December 31, 1950: special night, special man

Hockey celebrates its roots every January by playing outdoors — the Winter Classic with its numerous offspring — and by remembering great moments like the New Year’s Eve game (Montreal vs Red Army) in 1975.

But what about celebrating Danny Gallivan?

It was New Year’s Eve 1950 when hockey’s greatest broadcaster launched a career that set the standard for excellence. As much as today’s broadcasters owe a debt of gratitude to Foster Hewitt for being first, they owe one to Gallivan for being best. Hewitt had the voice, Gallivan had it all.

His debut is worth repeating. While working at a Halifax radio station, Gallivan was asked if he would go to Montreal and be on standby in case Canadiens’ ailing broadcaster Doug Smith did not recuperate by Saturday night. The Canadiens remembered him from a junior game he’d broadcast at the Forum between Halifax St. Mary’s and the Inkermen Rockets.

Smith was hospitalized with a heart attack, Gallivan did the Canadiens-Detroit game (headlined by hockey’s two biggest stars, Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe) and the next season the job became his…for three decades.

“Until the day I retired, I always looked upon it as a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to do something I truly loved to do,” he told Matthew White on a 1990 TV show called Conversation, “and I knew that from Vancouver to Gander there were any number of fellows who could do a hockey game just as well and in some cases better than me, but the point is I got the break. And I said to myself that I was never going to become complacent. I worked exceptionally hard to keep that momentum of interest and enthusiasm. It was all in appreciation of the wonderful break I got.”

He always acknowledged that getting that break meant calling games for 16 of Montreal’s 24 Stanley Cup-winning teams, and while he was at it Gallivan developed a vocabulary all his own — “cannonading” and “spinarama” remain his trademarks. When told one of them wasn’t even a word, he responded: “It is now.”

It has been my good fortune to have known and enjoyed many gifted hockey broadcasters, among them Danny Gallivan. When he was being gently pushed aside by Hockey Night in Canada in the early ’80s, I had plans to hire him for the radio station where I was sports director. CJAD was bidding on the Canadiens’ radio rights, and Danny agreed to call the games if the bid was successful. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Even more unfortunately, Canada’s greatest hockey broadcaster was forced to wind down his career, part-time, on TV.

The first time I saw Gallivan was the night he broadcast the Vancouver Canucks’ debut on local radio, while team broadcaster Jim Robson called the game for Hockey Night in Canada (when Robson went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1992, Gallivan introduced him). The last time I saw Danny was also in Vancouver, over breakfast at the hotel where he was staying.

My wife was there that morning and last week I asked her what she remembered about him.

“Warm, interested, interesting,” she said, “and loves to talk.”

And that’s what the warm, interested and interesting Danny Gallivan did, better than any other hockey broadcaster.