He is hockey royalty, the soundtrack of the sport for generations of Canadians who have spent countless Saturday nights glued to his unmistakable voice, riding a tidal wave of emotion with every big play or shift in momentum.
Now 85, Bob Cole is nearing the end of his incredible career, although that certainly doesn't appear to be by choice. Sportsnet has announced that this, his 50th season calling Hockey Night In Canada games will be his last, and there apparently won't be any playoff assignments. The game, faster than ever, has apparently left the legendary broadcaster behind.
Cole will make a rare appearance in Winnipeg Saturday night in what is going to be his second-last assignment, as part of a farewell tour of sorts, as the Jets play the Montreal Canadiens. (He'll fittingly wrap next Saturday in Montreal when the Habs play the Leafs). There will be an in-game tribute at Bell MTS Place, one he will certainly appreciate but likely wishes wouldn't happen. Similar scenes have played out in other Canadian rinks this year.
Not surprisingly, Cole didn't want to talk about this. It's never been about him.
"Bob wants to solely focus on the game at hand and the job he has to do on Saturday. He has politely declined pretty much all media requests this season in advance of games and he is continuing that trend for this weekend. We appreciate your understanding on this one. Have to respect what he wants," was the Sportsnet reply I got to my inquiry earlier this week about a possible advance chat.
Fair enough. Fortunately, there are plenty of others who want to share how much Cole has meant to them. I didn't have to look far in the Jets room following practice Friday.
Josh Morrissey, who is working his way back from a late-February shoulder injury, would normally be off-limits for interviews until he is fully healthy and ready to play. But the Calgary-born blue-liner, upon hearing Cole was in town and I was writing about him, told the Jets PR staff he wanted to speak with me.
That says a lot about Morrissey, for sure. And plenty about Cole.
"Bob Cole is an institution in Canada and hockey," Morrissey began.
"As a kid I grew up watching every Saturday with my dad and family. As you got older, minor hockey teams watching the games. My grandpa lived out in Eastern Canada, so we caught a lot of the earlier games. Bob Cole doing the Toronto games, where my grandpa was a big Leafs fan, it was some pretty special times watching games with him. Even now, when you hear Bob Cole on TV, for me it just brings back so many memories of being a kid watching, and kind of where my love and passion for the game really started."
Morrissey has never met Cole, but he plans to find him in the building at some point Saturday to deliver his message in person.
"I’ll have to go shake his hand and congratulate him. It’s an honour to play in a game where he commentates, that’s the way I’ve always looked at it," said Morrissey.
"He’s a storyteller. I think he analyzes games and tells the story of a game in a way not many people can, and in his own unique way. He’s done that throughout his entire career. For me as a kid growing up, I always thought, 'How many games has he watched in his life? How many games has he done?' I’ve always felt that when you listen to him do a game, it’s almost like listening to a time machine.
"Great memories with my family that I look back on. Sad to see him go, it’s the end of a great, long era. I thank him for all those memories, but I’ll always have those and my family will always have those."
Centre Bryan Little grew up in Ontario listening to Cole, knowing that even a dud would be entertaining.
"I feel like he just made the game more exciting. Even if it wasn’t a great game, just him calling the game would make it more exciting. You could tell the passion he had for the game," said Little.
Ditto for Tyler Myers, who grew up in Calgary.
"Very well known, you recognize his voice whether you’re watching the game or not, if you hear him. As a young guy coming into the league, you know about him, you get excited hearing his playoff game calls," said Myers.
Paul Maurice fondly remembers how Saturday nights were spent in his home during his childhood.
"My mom would make popcorn and we’d get half a glass of Coke. Way too much butter on that thing to be healthy," the Jets bench boss told me, citing both Cole and HNIC broadcaster Danny Gallivan, who died in 1993, as the most important voices in the game.
"My dad would lay in front of the TV and swear. Saturday night at home. That was perfect. Bob Cole, Danny Gallivan. It’s the one thing that’s important to remember. When you work in the NHL you think that’s what it’s about, coaches and players. But then you realize what the NHL is, is the fan experience at home. And Bob Cole was a brilliant part of a lot of people’s lives. And he’s going to be missed when he’s gone."
Years later, as an NHL coach, Maurice was in a North Carolina restaurant. There was both an American and Canadian feed of a playoff game on TVs.
"And it’s loud, man, it’s going. There’s me and two other Canadian guys sitting right close to the screens because we’ve got to listen to Bob Cole," he said.
"That’s the way the game is called. It’s part of how you grow up here. They actually call the play, and I prefer that. That’s how I prefer to listen to the game. Those guys are part of that fabric of what the NHL is," he said.
No doubt many of us have a story or memory.
For me, it was as a child in my living room in the early 1980s, mini-stick in hand as my dad and I would take turns firing a hacky-sack at the makeshift nets we'd create out of the furniture. In the background, without fail, would be the warm, comforting glow of the television and Cole taking us on an adventure with his unique and always descriptive play-by-play.
"What. Is. Happening? Can. You. Believe. It?!
It was a simpler time, for sure. And it was magical.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Cole.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.