Bowen still can’t be-Leaf his luck
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, but with no Maple Leafs admitted this year and both Friday’s Hall of Fame Game and Monday’s ceremony happening in Toronto, he has been nudged into the spotlight.
“The past few days have been so gratifying,” Bowen said Friday ahead of the Leafs-New Jersey Devils 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 (in northern Ontario, 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 Toronto area.
“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 his four sons will be at his induction ceremony. His first Leaf game was Oct. 6, 1982, at the old Chicago Stadium. Hired so late that summer by Leafs flagship radio station 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 Leafs era in which just about everything happened except a Stanley Cup. Bowen survived the surly Harold Ballard, many white-knuckle plane trips, a series of unpredictable colour analysts from Bill Watters to Jim Ralph and a few brushes with getting fired.
There were the fight-filled (Chuck) Norris Division games, late-game blown leads, 10-goal losses, icy mid-winter treks through Minnesota and a chair thrown at the Leafs booth by the late Blues general manager 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 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 Mike Babcock. He has bellowed about 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 Maple Leaf Gardens’ closing and the Air Canada Centre opening its doors before being re-christened as Scotiabank Arena.
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-yearold, 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 Joe 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 mid-June broadcast. Like many fans who’ve dreamed more than half a century for such an event, Bowen said his parents’ Leafs loyalty will be running through his mind that night, whatever comes out of his mouth.
Toronto Maple Leafs play-by-play announcer Joe Bowen will be inducted Monday into the Hockey Hall of Fame.