The voice of Paul Romanuk has soundtracked golden hockey moments across the globe and battled through some rather bizarre circumstances.
The 54-year-old sportscaster returned to Canada from Europe two seasons ago to take a job with Sportsnet as the No. 2 play caller behind Jim Hughson. (Cool side note: Romanuk only agreed to this interview once he knew I had already spoken with Hughson.)
Whenever a player scores on his watch, Romanuk is the one bringing that goal to life.
We chopped it up with the lifelong shot caller about his greatest and most miserable calls, misconceptions of the World Championship, and the hockey words he hates.
SPORTSNET.CA: Why play-by-play?
PAUL ROMANUK: I started like a lot of play-by-play guys did—by watching games on TV, turning down the sound and trying to sound like the announcers I was watching. That progressed to calling play-by-play while playing road hockey, something I always did as a kid.
How old were you were you cranked down the volume knob?
Seven, eight, nine. A little boy. Back then my play-by-play hero was Danny Gallivan. There was Bill Hewitt calling games, too. In my early teens — which is when you eat, sleep, breathe hockey — the guys I listened to were Danny Gallivan and Dan Kelly.
On the AM radio once it gets dark, you could get American radio. So as a little boy I would lie in bed with my dad’s AM radio and crawl up and down the dial looking for play-by-play games to listen to, and the strongest signal was always KMOX outta St. Louis, so I’d listen to Dan Kelly. The other guy, ironically, because he’s been doing it for so long, and now I’m on the same team as him, is Bob Cole—the dominant voice of hockey in the late ’70s and into the ’80s.
How do you jump from calling road hockey to real games?
Fast-forward in my life to Ryerson [University, in Toronto]. I started doing Marlies games on CKLN, because the Marlies back then played at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Marlies were kinda invisible in Toronto back then—I’m talking 1981 here. I was a first-year radio student and wanted to get involved in that. Was given a job as the stats guy for Marlies radio . The play-by-play guy was named Michael Landsberg. It wasn’t a paid position, and the games were on Sundays, so Michael probably didn’t want to get up on Sundays anymore. They were down a play-by-play guy, so I said, “I’ll have a go at that.”
How big is the leap from calling junior or AHL games to NHL ones?
I came up through the ranks like a junior player would. I started doing junior hockey on radio, then my next transition was the Oshawa Generals broadcast—an actual paying job. Slightly more professional, and you traveled around. Fast-forward to TSN and I did CIAU and junior hockey and the odd NHL game. Then I transitioned to the main NHL play-by-play voice at TSN when Jim Hughson left.
It seemed like a natural transition. If anything, it got easier. Doing junior hockey back then, it was life and death to get numerical rosters. No Internet, no p.r. departments. You’d call a guy in the office for the Guelph Platers: “Could you fax me or read me over the phone the numerical roster?” Get to the NHL, and there’s media guides and game notes. Working with a broadcast crew and director, it’s so much more polished.
Coming back after nine years in Europe and picking up a lot of NHL games again, that was an adjustment. The game got so much faster in those years: bang, bang, bang.
How did you stay in touch with the NHL while living in London?
It couldn’t be easier in the Internet era. I got Centre Ice, as it was called then, to watch games online. I’d watch highlights, go read Sportsnet.ca.
I couldn’t go to games or practices, but I’d have that in common with half the sportscasters I know. It wasn’t like I checked out for nine years. If so, it would’ve been a train wreck.
Seniority seems to play a big factor in the play-by-play business. How do you climb the ranks when established guys, like Bob Cole or Doc Emrick, are lifers?
A lot of guys start in radio and move up from there. My breaks came when other guys left. Jim got his break coming back to CBC when they decided to move Bob Cole out of the main chair.
So how come no one leaves the booth to do something else?
It’s a great job. It really is. You’re involved in the game on a daily basis. You’re broadcasting to hundreds of thousands or, in some cases, millions of people. You travel to cool cities and see great hockey. For me, one of the most important things about sports is that it’s not important. It’s not like being a war correspondent. You’re in the centre of big stories, you have access to people involved, but in the grand scheme of things, while I recognize whether a team loses is extremely important to the players and members of an organization, it’s not important. That’s why people can invest in it. Your team can lose, and the sun will come up the next day.
Why don’t we see more female play-by-play announcers?
There aren’t enough women who (a) want to do it and (b) are qualified to do it. I think that’ll eventually change. Fact is, most professional sports are watched by men, and it’s mostly males who play and go to the games. It’s a mostly male world, and I think that deters women from getting into it. We’re seeing that change a lot over the course of my career. When I started at TSN, there was one female commentator. Later, two. Now, you click on our network or their network, and it’s gotta be a 50/50 split. That took 25, 30 years.
You will eventually see a woman qualified to and be able to call play-by-play. The last thing you want is for a woman to get a play-by-play opportunity on Hockey Night in Canada and not be up to the task. Just be there because she’s a female—that’s not doing anybody a favour. My wife and I were talking about this the other day: It’s mostly guys talking to guys. Unless you have a woman who’s called junior games and regional games, your first job can’t be play-by-play announcer on the biggest hockey show in the world. It would be like me getting hired by a news organization, and them saying, “OK, you’re doing The National tonight.”
Do you still work on your craft after all these years, or is it second nature?
I’m always looking for the perfect game. One where I can walk away knowing I nailed every goal call, nailed every player ID, on top of everything. Most announcers would tell you the same thing. Hockey is the most difficult major sport to call because it’s so fast. And the way the players are attired, with helmets and equipment, and where you’re sitting, it can be difficult to identify them. You have to make that call in hundredths of a second.
I used to do basketball: You’re courtside. You see their faces, skin colour, body types. They’re running at best, and usually a slow jog. Baseball: It’s not fast, everybody’s in a designated position. NFL, CFL, likewise. Soccer: Seldom is a defender up in the box playing the role of a striker. Hockey: it’s a small playing area, guys are dressed the same, you’re a long way away, and it’s the fastest sport.
Tell me about the most difficult circumstances under which you had to call a game.
The 1998 world junior championship in Helsinki. That was the year Canada crashed out in the quarter-final and had to go down the road and play in [Hämeenlinna]. Because Canada won the tournament five years in a row, we didn’t anticipate Canada not playing in the medal round. They had to go play in a small arena, where we were not able to set up a full TV broadcast. My partner Gary Green and I had to sit in the booth in Helsinki while another game was taking place and call Canada’s game off tube [on TV] from another arena. Distracting, to say the least.
To make it worse, that was the infamous game where the Canadian equipment manager brought the wrong uniforms to the game, and it was an hour’s drive to Helsinki. So he showed up with the wrong set of sweaters. They were playing the Kazaks, wearing darks, and Canada showed up with darks. The other team said, “That’s your problem, not ours.” So Canada had to borrow sweaters from the Finnish league team that played in that rink. I remember being on the phone with the spotter who was down there for us: “OK, No. 2 is wearing No. 15. 3 is 6, 7 is 14.” So I’m crossing out my sheet, writing this down, and the first period was a complete hash. The guy got back in the van, drove like a madman back to Helsinki, got the right sweaters and drove back. They had the right sweaters for the third period, but that was memorable for the wrong reasons.
“Just the worst two-and-a-half hours of my career. It sounded like I was doing golf.”
What is the greatest on-ice moment you got to call?
Easily the 1994 world hockey championship in Milan. It was the first time Canada won the World Championship in 33 years. Canada against Finland, and the game went to a shootout. Luc Robitaille scored what ended up being the winner, and Bill Ranford had to stop a Finnish player to secure victory. I remember Ranford jumping up and down and the team pouring off the bench. That tournament had always been a challenge for Canada. I’ll never forget that.
What would you say to Canadians who dismiss World Championship as a legit event?
I’d say they don’t get it. I did pretty much every international hockey game of note on Canadian TV from 1990 to 2001 because of circumstance. I happened to be at TSN, so I did world championships, world juniors, women’s world championships, under-18 tournaments. I love the international game. Living in Europe, I did a lot of work for the IIHF. I went to Four Nations tournaments and U18 tournaments.
Canada is the hockey capital of the world, no question. There’s also no question, because of the NHL, the World Championship is not a big deal in Canada. However, more people will watch the gold medal game for the World Championship than will watch the clinching game for the Stanley Cup. That’s a fact. It’s a big deal to all the rest of the hockey world except for Canada and the U.S. That’s their tournament. Just because we don’t think it’s a big deal doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal. Anybody who’s ever been there or played in it will tell you it’s a big deal.
Your greatest hockey culture shock?
India. I went to the 2012 Challenge Cup of Asia in Northern India, Dehradun, right near the Himalayans. It was surreal. It was an invitational for all these countries who aren’t good enough to play in even the lowest IIHF pool. We’re talking United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, India.
I was there for the first international ice hockey match India ever won, in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the poorest provinces in India. There was a hockey rink in the middle of nowhere being built for the Asian Winter Games and then shut down because there wasn’t enough electricity to power the ice plant. So it was sitting empty, and they fired it up for the Challenge Cup amidst abject poverty. Your worst day in Canada is nothing like someone’s worst day in India: people living on the side of the road in lean-tos, most of the country doesn’t have toilet access. You’re surrounded by this poverty and completely foreign lifestyle, and you show up at a hockey rink. Because it was so hot out and the games were free, people would wander in and watch hockey just because it was cool inside.
Fans are often harsh on play-by-play mistakes via social media. How do you deal with criticism?
I’m not on Twitter. There’s some good stuff there, professionals with sourced news and good analysis, and players and so on. But generally what I see on Twitter, people are ill-mannered and ill-informed and sometimes borderline illiterate. So I shrug. Why bother? Nobody goes on Twitter to say, “Great job. Enjoyed that.” They say, “You said this guy’s name when it was the other guy.” That’s fine, because half the time it’s Jethro with 300 followers. I don’t see any value to being on there. The most important people I want to be happy are my bosses, and they’re all happy.
Your favourite hockey term?
I love scores! I love blistering blast. Alliteration.
Hockey words you hate?
I’m with Jim Hughson on this. I’m not into back pressure. Back checking works fine. What does puck presence mean? Physicality is another one I can’t stand. Physical play is what I would say; physicality sounds like an invented word. Warrior—I never use the term. I think it’s disrespectful to people in the military who actually are warriors. People who literally put their life on the line. Athletes can be tough, rugged, tireless, unselfish and so on, but even after the toughest game, everyone gets paid and everyone goes home in one piece.
How do you navigate the line of promoting the home team but not sounding like a homer?
Depends what you’re doing. If you’re doing a national game on Hockey Night in Canada, you approach it slightly differently than, in my case, a regional Maple Leafs game. You have to be slightly more sympathetic to the Maple Leafs, realizing it is a regional Toronto game. You have mostly Toronto fans watching, so you want to be more Toronto-centric. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. You don’t compromise your objectivity. You can’t fool the audience. They know when a guy’s made a bad play; you can’t tell them he didn’t make a bad play. Your average person respects impartiality.
The Leafs are a great example this year: We’ve been sympathetic to the fact they’re in a rebuild this season. We’re positive about the young players getting playing time and developing, like a Connor Brown. Not ignoring that they’re the worst team in the league, but dwelling on the positive things to give Leaf fans reason for optimism. If it’s Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada, you’re not as obligated to do that as much. It’s a national game, and you should be completely neutral.
This is the funny thing about what I see on Twitter: I don’t know one single professional hockey broadcaster, not one — me, Jim Hughson, Dave Randorf, Chris Cuthbert, Gord Miller — who at the end of the day cares who won or loss. I couldn’t care less. I’m all about the TV show. I want the broadcast to be entertaining, and a compelling game people want to watch start to finish.
“It’s a national game, and you should be completely neutral.”
Any tricks for keeping your voice in shape?
My worst broadcast experience ever was last year in Montreal. [Listen here.] It was a week before the All-Star Game, because I was supposed to do the All-Star Game. I got a cold that went down into my chest, into my vocal chords. We did the game and I could not talk. Horrible. Just the worst two-and-a-half hours of my career. Just croaking. I had to [whisper]. It sounded like I was doing golf. It took me 10 days to get my voice back. A special doctor told me to always be hydrated, so I drink a lot of water, and get rest. If I’m in a dry climate like Calgary or Edmonton, I’ll turn the shower up and steam the room for humidity.
How much longer will you do this?
I’ve got a contract for the next four seasons after this one. After that, we’ll see.
Do you ever dream of trying something else?
No. This is my dream job. I’ve been so lucky. I still remember the first Saturday-night, prime-time Hockey Night in Canada game I did. I get choked up thinking about it. I had a moment by myself before puck drop and I was sitting there thinking: I can’t believe this is happening. Both my parents are gone. Just how proud they would’ve been. Hockey Night in Canada. Saturday. Seven o’clock. Doesn’t get any bigger than that in our business.