The NHL season is deep into November and, as people across Canada settle in for the deep freeze, a familiar voice greets them as they cozy up to their televisions. It is a voice that has been warming up Canadian winters since 1973 – 1969, if you include his Hockey Night in Canada radio career. It is a voice that broadcast the Stanley Cup Finals for 29 straight years. The voice in question, of course, belongs to one Robert C. – “Bob” – Cole.
Jim Hughson and Mike “Doc” Emrick are wizards with words, using vocabularies that would make even the most accomplished wordsmith scratch his or her head. Gord Miller and Chris Cuthbert are crisp and precise, with a knack for the brilliant soundbite. Joe Bowen wears his heart on his sleeve every night. Certainly, there are many talented television broadcasters in the game of hockey throughout Canada and the United States. But none can quite bring to a game that which is brought by Bob Cole.
Truth be told, he really doesn’t say all that much whilst on the air. And he has never been the most accurate of announcers. But he gets television. A radio commentator has a much different job – after all, the audience cannot see the game at hand. Bob Cole understands that the television viewer can see what is going on, so he doesn’t feel the need to comment on every single little event. He realises that his job as a television broadcaster is, instead, to communicate the elements of that game that don’t always translate well to the viewers at home – the atmosphere in the building, the momentum of the play, the gravity of the situation.
I would wager that even the casual hockey fan could walk past a room where a Bob Cole-called game was being shown and, without a glance at the screen nor a query of a viewer, could ascertain the closeness of the play, the importance of the situation and the period in which the game finds itself. All this based on a few seconds of Bob Cole commentary, you ask? Go ahead; try it.
More than just being descriptive, he has the unique ability that is shared by few others, most notably elite actors: the ability to make the audience feel – feel what those out there performing on the stage – or on the ice –are feeling. Who didn’t stand up and cheer when Canada won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2002? Who doesn’t get chills when listening to Cole call Todd Marchant’s 1996-97 series-winning goal for the Oilers against the heavily-favoured Dallas Stars? If you’ve got six minutes, why not lose your mind as Cole’s voice runs out of octaves during Game Seven of the 1989 Smythe Division Semi-Finals?
Detractors have long wished for Cole to retire. They feel that the game has passed him by, that there are other announcers out there that could do a better job. But for any hockey fan, love him or hate him, Bob Cole is the voice that calls the hockey games in your head. There is even an app for that. He’s been calling the best league in the world for nearly fifty years. How many others have been at the top of their profession for that long? It is simply astounding.
And therefore, Bob Cole deserves our respect. He had the courage to follow his dream and, once he achieved it, has never let anybody take it away. At 82, he is still going strong, calling games for SportsNet after Rogers took over from his old home, CBC, as the national broadcaster for the NHL. People will say he’s too old, but “too old” for what, I ask? Age has nothing to do with it. He has, quite simply, been the best hockey commentator on television of our generation, if not of all time. So he can call games as long as he damn well wants to.
The uncanny abilities of the world’s greatest players are often taken for granted until they leave the game. I often feel sadness when these legends of hockey retire – sadness at not having watched them more often during their playing careers. And I know that the hockey world will feel the same way if Bob Cole ever decides to hang ‘em up. That’s a big “if”, though.