By NORRIS McDONALD/Wheels Editor
Canadian broadcasting legend Johnny Esaw has died. He was 87.
Other than CBC's Hockey Night in Canada, Esaw pioneered live sports broadcasting in Canada, concentrating on CFL football, figure skating, golf, tennis, horse show-jumping, auto racing and international hockey on the CTV network.
It was Esaw who conducted the famous interview with Team Canada captain Phil Esposito after the 1972 Summit Series loss to the Soviets in Vancouver that many believe united the country behind the team.
He was born in North Battleford, Sask., in 1925 and after trying to become a professional hockey player started a broadcasting career that took him to Winnipeg and then Toronto in 1960 where he was sports director of CFTO and launched sports broadcasting on the then-new CTV network.
Esaw was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2004. He is in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame, the CAB Broadcast Hall of Fame, the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame and the Canadian Football Reporters Hall of Fame.
He was known internationally as the TV executive who broadcast the Indianapolis 500 live in Canada before it happened in the United States. He also produced the first live auto race broadcast from Mosport International Raceway (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) in the 1960s.
He was best known, though, for being the voice of the CFL on CTV, and announcing Grey Cup Games. He announced from 1962 till 1973 and was host of CFL broadcasts from 1974 till 1986.
Much of his success resulted from a close friendship he had with the late ABC executive Roone Arledge, who was president of ABC News and Sports. In an interview I did with him last year, Esaw reminisced about those days.
“I’d been hired to be sports director of CFTO, which was just going on the air (in 1960),” said Esaw.
“Roone was just starting his career at ABC. He wanted to televise the World Figure Skating Championships from Vancouver and wasn’t getting anywhere with the organizers. He asked if I’d help out.”
Esaw, who was well known in western Canada for being the “voice” of both the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders and who’d been lead announcer on several Grey Cup broadcasts by that time, managed to buy the figure skating North American rights for CFTO and the ABC network.
“Roone was very appreciative,” said Esaw. “So appreciative, in fact, that we kept in close touch and when we launched the CTV network (in October, 1961) I was able to get Wide World of Sports weekly, three major golf tournaments a year, heavyweight championship fights and just about anything else I wanted from ABC and it didn’t cost CFTO or CTV anything.”
A coup at the time, Esaw convinced Arledge to let him broadcast the Indy 500 live for CTV for the first time in 1977, nearly 10 years before it went live in America.
While ABC host Jim McKay and colour commentator Jackie Stewart were taping the spectacle for broadcast in the United States that evening, Esaw and Fort Wayne, Ind., radio personality Hilliard Gates were in a booth right beside them, broadcasting the race as it happened across Canada and into northern U.S. cities where aerials could pick up the CTV signals.
Gates, who died in 1996, was the best-known sports announcer in Indiana, a man whose voice was so distinctive he appeared as the announcer in the 1986 high school basketball movie Hoosiers. He was a legend in his own time and when Esaw went looking for a sidekick to do colour on that first Indy 500 broadcast, the selection of Gates (left, with Esaw) was a no-brainer.
“I made the deal with ABC to go live with our coverage,” he told me in that interview. “I didn’t see any reason to hold back. ABC was taping it. They would show it that night at 8 o’clock. They agreed to let me do it live. It was on our border stations across Canada, so some Americans were actually seeing it — but the vast majority had to wait till later.
“The guy who owned the speedway was Tony Hulman, who was one of the nicest men I ever met in sport. He treated us so well that first year. It was a great experience; there was 400,000 people there. Jim Nabors was singing, I never realized how good a singer he was, the marching bands would come along, and the Purdue University girls in their gold outfits . . .
“They played the U.S. national anthem and the cars would start up. My heart is pumping! I can’t believe what I’m seeing! The balloons would go off into the sky and the race would start. All those things were foreign to me, but I got so pumped up. . .”
In addition to Gates, Esaw also got to work with the late Chris Economaki, the editor/publisher of the weekly National Speed Sport News newspaper, who Arledge hired to work on race broadcasts.
“He was the first colour commentator on ABC,” Esaw said, “and I knew him very well. He was a writer and then a commentator. Unlike a lot of today’s sports announcers and commentators, he knew how to ask questions. He and I were very alike in that way. Anybody who worked for me did it my way and my way was to ask pointed questions.”
Esaw, Gates and CTV did the Indy 500 live until 1986 when ABC decided to go live itself. It wasn’t part of any long-range plan, though. In fact, the network was forced into it when a sports break announcer in 1985 inadvertently announced the winner of the race in the middle of the tape-delay telecast and there was a national outrage.
“So when ABC decided to broadcast it live in the afternoon, there was no reason for me to continue doing it,” Esaw said. “I got the feed as part of the original Wide World of Sports deal, so I was happy.”
Johnny Esaw retired from broadcasting and other media duties in 1996, when he was 71. Since then, he has lived quietly with his wife in midtown Toronto, spending the winters in Florida.
Here is a link to my complete story of how Johnny Esaw came to televise the Indy 500 before it happened in America. Click here.