Voice of Leafs left almost speechless by HoF honours
In the course of calling close to 3,200 games in about 60 old and new NHL rinks, Joe Bowen has talked up — and talked to — a lot of Hall of Fame players.
This weekend, he gets to experience a bit of their world when he joins the Hall’s broadcasting wing as recipient of the Foster Hewitt Award. It was Bowen’s intent “not to clog up” the main event’s induction of six players and builders Monday, but with no Leafs admitted this year and both Friday’s Hall Of Fame Game and ceremony happening here, he has been nudged into the spotlight.
“The past few days have been so gratifying,” Bowen said ahead of the LeafsDevils game. “So many people have been coming up to offer congratulations and say, ‘I’ve listened to you since I was a kid.’
“I’ve gotten calls from longtime friends, such as Joel Quenneville, Mike Kitchen, people from the Leafs, from Sudbury (where he was born and began in the booth for the junior Wolves). Some are coming to town this weekend from Halifax (where he was lured from a radio station to join the Leafs in 1982), Notre Dame (associate athletic director John Heisler is a pal) and all over the GTA. “Now I know what it’s like for players who come back here to play the Leafs and have to find extra tickets for everyone.”
What matters most to him is that his four sons will be at his induction ceremony. His first Leaf game was Oct. 6, 1982, at Chicago Stadium. Hired so late that summer by Leaf flagship CJCL in Toronto, there were no exhibition games to ease his way in. His debut was nearly scuttled by a slow cab driver in the Windy City and a faulty connection to the home station that was rectified just seconds before puck drop.
But from there, Bowen had a front seat to the wild Leaf era in which just about everything happened except a Stanley Cup.
Bowen survived the surly Harold Ballard, many whiteknuckle plane trips, a series of unpredictable colour analysts from Bill Watters to Jim Ralph and a few brushes with getting fired.
There were the fightfilled (Chuck) Norris Division games, lategame blown leads, 10-goal losses, icy mid-winter treks through Minnesota and a chair thrown at the Leaf booth by the late Blues’ GM Ron Caron. Bowen was conscripted to carry Ballard’s girlfriend’s luggage and being with them 24/7 meant late nights, early flights and trips where
Leaf players were badly injured, traded or arrested.
Working radio and TV, he has seen the worst, mostly in the ’80s, and three separate resurrections under coaches Pat Burns, Pat Quinn and now under Mike Babcock. He has bellowed 50 goals by Rick Vaive, 500 by Mats Sundin and four in Auston Matthews’ debut. There was Nik Borschevsky’s tip, Doug Gilmour’s wraparound, waffles and sweaters thrown on the ice in disgust, the Gardens’ closing and the Air Canada Centre opening its doors before re-christened SBA.
In this Internet era, he could get a hello in the midst of a game from Scotland to Sri Lanka, someone with a Leaf sweater following him on a new media platform.
“It’s the best job in the world and all I do is tell people where the puck is,” said the 67-year-old, who just signed a five-year extension. “What I really can’t get over is that I’m getting an award named for the guy whose chair I now sit in. Foster was an idol to so many.”
Hewitt’s voice echoed through the Bowen home. His parents, Dr. Joe Bowen
Sr. and Edith, stoked his love of hockey when he was just two weeks old.
“I’m told my mother sat me by the radio to hear Bill Barilko’s (1951 Cup winning) overtime goal. It was my father who was always saying ‘Holy Mackinaw!’ around the house instead of me hearing him swear.”
That became Bowen’s signature for a goal or big save, though he’s yet to meld it to the Cup clinching countdown he hopes to recite one day in a midJune broadcast. Like many fans who’ve dreamed more than half a century for such an event, Bowen says his parents’ Leaf loyalty will be running through his mind that night, whatever comes out of his mouth.