delay of game

It was just a regular night on the NHL’s late-season calendar, that Wednesday, March 11, a year ago, with five games on the schedule and a yield of regular outcomes: the Ottawa Senators lost, Connor McDavid scored a goal. But that, of course, was all for the league’s 2019-20 regular season as well, um, life as we knew it in North America. Maybe you recall: the next day was when COVID-19 stopped everything, other than the fear, uncertainty, suffering, and death. The year we’ve had since? Well, you know. As Nick Paumgarten, staff writer at The New Yorker, where he sometimes bends his paragraphs to hockey themes, notes in this week’s magazine, “If you were lucky, you were merely bored.” Herewith, a couple of Toronto front pages from a year ago, including (above) the Star’s only-in-Canada end-of-February virus-complimenting  front page.

Wear a mask.

Get vaccinated.

To better, brighter days, and anniversaries, ahead.

frank orr, 1936—2021

Embed from Getty Images

Sorry to see the news today that long-time Toronto Star hockey writer Frank Orr has died. Born in 1936, he grew up on a farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario, northeast of Guelph, to which (as he later said) Foster Hewitt’s voice carried from the gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1940s. “You grew up with it — it was the Saturday night of your life,” he recalled. “We watched games on radio.”

He was a radio DJ before he started in newspapers, starting with the Cornwall Standard Freeholder and Guelph Daily Mercury before joining the Star’s sports department in 1961. Awarded the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award and elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a member of the media in 1989, he said that witnessing Bobby Orr’s rise was one of the highlights of his career.

“I saw him play his first major junior game at the age of 13 for Oshawa and watching him grow from the little blond-haired kid into one of the greatest players of all time was a thrill.”

He noted, too, his admiration for Montreal defenceman Doug Harvey.

“He wasn’t necessarily the best to have ever played, but he was my personal favourite,” he said. “I was also a big admirer of Red Kelly for the simple reason that he was an all-star defenceman as well as an all-star centre.”

As well as treading the Leafs beat, Orr wrote more than 30 books, most of them non-fictional, there were novels, too, including a couple in the mid-’60s about a plucky young centre by the name of Buck Martin and, later, in 1983, the altogether bawdier Puck is a Four-Letter Word.

calls them like he sees them — wherever he may roam

Lou Marsh was a newspaperman by profession, getting his start at 14 when he went to work at The Toronto Star as a copyboy in the paper’s infancy in the early 1890s. He rose in the ranks in the years that followed, eventually becoming a reporter and a popular sports columnist before taking over as sports editor in 1931. Marsh had a lively sporting career of his own, too, of course, while he was putting out papers, excelling as a sailor and a runner and also playing for football for the Toronto Argonauts. After he died in 1936 at the age of 57, the Lou Marsh Memorial Trophy was created to honour, annually, Canada’s top athlete.

Marsh  put in many hours over the years as a referee, of boxing, wrestling, and hockey. After serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War, Marsh was appointed one of the NHL’s six original referees in December of 1917. He continued to patrol the big-league ice, penalizing its malefactors, for the next 13 years, stepping aside after the 1929-30 season, when he was 50. I’m guessing that this photograph dates to the latter  years of his tenure;; no, I don’t know why he was up on the roof in his skates and his NHL gear. It is fair to surmise, I’ll say, that it’s the Star building he’s policing here, at 80 King Street West.

(Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3610)

hello, canada, and hockey fans in the united states and newfoundland

He Shoots, He … You Know: Franklin Arbuckle painted Foster Hewitt at work high up above the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens for the cover of Maclean’s that found its way to newsstands on March 3, 1956.

A big anniversary today for radio in Canada: it was 100 years ago, on a Thursday of this same date in 1920, that the first scheduled broadcast took place, when XWA in Montreal relayed a musical program from the top floor of the Marconi building on William Street to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. That was a North American first, too: the inaugural American broadcast, emanating from Pittsburgh, didn’t hit the air until November of 1920.

Hockey’s radio debut came in the winter of 1923, via the Toronto Star’s radio station, CFCA. No, it wasn’t Foster Hewitt narrating the play, though he still often gets the credit. Historian Eric Zweig has cast the most light on this in recent years, and you can step into it here, if you have a subscription to the Star.

Hewitt was at the the paper in 1923, and did just a few days later get on the air to talk hockey. But it was in fact a part-time Star sports reporter Norman Albert who first gave a voice to hockey, on February 8, when he called the third period of an OHA intermediate game at Toronto’s Mutual Street Arena.

Albert also seems to have been on the job for the first broadcast of an NHL game. That came on February 14, 1923, when the hometown St. Patricks overturned the Ottawa Senators, the eventual Stanley Cup champions that year, by a score of 6-4.

Again, listeners heard just the third period that night, which means that Jack Adams’ goal for the St. Pats was the first in NHL history to be broadcast. Ottawa’s Frank Nighbor was next, with a pair. His teammate Punch Broadbent scored the final goal of that auspicious evening.

Albert died in 1974. I’m hoping someone asked him if he remembered how he called those landmark goals, and/or whether the words “He shoots, he scores” formed in his mouth that evening. And if someone did ask? I hope they wrote down the answer somewhere where I can snuffle it out, at some point.

Even if he wasn’t first off the mark, Foster Hewitt quickly — and lastingly — became a hockey broadcasting institution, of course. In his 1975 book, A Pictorial History of Radio in Canada, Sandy Stewart notes that while radio soon featured prominently in Canadian living rooms in the 1920s, most of the listening the citizenry was doing was to American stations.

There were two reasons for this, he posits: “the Canadian government’s indifference towards financing radio broadcasting prohibited big Canadian stations and the Canadian radio programming was not significantly different from American programming, which did it better.”

It was hockey that made the difference, Stewart says.

In the U.S., “going to the movies” had become the Saturday night pastime, but in Canada there were not as many movie houses available to a widely scattered population, and so Canadians stayed home to listen to the radio. Since almost everybody in the U.S. was at the movies on Saturday nights, the American broadcasters often didn’t bother to list the evening’s programs, but in Canada General Motors sponsored the Saturday night broadcasts. Canadians tuned in and hockey became as Canadian as maple syrup and still is.

General Motors eventually gave way to Imperial Oil as sponsor of hockey on Canadian radio, but Hewitt remained constant all the way through to 1968. (From 1952 through 1963, his broadcasts were simulcast on television, too.)

Sandy Stewart expounds on how Hewitt’s on-air talents ensured that his hockey broadcasts dominated the radio scene through the 1930s and on through the Second World War. And yet when hockey went national in 1932, General Motors was worried that the broadcast wouldn’t be able to hold its audience between periods. Their answer? They switched to dance music from Toronto’s Silver Slipper Dance Hall.

Stewart:

Later they produced drama sketches during intermissions, and eventually they hit on the “The Hot Stove League” with Elmer Ferguson, Wes McKnight, and Court Benson discussing the game. Another institution that survived from the 1930s to this day is the 3-Star Selection inspired by 3-Star Gasoline, [which] advertised on the broadcast.

For years Foster started the broadcast after his introduction from Charles Jennings with, “Hello, Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.”

During the war, he also greeted “our men overseas,” and on one occasion when it was known that the Germans were transmitting the hockey game to our troops in Belgium and Holland along with the pitch from a Nazi female broadcaster, “Why not call off the war and go home to see the hockey games,” Foster added on the Christmas broadcast, “and an extra big hello to Calamity Jane of Arnhem.”

Gondola Gazing: Hewitt at the mic in the late 1940s.