SPORTS

Johnny Esaw, icon of Canadian sports broadcasting, dies at 87

04/07/2013 11:45 EDT | Updated 06/07/2013 05:12 EDT
Johnny Esaw helped create one of the most memorable moments in Canadian sports television simply by being himself.

He did what he felt was right.

Esaw, who died Saturday at the age of 87 after suffering from respiratory problems, was the key force behind the creation of CTV Sports in 1961.

What most who watched the North Battleford, Sask. native will likely first remember is an interview with Phil Esposito following Game 4 of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

The hosts had played poorly in a 5-3 loss and shockingly trailed the series 2-1-1, heading for Moscow. Fans in Vancouver had roundly booed them and Esposito was mightily angry as he skated up for a chat with Esaw.

After an opening question, Esposito went off on some of the Canadian fans who were roughly handling a team the Boston Bruins’ star was giving up his summer to represent.

Esaw knew he had a hot one going, and fed Esposito a couple of quick follow ups and then stepped back and let history happen.

What the fans watching on TV did not know was that the producers in the truck were trying to get the interviewer to wrap things up.

“He was told to get off the air … we’ve got to get to the news, we’ve got to get to this or that, and he just kept going,” says Ralph Mellanby, himself a legendary director and producer for CBC and CTV, who was in the truck. “Maybe it was because it was on his network and he was the head of sports [for CTV] and he said ‘Screw ‘em, I’m going to follow my instincts.’

“And thank God he did, he created a great moment in Canadian sports and might have also helped us win the series.”

After that interview, Team Canada began to take on an “us vs. everyone” attitude that the players believed led to the great comeback in Moscow. And Esposito became the team’s de facto captain.

Mellanby and other insiders remember Esaw for much more than his on-air work, something that paled in comparison to what he achieved in the backrooms.

“What he did was genius,” says the now-retired TV hockey legend, over the phone.

Esaw helped put together a disparate group of independent station owners from across the country into what would become CTV Sports, using a new deal with the Canadian Football League as the anchor.

The key to making it all work was programming, and Esaw solved that in a hurry by making friends with Roone Arledge, the creator of ABC Sports, that led to some of that network’s top shows – especially Wide World of Sports – being given to CTV, basically for free.

Among his other moves was realizing he could grab a whole new audience by getting women interested, so he brought figure skating to the network.

And he then helped bring Wednesday night NHL hockey to the network.

A deep love of amateur sports was always a part of his makeup, something that showed through his promotion of international athletes and events. In 1964, Esaw negotiated the rights to the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, for the upstart network and topped it all by winning the rights to the 1988 Calgary Games.

The Canadian Olympic Association made him a lifetime member in 1992.

International hockey also became a key part of his coverage during the 1960s when it received little coverage in the mainstream media.

Esaw began his career as a sportscaster at CJNB radio right after it launched in 1947 at North Battleford. Moving in 1949 to CKRM Regina, he honed his skills for seven years before heading to CKRC in Winnipeg to be sports director there.

He came East in 1960 when CFTO-TV launched and his relationship with CTV began. He retired in 1990 as Vice President, CTV Sports, moving to an independent career in sports public relations.

As a CFL broadcaster and producer he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

“The name Johnny Esaw was synonymous with the best of Canadian sport,” said current commissioner Mark Cohon, in a statement released Sunday. “His ascendancy to the top of the ladder in broadcasting paralleled the growth of the Canadian Football League.”

Esaw is a Member of the Order of Canada, and was inducted into seven different halls of fame, including Canada’s sports hall, and that in North Battleford.

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