Thoughts from a Former Hockey Night in Canada Reporter
By Mike Gange
From the Broadcast Booth: My life in Hockey Broadcasting
HBFenn, $32.95, 309 pages.
“No cheering in the press boxes.”
It’s a message that is rarely posted in the media booths at sporting venues, yet it’s understood by all who work there. It is, of course, a reminder to all to be fair and objective in reporting on the games. But there is also a subtext that most people do not understand or get to see in action. The sports figures are typically local heroes, and even if they are from away, they are playing for the local team. Unlike any other kind of reporting, sports reporters may become friends with the players, the managers, the coaches, the trainers – in short everyone associated with the team. Players and team personnel travel with reporters, sometimes eating together, often sharing stories and occasionally keeping each other’s secrets.
Because these sports competitions are hotly contested, there is an emotional turbulence that engulfs both the team members and the reporters. While fans in the arena are likely to vent their feelings at a bad call, a poor move or a broken play, reporters who also witness these lapses in the game have to refrain from joining in the ruckus. It’s the rule.
Unlike any other form of reporting, sports reporters can become fans of the game, fans of the big move, fans of the individual’s leadership or courage. Political reporters would rarely say, “You would not believe the debate I just saw” but hockey reporters frequently say “Wasn’t that a brilliant move?” A business reporter would never say “I love that merger,” but a sports reporter might say “That trade was impressive.”
In his book, From the Broadcast Booth: My life in Hockey Broadcasting, Brian McFarlane saves his cheering for after the game. McFarlane worked for 25 years on Hockey Night in Canada telecasts, frequently interviewing players on the ice, in the studio, in between periods or in pre-and post game interviews. Now retired, McFarlane spends his time spinning nostalgic stories. Here, he relates having dinner on several occasions with Bobby Hull, long after Hull’s retirement from hockey, and Hull’s penchant for emptying the wine bottles at the table, all of them, to the last drop. He talks about Harold Ballard, who once owned the Toronto Maple Leafs and how the two had words on several occasions, and Ballard’s desire to see McFarlane banished, not just from the broadcast booth but from Maple Leaf Gardens, a move that would have been the kiss of death for McFarlane’s ability to interview players.
In addition to the stories, McFarlane does something quite odd. He writes letters to some people he has covered and admired. People such as Bobby Orr, Don Cherry, Phil Esposito and Walter Gretzky get addressed here, as if McFarlane is saying good bye, and maybe, as a man in his late seventies, he is. McFarlane mentions that he still plays old timers hockey, and relates how he and some of his old buddies are joined by a hockey star from by-gone days. Then McFarlane has his friend grill the former player after the game. It all gets reported here, verbatim. It’s disappointing that McFarlane would not find fresh details about athletes or important insights into sports.
McFarlane calls his book From the Broadcast Booth: My life in Hockey Broadcasting. But there is not much here about hockey broadcasting, life in the press boxes, how-to-get-there advice for novice sports reporters, or an observation from an elder statesman on how to improve sports broadcasting. One valuable story he does relate is how, at age 28 he applied for the job at Hockey Night in Canada. He was told he was too young, and NHIC hired 40-year old Ward Cornell. It is a telling story when one remembers that the HNIC target audience is 18 to 49 year old males.
When Ralph Mellanby wrote Walking with Legends, he talked about everybody in hockey – broadcasters and players — as if they were all his good buddies. At least in this book, McFarlane does take the gloves off from time to time, as he does with Harold Ballard. Mostly though, this book is a re-hash of old stories of by-gone days.
There is no cheering in the press boxes. And there is not much to cheer about in McFarlane’s book From the Broadcast Booth: My life in Hockey Broadcasting