Last call

Metcalfe Photography

After 20 years behind the microphone, Murray Vosbourgh never did get to call his dream game, but realizes that isn’t the most important thing in life

Murray Vosbourgh stood on the red carpet rolled out to centre ice. He had no words for those in the stands. He could only wave and smile behind his wispy beard. What he would have liked to have said were just two words, his signature call. Like closed captioning, those words appeared on the scoreboard: OOOOHH MYYY.

Like players and coaches whose careers have wound down, Vosbourgh, the play-by-play man, was getting his night. At 61, he was due it. When he stood there, friends who hadn’t seen him lately thought he had lost a lot of weight; he wasn’t the solidly built guy they knew. Still, he looked like he could walk 18, maybe play close to his three handicap.

At some point last winter, he decided to walk away from his job at the end of the 2012–13 season. That way he was going to have his sign-off in his pocket. He made it after Sarnia’s last game, a 5–2 loss to Plymouth at the end of the opening round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs in March. “Since 1994, I’ve had the pleasure of being the voice of the Sarnia Sting on CHOK,” Vosbourgh said in an unwavering voice. “I’ve enjoyed every single game, every time we laughed and screamed and criticized referees and all those good things, but this is it for me. Some people like us, some people don’t. That’s OK, I can live with that. We had some fun. We entertained people. That’s what our job was. That’s what we did. For the final time, for John Mallette in the studio, Tom Gibson at the RBC Centre, this is Murray Vosbourgh, and we thank you for listening.”

On the broadcast that night, he didn’t explicitly explain his decision. Some listeners might have puzzled over it. He sounded great, sounded energized. And after all, probably at a ratio of 10-to-1, broadcasters look to overstay rather than walk away.

But Vosbourgh had explained it to everyone who knew him at the station and around the arena. It was the health scare that did it. He had missed most of that season, from October to February, undergoing 35 radiation and three chemotherapy treatments. They left him so drained that he only had energy enough to think about life. It made him realize how much enjoyment the game gave him: at the arena, in the booth, on the bus. It also made him realize that the game had become too much of his life from fall to spring, made him realize how much time he had missed with his family covering the Sting, working Jr. B games the years before that. It made him realize just how precious time is.

Yeah, he had been given a clean bill of health and he had worked the final few games of the season. Still, he has never had second thoughts.

He doesn’t have any now as he sits in a chair in what used to be his office on the second floor of his home. This is his circumscribed world. The sweater that the Sting presented him in September hangs on the wall, and a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater hangs off him. Harsh realities are now fixtures in the room: a hospital bed, a table freighted with prescriptions, his feeding tube, an official form detailing his request that he won’t be resuscitated when the time comes. Which will, he hopes, be here.

He’s gaunt, 40 lb. lighter than in September. He looks 15, 20 years older. Now he needs help from his wife, Mary Ann, to get off his bed and into the chair, but Vosbourgh is strong enough for a few questions.

“What’s the game you wish you could work?”

He pulls out a white erasable board and a magic marker. Seconds pass as he prints his reply. Not a Stanley Cup game like his boyhood heroes, Danny Gallivan and Foster Hewitt, would have called. No, a purely hypothetical one.

“Memorial Cup final, Sarnia beats London.”

He tries to catch his breath. It flows through a tube that juts out of his throat just above his collarbone. He raises his hand: He’s OK.

Then his cellphone hums. He looks at it, recognizes a name, reads a message and then taps a reply. When he’s done, he picks up the erasable board and writes again. “Texts have been a lifesaver.”

If it were only so. Vosbourgh has weeks, not months. That clean bill of health he got last spring turned out to be a chimera. When it was determined that the cancer had not only returned but spread, surgery was needed. Surgery was an attempt—wishful—to remove as much of the cancer as possible, to stall its progress. Surgery rendered him speechless.

“Before they wheeled you into the OR, what were your last words?”

He needs only a few seconds this time. He holds up the erasable board. “Goodbye.”

It wasn’t goodbye. Not to Mary Ann, not to their sprawling family, comprising six grown children, their spouses and partners, not to friends.

The video of his night plays on Mary Ann’s iPhone, the tiny image of Murray waving and smiling. “They said we were crazy, but right after that Murray and I flew to Europe on a honeymoon,” she says, with Murray nodding in agreement. “My family is from Holland, and I’ve been to Europe several times, but Murray had never been. It turned out that we had a very narrow window, and these were really Murray’s last strong days. We went to Paris.”

Murray holds up a sign.

“Loved all of it.”

“We went to Amsterdam,” Mary Ann says. “We saw Ajax play. And then we went to London.”

No, there won’t be a Memorial Cup final against the Knights, but that would only be the next best thing, anyway. Murray Vosbourgh realized life was too short and realized it late—but not too late.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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