Bob Cole Q&A: Thoughts on nearly five decades of play-by-play

On the 45th anniversary of Bobby Orr becoming the league's highest scoring defencemen we take a deeper look into just how great No. 4 really was.

Bob Cole called his first Hockey Night in Canada game in April 1969 — and he’s been calling them ever since.

We caught up with the St. John’s, N.L, native on an off day during the 2016 playoffs. Wearing a blazer and a red golf shirt, he sipped on a pint of Stella Artois — they didn’t have his usual Captain Morgan dark rum, un-spiced — and talked about his beginnings in the booth, his favourite players to watch and his pre-game routine (it includes a “strong nap”).

Sportsnet: How good were you at your job when you first started doing play-by-play? It seems like a tough job. And when did you feel like you were really good at it?
Bob Cole: It is a tough job. All I can say is, it’s something competitive, it’s something very difficult to do. That seems to be my whole life. How come I’m doing this? How come I’m here? The harder it gets, the more I’ll try to do it. I grew up always wanting to do this. There’s a word that you could apply; I think “feel” is the word. You gotta try to feel it. I don’t know if you can teach that or suggest that to somebody, but I think you gotta get it yourself. And I think I’ve got it. I feel it. I think it comes out in what I’m saying during a game.

Is it easy for you at this point, now that you’ve been calling games for more than four decades?
You gotta put effort in, but it’s not difficult for me. When the crowd is [excited] with so much on the line, the tension is there for you. It’s perfect. You know they’re nervous, the players. Nobody wants to make a mistake.

What does a game day look like for you?
I’m strict on routines. I’ll have a look for a while at the morning skates, make sure all the players are out there, that nobody’s missing. I’ll get to talk to each coach separately, by myself, for just a few minutes. That way I don’t have to rely on anybody else as to who’s playing with whom. I get the defence pairings. And I’ll get the lines. Once the game starts, he can change all he wants, but when I get myself ready in the booth for the first period, I’ll have both teams according to their respective coaches and I’ll have that in front of me. I’ve been studying that. During the warm-up I familiarize myself with the lines, I look at the goalies, the defence pairings, right/left. My head starts to get it all. It’s a routine. If I were not to do that, I just wouldn’t be comfortable.

What do you do between the morning skate and the game?
I’m back to the hotel and I get everything prepared then. I get lineup cards I use. I look them over, look up the stats, check the power play and penalty kill for both teams, who’s injured, how many games, small things. You load yourself up, not that you’re gonna use it all. I don’t like to get into too much other than the game, because you take away from the analyst’s job.

Everybody knows that nobody bothers me between 2:00 and 4:00 (p.m.), because I nap. A strong nap. I sleep solidly. I get up at 4:00, shower, dressed, get ready and boom, boom, boom. Same routine. I leave the hotel close to 5:00, go down to the rink. And then a bite to eat before you go upstairs. For a 7:00 game, I like to be in the booth at 6:00. I get everything laid out, get comfortable. Lots of guys must think I’m crazy. The anthem comes, and it’s the first time you really sit back and relax and think about what’s coming up. The crowd is buzzing, and here we go. That’s when I can’t wait to get going. Then we’re live, baby.

How many playoff games do you figure you’ve called?
I knew you were gonna ask me that. And I haven’t got a clue. Just think about it — my first game was in ’69, right? I wouldn’t know how to go about that. The most you can do is 28 games in a playoff year. I think maybe I did that once.

Do you get nervous before them?
I don’t know if it’s nervous. But I get up. I get butterflies. And I don’t know why, but I think in the playoffs it intensifies. It’s a live deal, so it gets closer and closer and then all the sudden — wham! — it’s right at you. You’ve gotta get butterflies, don’t you? If you don’t, you’re not in it.

Foster Hewitt was a mentor to you. What’s the best advice he passed along?
As long as the fan enjoys the game, you did your job. Foster told me that. He had something that other broadcasters would love to have, but don’t: No matter what you do broadcasting a game, the sound of your voice means something to what you’re trying to convey, and how you use that tone, whether it be up there or down there or half way there or three quarters. And when you mix it all together and feel the game and you can let it flow, if the crowd is with you, you’ve got something going.

Well put. Have you ever entered a hockey pool?
No. Never. I don’t want my mind into anything but what I’m looking at. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s true.

Who are your favourite players to watch?
I love watching the skilled hockey players. We all do. Connor McDavid, you get goosebumps when you see him take off. Every now and then one comes along: Gretzky came along, Crosby came along, Mario. The first time I saw Connor McDavid, he was there and then all of the sudden he was gone, and it didn’t look like he did anything to get going.

Where did “Everything is happening” come from?
I wonder where that came from. I guess everything was happening. You just throw your arms up and say, “Everything is happening!” That’s what it was like.

Do you plan when you say certain things, like ‘Oh, baby’?
I do not plan a thing. Honestly. I don’t know what I’m gonna say next. When the Edmonton Oilers won their first Cup, at the end of the game, the countdown was on, 10 seconds. I thought, “You gotta say something, first Cup for the Edmonton Oilers.” I said, “There’s a new bunch on the block. The Edmonton Oilers by name.” And people loved it! They play it out there all the time. I said what the…? It’s funny, you say things and they just catch on.

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