About four weeks ago, Wayne Gretzky and his son were driving when the sound of Bob Cole filled the vehicle.
“Let’s call Mr. Cole and see how he’s doing,” said Gretzky, prompted by that familiar voice on his radio.
“That’s all,” Cole told Sportsnet earlier this week, while he drove around Vancouver with his son. “Just hello.”
Every five or six weeks, hockey’s greatest player and the narrator of each of his four Stanley Cup victories connect on the phone to check in.
“Wayne, Messier, Kevin Lowe, Grant Fuhr. We’ve really become friends. We’ve played golf at different places. I’m privileged to call them friends,” Cole said. “So it’s nice to be part of their great successes in Edmonton. It’s not often that you get to meet players, grow close to them. They win five Stanley Cups, that’s what it’s all about. Pretty good.”
Pretty classy is Oilers play-by-play man Kevin Quinn suggesting that that Cole, and not him, should call the club’s final game at Rexall Place Wednesday, with the greying dynasty looking on and the promising future slicing through the NHL’s second-oldest barn one last time.
“It’s an honour somebody thought to ask me to do it. They’re going to close the building, and there’s been so much hockey played there, and so much winning hockey played there,” says the 82-year-old Cole, who called Edmonton’s Cup Final loss to the New York Islanders in 1983 and the five championships that followed.
“It’s nice because I know the players that were on all those Cup-winning teams. I look forward to meeting up with them again, having a little visit and remembering old times, and broadcasting that last game with Connor McDavid, the new star.”
Cole, a Newfoundlander, flew west early this week to spend time with his children and grandchildren in Vancouver before making his way to the City of Champions on Tuesday.
Wednesday will unfold like any other game day for the sport’s longest-tenured play-by-play man. Head to the rink, talk to both coaches, find out the line changes, pop back to the hotel for a nap, then get dressed and walk to the booth with butterflies in his stomach. Always the butterflies.
“Everybody is loud. Everybody is scared to death. Everybody is involved.” — Bob Cole
He won’t write down what he wants to say that night about the building formerly known as Northlands Coliseum and how it trembled in the glory days.
“You try not to prepare what you’re going to say. That would be too scripted. I just go to enjoy the game, which I do,” he says. “Away you go. Feel the game. Enjoy the game. I’m a fan. Not a boring job, my friend.”
Especially when you’re thrown in the middle of back-to-back dynasties, when your words are how a country feels a surging, talented team stiffle one power’s reign to begin one of their own.
“That’s a hard thing to describe, how loud was it,” Cole said, dreaming back to Northlands in the ’80s. “When you’re calling a Stanley Cup game, everybody is loud. Everybody is scared to death. Everybody is involved. That’s a major part of our broadcast, to have the crowd involved. Edmonton was then. Chicago is now.”
As for Edmonton now, Cole can’t put his finger on what has the rebuild stuck in neutral, but he preaches patience and sees a little of his buddy 99 in 97.
“Don’t worry. That’s not going to last much longer. This is going to change. Edmonton deserves the new building; it’s going to be great for the city. City of Champions — Edmonton is going to be back there again,” Cole said.
“McDavid is a gem of a person, No. 1. That’s right up there with Wayne Gretzky. I’ve only seen him twice live and broadcasted one of those games. He’s magnificent to watch. He’s going to be a superstar for a long time, and he’s a wonderful, well-brought-up young man. He’s special. Every now and then a special one comes along. And like Wayne Gretzky, he’s special.”
Like Gretzky listening to sports radio in his car, the sound of Bob Cole — with its clipped sentences and third-period crescendos and, yes, even the endearing mistakes — instantly evokes the history of the game, the do-you-remember-whens?
Funny, though. Cole himself isn’t nostalgic. There’s no lamenting the death of Rexall. He can’t wait to see the new rink. He hears it’ll be magnificent.
Cole will throw himself into the moment Wednesday, his words pinging off those fading banners, then he’ll start thinking about the next puck drop.
“When the day is done, the day is done,” Cole says. “We’ve got more work to do next week.”