Remembering the time I met my hero, Danny Gallivan

Danny Gallivan was not the first hockey broadcaster. That honour belongs to Foster Hewitt. But like Hewitt, Gallivan had paved his own path and legacy as the voice of the Montreal Canadiens in an era that spanned 16 Stanley Cups.

I had no delusions of ever being a great hockey player. Park league and lots of pond and road hockey were the highlights of my playing career.

But, from a very young age, I wanted to be a hockey play-by-play announcer. Remember that great ad where the little blonde-haired kid is calling a road hockey game? That was me, except I’d actually play and call at the same time

“Here he comes down the wing….’puff puff puff’……He shoots! What a lucky save by the goalie!”

Like every other play-by-play announcer I’ve ever spoken to about the subject, I grew up with both a hockey hero and a hockey broadcasting hero. My hockey hero was Guy Lafleur and my play-by-play hero was the greatest announcer to ever pick up a mic or put on a head set: Danny Gallivan.

Gallivan was the voice of the iconic Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s that I cheered for during my Golden Age of hockey. I was between the ages of about 10 and 15. I was old enough to understand the game and life was still such that I had the time to eat, sleep and breathe my passion. It was all about hockey, before school, girls and part-time jobs started to play a bigger role in my life. I’d spend hours playing any kind of hockey I could and talking about it with my pals.

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I grew up in Oshawa, Ont. At that time there was no satellite or cable television. You had a large TV antenna at the side of your house and, if you could afford it, the antenna could turn direction and pick up different stations.

In Oshawa, if you pointed the antenna to the west on a Saturday night, you picked up channel five in Toronto and watched the Leafs (with the great broadcast duo of Bill Hewitt and Brian McFarlane). But if you turned it to face to the east it was the Montreal Canadiens on channel 12 out of Peterborough.

Every Saturday night I would watch Hockey Night In Canada and listen to every word Gallivan and his broadcast partner, Dick Irvin, spoke. There was no one else like Gallivan. I was captivated by the cadence of his voice and the different words he sprinkled in to describe what was going on: “cannonading”, “spin-o-rama”, “rapier-like”. To me, he was as big a part of the game and as identifiable with the Montreal Canadiens as Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Serge Savard and the bevy of hockey heroes on the team.

Fast forward to Jan. 29, 1991, and I’m in Montreal. I’ve been working at a well-known all-sports channel for a few years as an announcer and I’m there to call an All-Star Game at The Forum between the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. We were seated at a table in a place called The Texan. It’s long gone now, but back then, it was a popular hangout for sports media and hockey types to grab a bite after the morning skate.

As we sat there eating our lunch, I glanced over at another table. There he was, my broadcasting hero, Danny Gallivan.

Danny had retired several years earlier and it’s not like you saw him at games. I’m still not even sure why he was there that day. I’d never met him and never even seen him in person. Do I go over and interrupt his lunch?

“I can’t do that. I’m a fellow broadcaster,” I thought. “It wouldn’t be professional.”

“Yes, but it’s Danny Gallivan,” I thought again, “you have to meet him.”

Back and forth I went in my head as our lunch continued. In the end I didn’t have the pluckiness to walk over, but there is no way he could have missed us looking at him. That was embarrassing enough. When he got up to leave, he walked right by our table on his way to the door. He stopped at our table and put his hand out.

“Mr. Romanuk,” said the voice I’d grown up listening to, “Danny Gallivan. I’ve heard you on some of the junior hockey games. I enjoy your work.”

A smile still spreads from my heart to my face when I think of that moment. This man was my hero.

Who knows if he really was familiar with any of the work I’d done in my young career? I can’t imagine he would have been. Maybe someone he was with, perhaps an old TV acquaintance, was and told him my name. I’ll never know. What I do know is that he was aware he would make a young broadcaster’s day, and did.

I stuttered out some reply and we talked for a few moments. I can’t even remember what about. I was just listening to that voice I wished I sounded like, talking to me.

Heroes are figments of our imagination as much as they are real. That day, imagination met reality and the man who was my hero lived up to what I imagined he might.

So, happy Hockey Day In Canada, where we celebrate heroes. I hope your hero, if you ever meet him or her, provides as pleasant a memory for you as one of mine did for me.

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