trail. B.C.. where for one winter he spent his evenings covering the famed Trail Smoke Eaters hockey team.
His younger brother Eric, now managing editor of the Winnipeg Tribune, recalls that Jack was a brash and boisterous extrovert in those days, probably as a compensation for the fact he was a shy youngster who embarrassed easily.
"He was very much aware that he cut off his schooling early,” says Eric, "and I suppose he felt he had to overcome that, too."
Though he’s still an outgoing person and occasionally unrestrained. Wells has cooled off considerably from his early fun-loving days, a fact that can be traced to the confidence he’s attained with success. It’s no longer necessary for him to be the life of the party to prove he’s not the least bit embarrassed.
“Talk loud — you’ll fool ’em”
Wells was dismayed to learn when he returned to Saskatoon to join the army after a year in Trail that he had a heart murmur which caused army doctors to reject him. He’d quit the Trail job to join up. In 1941 he took a job at CJRC in Winnipeg and tried again to enlist when a sportsmen's battalion was formed that included Bomber football players Fritz Hanson, Jeff Nicklin and Bill Boivin. When he was rejected a second time he settled down on his one-hundred-andseventy-five-dollar-a-month salary to be a sports announcer.
He’d never broadcast a football game when he found himself on a train bound for Vancouver with the Bombers in the fall of 1941, and he approached the assignment with trepidation. And then the late Ches McCance, a boiling, brawling ball player, unexpectedly took him aside in the smoking compartment and talked to him most of the way to Vancouver about the fundamentals of the game and how to watch it and talk about it.
"One thing you should never forget,” said McCance, “ninety percent of the creeps in the stands don't know anything about the game, either. Just talk a little louder and you'll fool ’em all.”
Wells took the advice and made a strong impression on his audience.
Later he made an even stronger impression on a tough, red-faced, former umberyard foreman named Johnny Petersen, who frequently quarreled with newspapermen and broadcasters, and who ran the Amphitheatre rink and Osborne Stadium, which housed all the major sports in Winnipeg. Petersen gave Wells exclusive rights to broadcast from the two
emporiums. This in turn gave him the right to sell the time to any one of Winnipeg’s radio stations, and he left CJRC (now CKRC) to free-lance. Four years ago CK.Y offered him a rich contract for exclusive broadcasts and this deal, together with his television work and newspaper column, made him the highest-paid sports announcer in the west.
Fifteen years ago Wells met Marguerite Laurson. the switchboard girl at CJRC. Wells began calling her Flicka, possibly because Marguerite presented too many syllables, and partly because the movie, My Friend Flicka. was then going the rounds. Whatever the reason, the name has held like glue and today no one except her mother calls her Marguerite.
The Wells live in a nine-room house in a new development in the west end of Winnipeg with their three children, Johnny, who is thirteen; Janice, ten; and a two-year-old boy named Ritchie, whom Wells calls “the added starter" or Tiger. Johnny and Janice are quiet sensitive children, frequently distressed by their father’s prominence in Winnipeg. Just before the last Manitoba election Wells was approached by a group of Liberals and asked to stand for nomination in his constituency of Assiniboia. Johnny was near tears when he heard of it. and ran to his mother.
“Oh, mommy,” he cried, “if daddy gets into anything else I couldn't stand it, I just couldn’t.”
When he appeared on television on New Year’s Eve in a diaper. Janice was upset.
“Mommy, I’m not going to go to school,” she said. “What’ll the kids say?”
For his part, tubby little Ritchie is fascinated by the picture of his father on the screen. He speeds out of the recreation room to find anyone in the house, calling, “That’s Jack Wells, that's Jack Wells. C’rnon, quick!”
Wells has a warm bond with his family, being personally a warm man. In the nests of back-biters that often fringe sports, he sits silently until the subject changes. "I’ve never carved anybody up and I don’t intend to,” he remarked one time. “Hell's bells — sports are fun and games.”
An outgoing man, he grew restive during the Winnipeg flood in 1950 when he and another announcer. Porky Charbonneau, and two newspapermen, his brother Eric and Herb Manning, sent their wives to their parents’ homes and settled in his home to cover the flood. Manning, who is now a news executive on the Toronto Star, relates that in the midst of the apprehension around them the four men never had it so good.
“We worked in the daytime and then sat around with food and drink at nighf, a stag party every evening,” he recalls.
But Wells rebelled. He insisted they help on the dikes. The others objected on the grounds they were working a long day and that was enough. But one night Wells persuaded them, and they drove to the swollen river in the dark rain, tramped through oozing mud to the dikes, and began to work with sandbags.
"I was the first one back to the car after a few hours,” says Manning. “Then Porky and Eric showed up. But Jack never did. He worked there all night until seven o'clock in the morning when he went to do a broadcast. He did that every night until the flood was over.”
Wells, smelling the flowers as he goes, is on top of the heap in the west now, one of the country’s happy men.
1 ve had so many yuks in this business, met so many great guys,” he muses.
Hell, if I cashed in tomorrow, so what?”